SPIN ON THE WANE?

"WE DO NOT HAVE specialist close-in fielders (to support the spinners)," says Ajit Wadekar.-N. SRIDHARAN "WE DO NOT HAVE specialist close-in fielders (to support the spinners)," says Ajit Wadekar.

The selectors have a CRITICAL ROLE in the development of spinners in the country. The captains too have a vital part to play. A spinner is twice the bowler if he has the skipper supporting him, writes S. DINAKAR.

Spin bowling faces a crisis in the country. There are serious questions being asked about the depth of spin in the land of the immortal quartet. And the answers are not easily available.

Pacemen are increasingly dominating the Indian domestic scene. The spinners, the emerging ones, have hard days of learning and toil ahead. Can they survive the ordeal?

India still has the most successful contemporary spin duo — Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. But does the nation have worthy replacements? Two names are currently doing the rounds — Ramesh Powar and Piyush Chawla — while the injured Murali Kartik waits in the wings. Beyond the three, there are not too many who inspire confidence.

Compare the scenario with what existed in India during the 1960s and the 1970s where the likes of Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar, two left-arm bowlers of exceptional ability, could not break into the Test XI.

Someone as accomplished as Dilip Doshi — rated by Vivian Richards as one of the finest left-armers he has faced — won an India cap only in the later stages of his career and V. V. Kumar, a creative leg-spinner of rare skills, played just a handful of Tests.

Others like Uday Joshi, Sarkar Talwar, S. Vasudevan and Kanwaljeet Singh would have stood a fighting chance of playing international cricket had they been bowling in this era. In any case, they would have been destructive in the domestic circuit.

Various reasons have been put forward to explain the decline of spin bowling. They range from the nature of pitches to the influence of one-day cricket, from batsmen using heavy bats to captains displaying more faith in pace.

The wickets for domestic cricket have certainly stunted the growth of spinners. The `made to order' surfaces that start turning from day one have affected the spinners' thought process.

Some operate in a fashion that is monotonous, without the subtlety in flight and deception. On pitches that assist them, they just have to land the ball in the right areas and the wicket does the rest.

Others attempt fancy deliveries without mastering the basics. They err in length and line and struggle to bowl six deliveries on the trot (India's frontline spinners too suffer from this failing on occasions). Elementary lessons such as a left-arm spinner bowling from close to the wicket and an off-spinner, from wide off the crease, are forgotten. And flawed bowling action results from wrong technique.

On pitches favouring the batsmen, these spinners invariably struggle. Here clever use of the crease and changes in trajectory are primary requirements. A Bishan Singh Bedi or an Erapalli Prasanna would set the batsman up on placid tracks; getting the batsman to drive at flighted deliveries and then snare them with subtle variations.

Former India leg-spinner Sairaj Bahutule puts the contemporary spinner's view in perspective. "They are using such heavy bats. Even a mis-hit travels for a six. It is hard going for the spinners," he says.

Then he talks about the ball. "You see, we use the SG balls here, but when we travel abroad we use the Kookaburra balls whose seam is less prominent and kind of wears out in 25 to 30 overs. So when young spinners travel with the under-19 or the `A' team abroad, they find it hard to cope."

Former India all-rounder and now Director of the Chennai-based MAC Spin Foundation, Robin Singh, believes some of the captains are to be blamed. "The spinners, even in the first division league here, are scared to flight. If they are hit for a couple of boundaries, they are removed from the attack. There should also not be so much one-day cricket at schools. It affects the way our young spinners approach their bowling."

Ashok Mankad, former India cricketer and now the all-India batting coach of the National Cricket Academy, agrees. "There is more emphasis on restriction than guile these days. And this is the direct consequence of limited overs cricket. More and more captains are relying on pacemen."

Ajit Wadekar was certainly a skipper who banked on spinners. A wily strategist, he led India to stirring back-to-back Test series triumphs in West Indies and England in the early 1970s. Wadekar focusses on a key issue — the quality of close-in catching.

India had match-winning spinners in the 1960s and the 1970s, but they were also backed by some tremendous fielders around the batsmen. Somebody like Eknath Solkar could gobble up half chances at silly point or short leg. Now, these opportunities earned by the bowler, go unrewarded.

Says Wadekar, "This is again due to the influence of one-day cricket. We see brilliant athletes, but their reflexes have not been conditioned to pluck these chances. We do not have specialist close-in fielders in Ranji Trophy, why talk about the Indian team." Wadekar feels that the advent of one-day cricket has had an adverse effect on the variety of the spinners. "Erapalli Prasanna had this beautiful floater, he used to have the shiny side outside, hold it in the seam and would give the ball direction. It may not have been a doosra but it used to be a deadly delivery that would hang in the air and move away from the batsmen."

In the days of yore, a left-arm spinner would bowl without a mid-wicket, and an off-spinner without cover, inviting the batsmen to strike against turn. Now the field placements are becoming increasingly predictable. Former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh holds the view that the present day spinners are being pampered on under-prepared wickets. "When they bowl on a placid pitch, they are clueless. They should bowl on hard tracks. They should learn how to give it a rip like the Australian spinners do," he says.

Bahutule does not quite agree that all the pitches in the country are spinner-friendly. "Only in the Central Zone do we come across rank turners. Otherwise, the pitches favour the batsmen more. But I do admit that a spinner learns his craft better when the conditions are against him."

Despite the gloomy scenario, there is a glimmer of hope. Left-arm spinner Shahbaz Nadeem has impressed in the junior ranks. How he makes the transition to first class cricket remains to be seen. The `arm ball', a vanishing delivery these days, has to be his surprise weapon.

Piyush Chawla bristles with promise, even if his googly is more effective than his leg-spinners. He needs to be groomed carefully. Exposing him to one-day cricket at this nebulous stage of his career could prove detrimental to his growth as a spinner. Powar has bowled delightfully in the ODIs for India so far, flighting the ball and achieving the classic off-spinner's dismissal — bowling the right-handed batsmen with flighted deliveries which spin through the gate to rearrange woodwork. He has the variations and the heart. Crucially, he has spent considerable time in the domestic first class circuit and has been able to adjust to ODI cricket, without changing the texture of his bowling.

Murali Kartik has the ability but then he didn't have, as Maninder points out, the backing of his previous captains Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly who were fine players of left-arm spin.

Rahul Dravid has more faith in the left-armer, but Kartik finds himself in the injured list.

The selectors have a critical role in the development of spinners in the country. The captains too have a vital part to play. A spinner is twice the bowler if he has the skipper supporting him.

Most importantly, India needs to prepare hard, bouncy tracks that will not only make our batsmen and pacemen better cricketers but also encourage quality spin bowling. And it will help if budding spinners are kept away from one-day cricket.