T20 spinners: Storming a batsman’s bastion

A clean action fused with clearer thinking can help spinners flourish and they do have a role to play in Twenty20. They will get hammered at times but like the Minions in the children’s movies, they keep coming back with renewed vigour.

Ravichandran Ashwin can both contain and dismiss batsmen in T20 cricket.   -  AP

West Indian Sunil Narine is out for a suspect action, but retains the top spot in the ICC rankings for T20 bowlers.   -  AP

The tiresome cliché associated with cricket, across formats, is that it is a batsman’s game. And when you truncate games to its almost finite avatar — the Twenty20 — that stereotype gets further strengthened.

But sport, just like life, cannot be pigeon-holed into fixed slots. And there is always a reality check. Like when you switched on the television to check out the latest Twenty20 International in Ranchi with the Sri Lankans chasing India’s 196, what is the image that flickers bright? R. Ashwin opening the bowling for M. S. Dhoni’s men!

A spinner was burdened with the two-pronged task of choking and scything and it is to Ashwin’s credit that he delivered on both counts.

The off-spinner’s 4-0-14-3, including the prized scalp of Tillakaratne Dilshan, strangled the visitor and so ironically in a contest presumed to be the willow-wielder’s turf, Ashwin and left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja had their decisive moments.

This is not to subvert the whole Twenty20 universe into a spinners’ fortress analysis. The abridged version still hinges on massive sixes, that the likes of Chris Gayle dish out, and its marketing visuals are often clued into batting heroics, tumbling catches and cartwheeling stumps, courtesy a yorker. Yet, there is no denying the important role that a spinner plays in the Twenty20.

Cast a glance at the ICC player rankings and in the Twenty20 segment, the top five among bowlers are all spinners — Sunil Narine, Ashwin, Shahid Afridi, Sachithra Senanayake and Zimbabwean Graeme Cremer.

If the rankings are a reflection of performance, take the IPL player auction for instance and even there in terms of the perception-battle, it is the spinners, who emerged on top.

Delhi left-arm spinner Pawan Negi turned out to be the most expensive Indian-buy at Rs. 8.5 crore! The little-known leg-spinner M. Ashwin was picked by Rising Pune Supergiants for Rs. 4.5 crore and Mumbai Indians shelled out Rs. 2 crore and Rs. 1.4 crore respectively for spinners Krunal Pandya and Kishore Pramod Kamath! The spinners are truly laughing their way to the bank but what makes them tick in a terrain, supposedly inhospitable for them?

For starters, spinners have upped their threshold for suffering, no more does a purveyor of the slow art get frazzled when the batsman carts a massive six with disdain. An Ashwin for instance refuses to be cowed down when Gayle tries to torment him in the IPL. In fact, India’s premier bowler, has been often used by Dhoni to shackle the West Indian opener.

Ashwin and members of his club, have finessed their craft, adding layers of guile, shock and surprise that combine to seduce and destroy batsmen. It helps that spinners do at times acquire a philosopher’s perspective. When clobbered across the ropes, they don’t bowl in anger unlike fast bowlers, who tend to lose their rag, try hard to fire in a yorker and end up straying down the leg-side for four byes leaving the fielding-captain dismayed.

If for the fast bowlers, their speed proves to be a double-edged weapon — stumps can be rearranged but an inside-edge may well squirt for four or a bouncer can be upper cut for six — for the spinners, the slowness of their deliveries can often be an advantage. If bowled, to quote the commentator’s accursed phrase, in the right areas, the spinning ball, hangs in the air like a noose and draws the batsman towards his doom. And if the player wants to whack a six, he has to strike the ball that much harder.

Like dibbly-dobblers in the mould of Chris Harris, spinners aren’t easy to pummel unless they get their radars skewed and then the batsman can plonk his front-foot forward and hit all over.

At times, the lack of speed does become a virtue while a surfeit of it can be a deterrent. For further proof, ask Dale Steyn, who twice in the IPL was caned all over the park by AB de Villiers!

Ashwin developed a carrom ball and fellow-members of his tribe, also try and unleash deliveries that don’t adhere to the normal nomenclature. If in the past, we had Shane Warne coining terms like the zooter, cut to the present, spinners are even more alert to spin a yarn around their repertoire. It adds to their mystique, there is the attendant Twitter-buzz and rattled batsmen ask their video-analysts for footage.

There is also the small matter of fitness and rhythm. A spinner is better suited to play long, stay largely injury-free and hence is often clued into the nuances of the game and has a sharper remembrance of batsmen, he encounters. Plus there is the ease of his action, which unlike a fast bowler’s doesn’t put an enormous strain on ankles and knees. Age doesn’t necessarily wither his craft and so a 44-year-old leg-spinner Pravin Tambe still finds a market (Gujarat Lions, Rs. 20 lakh). In the past (2008, to be precise), Warne was tough to counter in the inaugural IPL despite his best years being behind him.

However, there is one flaw that spinners need to overcome quickly. The whispers around the actions of some and the umpires’ reports with various cricketing associations are all pointers to the ‘all is not well with the spinners’ sub-text. In the latest IPL auction, Pragyan Ojha, despite a remodelled action, found no takers as owners don’t want a repeat of the ‘Sunil Narine experience’ that the Kolkata Knight Riders suffered in the past.

A clean action fused with clearer thinking can help spinners flourish and they do have a role to play in Twenty20. They will get hammered at times but like the Minions in the children’s movies, they keep coming back with renewed vigour. Seemingly cute but with a sting in their tail!