The need of the hour is winning spin

If a spin unit helmed by Ravichandran Ashwin has to go back in time for reinforcements, it throws up a stark picture of a barren landscape with regard to the slow art of guile and choke, lure and strangle, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

A few seemingly unrelated events happened recently, but on closer scrutiny, it was apparent that they were all tied together by a common thread — the angst around Indian spin!

During a book launch at Landmark store in Bengaluru, wicket-keeping great Syed Kirmani said, “I can say that none of them (present day spinners) can even be the dust around the feet of those greats (the famous spin quartet, led by Bishan Singh Bedi)!”

Kirmani’s words, thanks to his innate flamboyance and an itch to grab the limelight, may be considered as over-the-top, but the same cannot be said about Sunil Gavaskar, who weighs his thoughts before giving verbal shape to them.

In a chat with NDTV, the great opener had this to say about spinner Axar Patel: “No, Axar Patel is not an alternative spinner India should be looking for. He just rolls the ball; he does not have the flight and his deliveries are very much predictable. He does not turn the ball unless the pitch is favourable. He is slightly slower than medium pace.”

Moving on from the legends and their frank views, the Indian team selected for the Sri Lankan tour raised a few questions about the health of spin in India. The return of Amit Mishra, 32, to the Test squad — which is almost similar to Harbhajan Singh’s (35) comeback in June — has been viewed through twin prisms — the relevance of the veterans as against a spin cupboard that is seemingly bare.

Before his return to national colours, Harbhajan took a mere six wickets at an average of 42.5 in the preceding domestic season, while Mishra had 10 at 20.4. The return of the two is a reflection of selectors relying on hope and reputation as well as their helplessness while watching the emerging crop of spinners! Harbhajan’s way back was also greased by his relatively better showing in the Indian Premier League.

Yes, Karn Sharma is injured; Axar is not yet ready for the challenges of Test cricket and Pragyan Ojha is slowly emerging from the damaging scrutiny of his action. Yet, if a spin unit helmed by Ravichandran Ashwin has to go back in time for reinforcements, it throws up a stark picture of a barren landscape with regard to the slow art of guile and choke, lure and strangle.

The stagnation of India’s spin resources was evident a few seasons ago when England landed, and its spinners, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, found more purchase than their Indian counterparts! Ashwin and company have put that low phase aside and slowly emerged as better bowlers, but in all that hurt, centred around that specific series loss, the fine print of how the Indian batsmen failed to counter the visiting spinners was lost! The master blasters of spin had turned mum, but somehow the blip was overlooked.

However, there is a connect — the dearth of quality spinners in the Indian domestic firmament and the sudden tentativeness among Indian batsmen while facing spin are truly interlinked. V. V. S. Laxman, for instance, became a better player of spin thanks to the long nets he had in Hyderabad against the likes of Arshad Ayub, Venkatapathy Raju and Kanwaljit Singh. Modern-day Indian batsmen don’t get such exposure during their preparatory rituals ahead of a new season. Most often, their skill sets are sharpened against the short-pitched ball emerging from a bowling machine.

The growing search for a ‘desi’ Mitchell Johnson and various skippers’ penchant for entirely relying on fast bowlers to do the trick, the tendency of groundsmen to prepare pitches that help the speed merchants (an offshoot of a collective desire to prepare Indian batsmen for sterner tests abroad) and, above all, that summer fix of the Indian Premier League have all combined disastrously to defang the spinners. In all this turmoil, the great E. A. S. Prasanna’s words have been forgotten. The off-spin wizard had a simple solution to stem run rates — “To keep the batsman quiet, just get his wicket.” However, against a backdrop of celebrity dust and massive sixes of the IPL, most spinners are happy with decent economy rates.

Bowling flatter, faster and sacrificing flight, loop and dip, spinners play the support role every summer. And when the season starts after the monsoon, they still retain that mindset, even while gearing up for a Ranji Trophy game.

It has to be agreed that spinners of the quality of Anil Kumble, or a Harbhajan Singh in his prime, don’t emerge like cars from a conveyor belt. However, with the exception of Ashwin, who has now reclaimed his number one status after briefly losing the tag to Ravindra Jadeja, there are not many spinners who have caught the eye or even hinted at a relatively long career.

In every State, there are rookie spinners who, with the right encouragement, might turn the corner, but with Twenty20 leagues springing into view, wicket-taking skills are consigned to the dustbin.

A tour of Sri Lanka and then playing host to South Africa — India’s spinners need to be at the top of their game. Whether Ashwin along with his senior support crew can clear the doubts over Indian spin will be known in the coming months, but it is a travesty of the times we live in, that an apparent strength has seemingly become weak. Maybe Kirmani was right…