Contemporary versus history: a spin debate

After a detailed analysis, the author concludes that it is too early yet to acknowledge the superiority of our current crop of spin bowlers over their predecessors.

Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin... India’s prime spinners are being strangely played only in the Tests. They are being kept out of the limited overs scene.   -  K. R. DEEPAK

Not too long ago, Ravichandran Ashwin became the bowler to reach 250 Test wickets soonest in cricket history. Last year, he won the ICC Cricketer of the Year award, the only Indian after Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar to do so. In the 2016-17 season, he achieved a record haul of 79 wickets, besides being jointly ranked with Ravindra Jadeja as ICC’s No. 1 bowler. Jadeja and he routed New Zealand, England and Australia during the season.

Amazingly, the ODI and T20I future of these two champion bowlers seems to hang in the balance. The reason has been the impressive strides made by two wrist spinners Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. And who knows, at least one of them could well be challenging the finger spinners for a slot in the Test XI in the foreseeable future. Depending on the conditions, particularly abroad, only one slow bowler will probably make it to the playing XI, especially in Test matches. The resultant competition promises to be the topsy-turviest situation in Indian cricket in a long while, with a bowling problem of plenty staring the selectors in their face.

The irony of it all is that the inclusion of chinaman specialist Kuldeep Yadav in the team for the Dharamsala Test match (in the absence of the injured skipper Virat Kohli) against the touring Australians last year is rumoured to have been partially responsible for a rift between Kohli (said to have been against it) and coach Kumble (who pushed it through) leading to the coach’s resignation. Happily, the team management has obviously realised the advantages of including wrist spin in the bowling menu, even — or especially — in ODI cricket, targeting the Australians with a double-barrelled attack from the right- arm Chahal and left-arm Kuldeep Yadav, brilliantly supported by the pacemen, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah, besides all-rounder Hardik Pandya.

Read: Performance of leading Indian spinners — Home & Away 1

Read: Performance of leading Indian spinners — Home & Away 2

Plenty of other spin options have been forming part of India’s healthy bench strength over the last couple of seasons or so. Karn Sharma, the fastish leg-spinner, who was pitchforked in 2014 into Test cricket on the strength of his IPL exploits, has now matured into a fine exponent of his art. Left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem is another IPL find to have impressed the selectors enough to be included in the India ‘A’ arsenal against New Zealand ‘A’, and he has proved worthy of their confidence in him. Iqbal Abdullah is a left-arm spinner who could pose a problem or two to leaden-footed batsmen unfamiliar with quality spin. Off-spinner Parvez Rasool has been giving reminders every now and then that it is too early to write him off. Young spinners Washington Sundar (Tamil Nadu) and Shreyas Gopal (Karnataka) are among the slow men thrown up by the south.

The continued success of these spinners who have pushed to the background bowlers of the calibre of Piyush Chawla and Amit Mishra and produced results across all three formats of international cricket in the recent past raises the question whether they are really among the best spinners India has produced, comparable with the famous quartet and other greats before and after those four who dominated the 1970s.

The first challenge to any claim of superiority on the part of the current crop of spin bowlers will be presented by their overseas record. Assuming that at least in Test cricket, Ashwin and Jadeja will be given their rightful places in the XI, they will still have to prove themselves overseas in a more telling manner than they have so far, to truly earn the label of greatness. India’s fabled spinners of the past were less effective overall abroad than in India, but Prasanna was outstanding in Australia, Bedi, too, had some excellent matches overseas, notably in New Zealand, Venkataraghavan played vital roles in India’s first successes in West Indies and England, Chandrasekhar’s six for 38 at The Oval in 1971 is the best known of his exploits away, but he won Test matches for India in Australia, too, with some unplayable bowling. Anil Kumble version 2.0 was born in Australia, and his overseas record kept improving thereafter.

