Winning spin

"If you release slightly away from the body, the 9, 10 or 11 o' clock positions, you do get the delivery to curl in and turn like Ojha does, but would struggle to generate the extra speed and bounce that you would achieve with a high arm action," says Maninder Singh.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

A left-arm spinner might be less exciting than a leg-spinner, but he lends stability and consistency to the attack by sending down over after over of a brand of spin bowling that is both accurate and attacking, writes S. Dinakar.

Left-arm spin is back in business. Just when one thought the lack of fitness and form of Daniel Vettori — contemporary cricket’s foremost exponent of this craft — would push this art to the background, at least one left-arm spinner has come back roaring.

Monty Panesar has been the toast of England on the tour of India, out-bowling the home team spinners on a raging turner in Mumbai and then setting up his side’s victory at Eden Gardens, Kolkata.

India’s Pragyan Ojha has been among the wickets even if his strike-rate dipped dramatically after his heroics in Ahmedabad. And Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath, with enormous responsibility on him following the retirement of Muttiah Muralitharan, has been opening up Tests for Sri Lanka with his variety.

Yet, Panesar’s story has been the most compelling one, with the methods he has adopted stirring a cricketing debate. He has consistently bowled around 90 kmph, been quicker through the air and has raised questions on the effectiveness of the ‘above-the-eye-level theory’ in certain conditions.

The 30-year-old left-arm spinner’s tactics have not been without reason. In fact, Derek Underwood, the great English left-arm spinner, was flatter and faster through the air than most spinners, yet claimed a stunning 54 wickets in 16 Tests in India.

The legendary Indian left-arm spinner, Bishan Singh Bedi — he scalped 266 batsmen in 67 Tests — played against Underwood in the 1970s and has a healthy regard for the Englishman who earned the moniker ‘Deadly’ for his ability to run through sides in certain conditions, not necessarily only rain-affected.

“Had Underwood bowled in some of the tracks in this series, teams might have been bowled out for 60s and 70s,” said Bedi.

There was another fascinating cricketer, Richie Benaud, who tormented the Indian batsmen in the 1950s and 60s with his brand of leg-spin, which was flatter than flighted. The Australian revealed he bowled a quicker variety against the Indian batsmen. Like Underwood, Benaud scripted series triumphs in India. He grabbed an astonishing 52 wickets in eight Tests at 18.38.

Panesar — he had taken 158 wickets in 44 Tests at 32.33 before the Nagpur Test — has been clear-headed about his tactics. The key element has been control. His accuracy and ability to create angles with slight variations of pace have put the seeds of doubts in the batsmen’s mind about the delivery’s length. Because of the speed, the batsmen are unable to give him the charge. And since Panesar imparts serious revolutions to the ball, he gets the delivery to spin too. He also cocks his wrist.

His high-arm action enables Panesar to gain bounce and the fact that he often bowls from close to the stumps — the right method for a left-arm spinner — enables him to be accurate even as he spins the ball away or gets it to hold its line.

The combination of spin, bounce and accuracy — the batsman also has to watch out for the one that comes in with the arm — makes it difficult for those facing Panesar to negotiate him off the back-foot. Panesar, indeed, has succeeded in getting the Indian batsmen to push forward, which makes them vulnerable with the close catchers around the bat in these conditions.

Of course, Panesar has been helped by the fact that many of the younger Indian batsmen have not played enough domestic cricket against quality spinners. And the seniors are on the wane with fault lines developing in their footwork.

“It is possible for a bowler to achieve spin off the surface even if he is quicker through the air as he rips the ball. Panesar imparts revolutions to the ball, more than any Indian spinner,” said Bedi.

“I always say a spinner has to be good in the six inches between his ears, he has to be intelligent and creative than between the 22 yards. I can tell you that Panesar has been both despite the trajectory he bowls at. His variations are subtle. He practices hard and has immense pride as a cricketer,” the maestro added.

Former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh, who was inspired by Bedi, said that deception in the air could be missing in Panesar’s bowling. “But he makes up for it with what he does off the surface.”

Focussing on Panesar’s action, Maninder said, “There is a rotation of his hips, his front leg goes slightly across and he shows his lead shoulder to the batsman as he releases the ball. Crucially, he pivots to get the most out of his action.

