The ruse is to bemuse!

Ravichandran Ashwin, Rangana Herath and Yasir Shah may not quite be in the same league as Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble — their era truly marked the glory days for spin — but have put their art in focus when the bats are getting bigger and stronger and the boundary ropes nearer.

Ravichandran Ashwin... the fastest to 250 Test wickets.   -  Reuters

The spinners are back in business. None more so than Ravichandran Ashwin who is slicing through line-ups, winning games, and hounding visiting batsmen with his beguiling variety.

The quickest to reach the landmark of 250 wickets in only 45 Tests — a phenomenal feat in itself — the off-spinner is well on his way to cricketing immortality, in case he has not already achieved it, if numbers are a yardstick.

Tougher tests await this 30-year-old Chennai bowler, away from familiar conditions and on the pitches of England and Australia. But then you have to give credit to the man — a genuine all-rounder with both time and composure with the willow — for earning the respect of the opponents.

Opposition teams see him as the No. 1 contemporary spinner in the world — an opinion shared by many a leading batsman including England’s Alastair Cook. And the mentally strong Ashwin has form and momentum in his favour going into the four-Test series against Australia after his demolition job against New Zealand and England at home.

Then there is a wily old left-arm spinner who has emerged from the giant shadow of Muttiah Muralitharan to defeat batsmen with his drift and turn.

Rangana Herath’s 357 scalps in 78 Tests — he gave consistency and weight to the attack during difficult times in the post Muralitharan era — reflect his ability to strike. At 38, this rotund Sri Lankan continues to be a threat.

Rangana Herath is the most successful left-arm spinner in the world today.   -  AP

 

Completing a sub-continental mix of an exotic art is a leg-spinner from Pakistan, Yasir Shah. This 30-year-old bowler is an old-fashioned spinner who gives the ball air, rips his leg-spinners and sends down an effective googly.

A late bloomer at the international level, Yasir already has 124 victims in 23 Tests and lends a much-needed balance to a pace-dominated Pakistan attack.

The trio is not quite in the same league as Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble — their era truly marked the glory days for spin — but Ashwin, Herath and Yasir have put their art in focus when the bats are getting bigger and stronger and the boundary ropes nearer.

Yasir Shah has a lot of variety.   -  Getty Images

 

Yet, there is a belief that the present-day batsmen do not cope with spin as well as their predecessors did in Tests owing to the adverse impact of Twenty20 cricket on technique and innings building skills.

They certainly are playing a lot more shots against the spinners but the finer nuances of batsmanship such as use of feet, building a secure defence and learning to ‘survive’ on turners are becoming increasingly rare to see.

Patience is a casualty as batsmen play too many shots too soon — many of them of the ‘stand and deliver’ kind — and not quite backing themselves to see through probing spells in Test cricket. The technique on view, from a lot of the modern Test batsmen, has been, to put it mildly, ordinary.

Thus, there have been plenty of easy wickets in Tests for the present-day spinners, particularly in conditions favouring them. On these tracks, batsmen without the requisite tools to defend and settle in, often resort to ‘desperate’ fatal strokes.

Ashwin, who is a clever bowler, has cashed in on these shortcomings. Many touring batsmen, on Indian tracks, succumb because their defence — they neither play forward nor back and are often caught in no-man’s land — is so poor.

A look at Ashwin’s home and away record underlines his far greater success in India. His 187 wickets in 28 Tests at 22.11 at home are far ahead of his 67 victims in 17 away Tests at 33.23.

Ashwin’s overseas record appears rather ordinary considering his 21-wicket haul in Sri Lanka, 2015, was in the sub-continent, and his 17 scalps in the four-Test series in the Caribbean, 2016, came against a porous and brittle West Indian line-up.

Ashwin’s 21 wickets in six Tests in Australia have come at a rather expensive 54.71, he has just three wickets in two Tests in England and was wicket-less in his lone Test in South Africa.

There is greater ‘home and away’ balance in numbers of that off-spinning genius Erapalli Prasanna — 95 wickets in 22 Tests in his backyard and 94 victims in 27 Tests abroad.

Prasanna’s haul included a tremendous series in Australia, in 1967, where he picked up 25 wickets in four Tests bowling against a top-class batting line-up with formidable players of spin such as Ian Chappell and Doug Walters.

And after 45 Tests, the same number of matches Ashwin has played so far, Muralitharan had 97 wickets in 21 away Tests at 29.95. And Dennis Lillee, Waqar Younis, Dale Steyn and Allan Donald — all of them were surpassed by Ashwin to the 250-wicket mark — averaged between low and mid-20s in their away record in 45 Tests.

This is not to say Ashwin will continue to struggle against better batting sides on good pitches, away from the sub-continent. He has several years of cricket left and could well finish his career with much better performances against his name on foreign soil.

Muttiah Muralitharan celebrates his 800th and last Test wicket, that of Pragyan Ojha, in the Galle Test against India in July 2010. Muralitharan's contemporaries were Shane Warne (708 Test wickets) and Anil Kumble (619) in what was a golden era for spin bowling.   -  Reuters

 

Ashwin is a thinking bowler who continues to evolve. He is not a big spinner of the ball but makes the most of his ability by using the angles capably, bowling from front and behind the wickets, close to the stumps and wide of the crease, operating from over and round the wicket.

Over the years, he has learnt to vary his trajectory effectively and is also getting some drift these days. And then Ashwin has his different deliveries, the carom ball in particular.

However, it was when he bowled a just-outside-the-off-stump line and relied more on his off-spinners, that his variations became more effective.

He does not have the classical side-on release for an off-spinner and his pivoting — such a crucial ingredient for any spinner — is still a work-in-progress but Ashwin does employ his wrist and fingers effectively to compensate somewhat for other deficiencies.

Crucially, the lanky bowler’s high-arm action enables him to extract bounce. On Ashwin hinge plenty of Indian hopes.

Yasir, belying expectations, went for a lot of runs in Australia this season, tending to bowl too short and picking up just eight wickets in three Tests.

But then, this leg-spinner should relish bowling to the West Indian batsmen in the Caribbean where Pakistan travels next. It’s a joy watching him bound in with energy and rhythm, and bowling with skill and passion.

Herath, a left-armer who can get the delivery to drift away from the left-hander or into the right-hander for the ball that is similar if not quite the doosra sent down by an off-spinner, struggled in South Africa recently scalping not more than six batsmen in three Tests. Herath, though, will continue to be at the heart of the Sri Lankan attack, particularly in a rebuilding team lacking experience.

To their credit, Ashwin, Herath and Yasir have put spin back on centre-stage. The coming days could see them shaping the fortunes of their teams as merchants of flight and deception.