Read: What the numbers say

I suspect the gap between domestic and foreign performances among the present lot of Indian spinners would by and large be greater than the case of their predecessors, but to be fair to Ashwin for one, he has done well in the West Indies and gave a decent account of himself in Australia the last time India toured there. Additionally, he has not been an automatic choice in away Test matches, which seems such an unfair way of treating your best spinner, especially given that he is such a good batsman as well. One of the most driven cricketers around, he has worked hard on his bowling, improving with every new season. He has taken his time over developing some of the old-fashioned virtues of bowling, but over the years, he has definitely acquired the patience and control you need to be a great bowler, tempering his restless urge for experimentation with greater consistency in all he does.

Wrist spinners, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, are having a good time in the limited-over format. Kuldeep has already played in the Tests and there is a feeling that either of these wrist spinners may supplant a finger spinner in the Test team.   -  AP

 

Jadeja too is a reliable bowler, whose consistency and reliability compare well with those of the best in the game, while he can be devastating on turning tracks, especially on slow wickets where other spinners lack purchase. He has also learnt the virtues of slowing down a bit, and so has Axar Patel, another left-arm spinner in the same mould. Like Ashwin, Jadeja offers his batting ability as a bonus, while standing out clearly as India’s most brilliant fielder and catcher.

How good are these Indian spinners? To go by their recent performances, admittedly at home, they appear to be world beaters, even in comparison with the greats of the past. Of Ashwin, for example, Aakash Chopra says, “If you give a flat pitch to a batsman, he’s likely to score a century, if you give a green pitch to a fast bowler, he’s likely to pick five wickets. But if you give a spin-friendly pitch to Ashwin, he’s almost guaranteed to win you the game.” Blasphemous as it may sound to old-timers, Ashwin and his partners have won matches more regularly than even the best spin attacks of the past. They are certainly more accurate and consistent than the spinners of some years ago, when we used to despair of the chances of any of them ever bowling six good balls in an over.

Are they then the best spinners India has produced? To answer this question, I enlist Aakash Chopra’s help once again. In the same article (which appeared in Numbers Do Lie, 61 Hidden Cricket Stories, by Impact Index), he says, “Since we are at it, I must mention that there is a serious decline in the defensive skills of batsmen around the world and therefore we don’t see many hard-fought sessions in Test cricket any more. If it swings and seams, the Asian batsmen falter, and if it grips and turns, the rest of the world bows down.”

Read: Former spinners' comments

While I largely agree with Chopra, I would go further and state that the art of selective aggression on wearing pitches too seems to have been lost, as demonstrated by AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis in the fourth Test in Delhi in December 2015, when, trying to save the Test, they offered a defensive bat to everything Jadeja and Ashwin sent down — alas, in vain. From the past, I can think of at least two great innings in which masterly defence was occasionally relieved by audacious but calculated shot selection: Ian Redpath’s 63 at Chepauk in 1969-1970 after a rampaging E. A. S. Prasanna had them reeling at 24 for six, and Sunil Gavaskar’s 96 on a landmine of a wicket in Bangalore against Pakistan. Ian Chappell, Doug Walters, Greg Chappell and Kim Hughes were other Australian batsmen who used their feet brilliantly against spinners, and Matthew Hayden one who bludgeoned them with his sweeps and pulls.

Several West Indian batsmen through history, from Sobers, Kanhai and Lloyd to Greenidge, Kallicharran and Richards, mastered slow bowling even if somewhat tentative at first exposure. The English batsmen too eventually came to terms with the spin and bounce of Indian wickets, and some of them scored heavily against India, Gatting and Fowler scoring double hundreds in India and Gower one in England. Graham Gooch once made 333 in an innings.

Today, however, even Asian batsmen are less competent on sub-continental turners, a reason why the likes of Graeme Swann, Monty Panesar and even part-time spinner Michael Clarke have engineered abysmal Indian collapses.

I offer one final explanation for the recent success of our spin bowlers (and all other bowlers) on Indian (and other) wickets: the readiness of modern day umpires to give lbw decisions, a luxury bowlers seldom enjoyed in the past.

The advent of technology has ensured that a batsman can be declared leg before when stretching forward or more rarely while leaving the crease even. And DRS has also reduced the number of times the batsman receives the benefit of doubt. On this controversial note, I submit that it is too early yet to acknowledge the superiority of our current crop of spin bowlers over their predecessors.