A qualitative decline in the country

S. DINAKAR

Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble remain the most potent spin combination, but does India have replacements?-V. GANESAN

IS spin taking a back-seat in the land of spin? Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh form international cricket's most potent spin combination, but scratch the surface and we are left with more questions than answers.

India does have Murali Kartik, a competent left-arm spinner, who, ironically, appears to be in the periphery, almost perennially, but a gradual qualitative decline of spin in the domestic cricket is visible to the discerning.

And this is due to a variety of factors, ranging from the nature of wickets, to a surfeit of limited overs cricket at the school level, to a lack of confidence by the captains to back their bowlers.

Their deliveries might not whistle past the batsman's nose, but the spinners need to be aggressive mentally. Presently, deliveries that are pushed through the air prevail over the flighted ball.

Ramesh Powar had a profitable season all right, but needs to work on variety.-RAJEEV BHATT

As National Cricket Academy chairman Brijesh Patel points out, "the mind-set of the spinners appears to have changed."

Glimpse at the Ranji Trophy spin bowling statistics for the season 2004-2005 and it becomes obvious that spin is no longer in the forefront, even in domestic cricket. The captains are increasingly turning towards pace for breakthroughs.

The top six Ranji wicket-takers in the season gone by, Gagandeep Singh (39), Joginder Sharma (36), Jai Prakash Yadav (36), Narendra Pal Singh (34), Rudra Pratap Singh (34) and Ranadip Bose (34) are all pace bowlers. Spin faces a crisis in the country.

R. Ramkumar had a fairly good Ranji season.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The NCA Spin Wing, where the greats of the past guide the youngsters, and the MAC Spin Foundation in Chennai, aim not only to arrest the slide, but to produce future champions.

However, the `present' is a worry. In the series of pre-season camps in Bangalore, only three specialist spinners were called up, although six promising spinners identified by the National Cricket Academy's Spin Wing, received a chance to bowl at the Indian batsmen.

While the young talent could, if nursed with care, bloom at some point, there is a feeling that the Indian spin, at present, lacks viable options — the true barometer for assessing strength in a particular department is the depth in the field.

Padmakar Shivalkar, one of the finest left-arm spinners the country has produced, never played Test cricket.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

During the halcyon days of the famous four — Bishan Singh Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Bhagwat Chandrasekar, and Srinivas Venkatraghavan — of the 60s and 70s, the vibrancy in the Indian spin ranks could be gauged from the fact that Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar, two of the finest left-arm spinners the country has produced, never played Test cricket, and V. V. Kumar, a formidable leg-spinner, figured in only a handful of Tests.

Kumble's form and fitness levels indicate he could be hounding the batsmen at the international level for another two years, but India does need to groom a replacement.

The vacuum could be too large to fill otherwise.

Mumbai's Sairaj Bahutule, a honest, hard-working leggie, who has suffered under Kumble's large shadow, is still among the wickets for India `A', Mumbai and West Zone, but is not getting any younger and Haryana's Amit Mishra, who promised so much, has sort of drifted away from India contention.

Former Indian left-arm spinner Maninder Singh says young spinners need to be backed. "You need to continue with a budding spinner if you see any potential in him. Look at Mishra, he does not even find a place in the zonal side now."

Ideally, you look for fizz off the pitch in a leg-spinner. Kumble may not spin the ball a great deal, but he gets it to bounce and hiss off the surface, greatly unsettling a batsman. There are whispers in the circuit that Uttar Pradesh's young leggie Piyush Chawla has that zip — Prasanna does speak highly of him — but these are early days yet.

Mumbai's Ramesh Powar, an old fashioned off-spinner with flight, turn and a clean action, and Railways' Kulamani Parida, a big spinner of the ball, are very different bowlers. Both ended the Ranji season with 32 scalps each. To step into Harbhajan's shoes, if the Sardar is unavailable for some reason, the two will have to work on their variety.

It's not just the delivery drifting away from the right-hander, which ironically also brings the action under scrutiny, that an off-spinner needs to develop in the present scenario. He has to learn about the use of the crease, and bring in subtle changes in pace and trajectory. Being predictable is a definite path to disaster.

While Kartik leads the pack in left-arm spin, someone like Tamil Nadu's R. Ramkumar has not done poorly for himself with 32 wickets last season. He is a lanky lad who achieves bounce, and is a much better bowler since he started delivering from closer to the stumps, so crucial for a bowler of his kind. And old soldier Sunil Joshi performed creditably for Karnataka last season, with 31 scalps.

