Winning spin BOWLING

Just as the fast bowlers are breaking down rapidly, series after series, the spinners appear to be peaking. Nandita Sridhar on this latest SYNDROME in international cricket.

Bowling is a lot about drama and theatrics. While the tearaway quick, with flaring nostrils, represents a simple and primitive human desire to physically and brutally dominate a fellow-human being, the spinner is different. He represents the more complicated, and yet everyday, realistic human desire of outwitting another man at the mental level. It's all about wile and guile, and the art of deceiving.

Cricket, ideally, involves a tantalising mix of both. But given the current trend, it is the spinners who appear to be the likely winners of the race for survival, and the race to the top. The stereotypical images of quickies running in like beasts unleashed have gradually reduced to run-and-limp-away figures. The longevity of fast bowlers is diminishing with every series. On the other hand, the slower ones (strictly speaking on the basis of their bowling speeds) are probably peaking. With three of the top four wicket-takers (in Test cricket) being spinners — Shane Warne (685), Muttiah Muralitharan (657) and Anil Kumble (533) — the likelihood of a fast bowler finishing on top of the chart seems almost impossible. (Australian fast bowler Glenn McGrath with 542 wickets is currently third in the list of wicket-takers).

Former West Indian fast bowling great Michael Holding puts this syndrome down to excessive cricket. "There certainly aren't as many fast bowlers in the game today. That's because of the amount of cricket being played. That isn't conducive to fast bowlers staying in the game, and staying fit. The ones that are there now have all had to take their breaks and come back after various types of injuries," he told Cricinfo.

"Bowlers are better taken care of, there has been advancement of sport sciences, greater understanding of techniques because of television, yet there has been a steady decline in the quality of fast bowlers," he added.

In the days of yore, the sight of a fast bowler running in would send a shiver down a batsman's spine. But today, a batsman, sufficiently armoured from head to toe, is more confident of tackling the thunderbolts.

Bowlers like Glenn McGrath, who bank more on accuracy than speed to dismiss batsmen, are more likely to survive in the long run. But players of the Australian's class don't come easily. With wickets becoming more batsman-friendly the world over, a spinner can make a difference with the sheer variety in his repertoire. "Spin is a totally different art," said former India leg spinner V. V. Kumar. "A good spinner has a lot of variety. There is line, loop, flight and so many different ways to get a batsman out, which is why spinners can bowl well on any wicket, be it flat or fast," he said.

Despite being spinners, Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble have not been completely free of injuries. Their shoulders, wrists and fingers have all been subject to wear and tear. However, as proved by these greats, the spinners are more likely to make successful comebacks when compared with the fast bowlers.

There might be a strong argument against these three exceptional bowlers being counted as a representative of all current spinners in world cricket. Warne is a leg-spinning miracle that will probably happen only once in a century. As for Muralitharan, despite his achievements, some people will always have reservations about his action and suppleness — `He is great, but is aided by a naturally bent arm,' they would say. And Kumble, he is a product of sheer doggedness and untiring optimism and hard work.

These are qualities not all unconventional spinners possess. No one can predict if the likes of Harbhajan Singh, Daniel Vettori or even Monty Panesar will reach anywhere near the three great spinners, but it looks like they will have a better chance of getting closer to the summit than any fast bowler.

With most teams in international cricket rarely able to field a full-strength pace attack owing to the frequent breakdown of their frontline fast bowlers, those available and injury-free have been forced to bear the extra load. And before a time comes when the quicks are used just to take the shine off the ball before the spinners take over, their injury problems need to be sorted out.

Former West Indian speedster Andy Roberts is of the view that a fast bowler needs to develop the strength of his entire body. "People think you can bowl fast with strength in the shoulders, but no. You need strength in the entire body: your legs, your back, everything needs to be strong," he said.

Holding attributes the injury woes of fast bowlers to their bowling actions. "I would also suggest that some of the biomechanics that I hear people talking about... I don't believe a lot of that, about actions and bad backs and not getting side-on. I've seen bowlers with side-on actions who went through their entire career without a back problem. I bowled at 90-odd miles an hour for 12 years with a side-on action. Never had a back problem," he said.

"I think a lot of people are confused. If you turn your body side-on, and rotate your entire body, you're not putting pressure on your back. It's when you're partly side-on and partly chest-on that you get problems, because there are two different rotational actions going on," he added. Coming from a great bowler and a brilliant analyst of the game, his observations are bound to be spot-on.

When Warne, Muralitharan and Kumble finally retire, they will leave a big void, which would be difficult to fill. The task is far from easy for the young crop of spinners, what with a packed schedule bound to affect them too.

But Kumar is optimistic about the future of spin bowlers. "In the next five to 10 years, spinners will have more influence on the game than ever before, provided they work hard," he said.

And talking of packed schedules, Shoaib Akhtar, more than aware of the looming disaster a couple of years ago, cried out for changes in the tour itineraries. "(Cricket administrators) want to put up a show for people, but people like to enjoy the fast bowlers.

It is one of the charms of cricket and they are slowing it down," he said. It was a plea that seems to have fallen on deaf ears.