“Then he has a nice follow-through. Because of his strong shoulders, the fluency of his semi side-on release and his flowing follow-through, Panesar is able to bowl with speed and precision.”

Ojha’s Test record — 94 wickets in 19 Tests at 30.45 before the Nagpur Test — is rather creditable, yet his bowling has a few technical chinks that have proved to be roadblocks in his development.

Unlike Panesar, Ojha releases the ball from rather wide of the crease which prevents the left-arm spinner from achieving the right arc against the right-handers. And his rather round-armish release — there is hardly any use of the body to pivot or the non-bowling arm — limits his repertoire.

“This is the reason Ojha struggles to bowl quicker through the air. He gets a bit of drift into the batsman and the turn because of the position of his bowling arm. If the bowling arm brushes the ear then it is a 12 O’ clock position. With a high-arm action you do not get the in-drift,” said Maninder.

“If you release slightly away from the body, the 9, 10 or 11 O’ clock positions, you do get the delivery to curl in and turn like Ojha does, but would struggle to generate the extra speed and bounce that you would achieve with a high arm action. And Ojha hardly has a follow-through, which means there is not enough momentum to propel the ball forward,” he said.

“In Mumbai, Panesar was red hot since he was spinning the ball at high speeds away from the right-handers with intelligent variations. He was difficult to cope with since the ball zipped across the face of the bat. Ojha flighted but did not have the same revolutions on the ball,” Maninder explained.

This is not to suggest that classical flight and loop would not have been successful against batsmen on turning tracks. Maninder said, “When I was young and saw Bedi paaji and Prasanna bowl at the nets, I could hear a whirring sound as the ball sliced through the air after release. This was genuine flight laced with dip, spin and incredible control.”

There is a stark difference between deliveries that are flighted and the ones without revolutions that are merely tossed up. Maninder lamented that the whirring sound was missing when the Indian spinners bowled these days.

“Those were the bowlers who could flight the ball and succeed on turning tracks because of their accuracy. But the present day spinners have not bowled enough on good wickets in domestic cricket, so they do not often impart enough spin. Nor do they bowl in different roles like Panesar does in county cricket, where he bowls a lot of overs in both containing and attacking fashion,” opined Maninder. He also said that the quicker variety of spin bowling could be productive on slow pitches in modern-day cricket. “These days the batsmen do not use their feet. In other words, they do not accept the challenge when the ball is flighted. ”

In Panesar’s case, it is not only about the speed of the ball but also the ‘work’ he puts on it. This compels the batsmen to use the depth of the crease and they, unable to read the length properly, have perished in their attempt to open up the field. Then, there is the arm-ball, the potent weapon in a left-arm spinner’s armoury. It is Panesar’s surprise ball. None sent down this delivery more tellingly than Bedi.

Maninder reminisced, “Bishan paaji used the seam extremely well. The shiny side would be on his palm. The ball would pitch on the shiny side and skid through. On other occasions, he would roll his fingers over the ball. The tip of his finger would move from cover and would point towards the third-man when he finished. Then, he used the crease so well.”

A batsman, generally, would assume that if a left-armer released from wide of the crease, the ball would come in with the arm. However, as Maninder pointed out, Bedi could produce the arm-ball bowling from close to the stumps.

This is a tough delivery to master, since the bowler has to be spot on, bowling from close to the stumps; the angle of the release would not help his cause either. But then Bedi was the King among left-arm spinners.

Panesar has a handy arm-ball, which means he is in a position to pose questions to the left-handers as well by angling the ball across them. The southpaws tend to play left-arm spinners well since they have the opportunity to strike with the turn. It is here that the arm ball enters the picture.

Sri Lanka’s 34-year-old Herath — he has 174 wickets in 42 Tests at 29.67 (before the Hobart Test) — can take the delivery away from the left-hander with the one-finger carom ball. Herath’s bag of tricks has been particularly effective at home.

India’s left-arm spinning all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja can get the ball to ‘grip’ on the Indian pitches but struggles to achieve the same abroad. “Does he practise enough with the Kookaburra ball which has a much smaller seam?” asked Maninder.

A left-arm spinner might be less exciting than a leg-spinner who also essentially turns the ball from leg to off. He, however, lends stability and consistency to the attack by sending down over after over of a brand of spin bowling that is both accurate and attacking. The pressure, if someone such as Panesar operates, mounts on the opposition all the time.