Jharkhand's Shahbaz Nadeem, who has impressed with the India `A' sides, is talked about as a left-arm spinner with possibilities. There is a danger of him going the Amit Mishra way though. Nadeem and the young bowlers also need to hone their skills on proper cricketing wickets.

Maninder, a wily customer in his days, believes the nature of the pitches had a significant bearing on the development of spinners. "In my days with Delhi, I never saw a turning track at home. They were all beautiful batting wickets where a spinner had to try something extra. You depend on your turn, your flight, and your skill."

Maninder says a tendency to prepare tailor-made wickets is having a detrimental effect on Indian spin. "What is happening now is that there are teams that enter the match with half-baked spinners and get away with it since a bowler's ability is not really tested on such surfaces."

Limited spinners returning flattering hauls on minefields are bound to get exposed while facing sterner tests.

Consistent preparation of hard tracks across the country might enable a young spinner enhance his skill.

"World class spinners like Shane Warne emerged from wickets which had bounce, turned as the match progressed, but did not offer excessive advantage to the spinners," says Maninder.

Patel, among the finest players of spin in his time, concedes there is room for improvement. "Yes, some deterioration has taken place. It's mainly got to do with the limited overs cricket at the school level where the young spinners are pushing the ball more than flighting it. The art of taking a wicket seems to be disappearing."

Deception, where the bowler would lay the trap for an unsuspecting batsman, is a rare sight these days. The emphasis appears to have shifted to saving the runs now. Patel says it's all in the mind. "They are not trying to deceive the batsmen. There was a time when someone like Erapalli Prasanna would applaud if the batsman hit him for a six. He knew he had a chance of buying his wicket. Now the bowlers go on the defensive."

Says former India cricketer Robin Singh, the director of the Chennai-based MAC Spin Foundation, "There is no denying that when I played in the 80s and 90s, there were much better spinners around. The focus at the Foundation is on `developing spinners.' In fact, the very idea of starting the foundation was due to the fact that spin was on the decline in the country. We have had accomplished bowlers like Prasanna, Muttiah Muralitharan and Intikhab Alam interacting with the boys at the Foundation."

Robin agrees with Patel that limited overs cricket at the school level was curtailing a spinner's growth. "What is happening now is that the young boy gets hit for a couple of sixes and the captain immediately removes him. In order to continue his spell, he starts bowling flat. This is the beginning of the problem."

Though someone like Kumble might be a glorious exception, spinners need to flight the ball to achieve spin, unless they are bowling on a vicious turner. And any faults, whether it is with their action, or in other aspects, would have to be corrected at an early stage.

Karnataka's Raghuram Bhat, former India left-arm spinner, is involved both with the NCA and the MAC Spin Foundation. In his days as an active cricketer, Bhat possessed a potent arm-ball, the delivery from the left-arm spinner that straightens and hastens off the pitch, a key weapon for a left-armer. Now he teaches the nuances of this delivery to the aspirants.

If the basics are strong, then the bowler can try out the other variations. Experimenting without proper technique could prove suicidal. No wonder Prasanna exhorts the off-spinners to bowl from wider of the stumps, a fundamental that often slips from the mind of even seasoned bowlers. Small things like how the spinner co-ordinates with the field placements make a big difference.

Youth could provide a solution to the Indian spin crisis. Apart from Nadeem and Chawla, Mandeep Singh (left-arm spinner, Haryana), Swapnil Singh (left-arm spinner, Baroda), Sunny Gupta (off-spinner, Jharkhand), and Sridhar Iyer (leg-spinner from Kerala) must have gained immensely from the experience of bowling at the Indian batsmen during the recent camp in Bangalore.

These bowlers will have to be backed by their captains at the various levels in the days ahead. Even a phenomenal leg-spinner like Abdul Qadir was not the same bowler when Imran Khan was not around marshalling the side. Off-spin wizard Muttiah Muralithran blossomed under the canny Arjuna Ranatunga.

The chemistry between Harbhajan and Sourav Ganguly is just right.

Travelling further back, Prasanna gleamed brighter when the equally adventurous Tiger Pataudi was at the helm.

Spin could still be the King in India. The need of the hour is vision and clarity of thought.