Spinning out of stock

Cricket

Spinning out of stock

The English and Wales Cricket Board’s Official Programme book for the opening Test at Lord’s had prominently displayed BS Chandrashekar’s exploits at The Oval in the 1971 series; the six-wicket haul by the legendary leg-spinner had steered the Ajit Wadekar-led India to their maiden series triumph over England.

Exactly after 40 years, at the same venue, India found themselves at the receiving end of a rival spinner whose nine-wicket haul for the match completed their worst drubbing in over four decades, a 4-0 whitewash.

It’s not quite the reversal of fortunes, but it was sad to see the supposed best players of spin found wanting against the guile of Graeme Swann. Worse, India, who have a proud history of producing spinners of great calibre and cunning, didn’t have anyone in their ranks to pay back the English batsmen in the same coin.

Having struggled to make an impact on seamer-friendly surfaces in the first three Tests, Swann, arguably the best spinner in the world at the moment, was all over the shop at the first hint of the opportunity.

The ball was turning, zipping and he had the rough on the edge and the required bounce off the pitch to make the most of conditions. For his Indian-spinning counterpart Amit Mishra, though, all this meant nothing. While Swann’s match figures read nine for 208, Mishra went wicketless in his 38 expensive overs (170 runs).

The worst indictment of India’s spin bowling came from the West Indian legend Clive Lloyd who termed it the weakest he has ever seen from once the ‘kings of spin’. It wasn’t without reason when he said ‘India would have loved to have Chandra here.’ Nor was it an over the top sentiment when a disappointed Indian fan at the end of the final Test at The Oval screamed ‘get (Anil) Kumble back’ even as the presentation ceremony was going on. Indeed India’s quality spin stock has never looked so barren. And nothing reflects this situation better than the plight of their premier spinner Harbhajan Singh, who has blown more cold than hot in recent times.

Clearly, India have missed a trick or two in having a succession plan in place. When Kumble was 30, Harbhajan developed into a quality bowler himself, and on several occasions even pipped the Bangalorean whenever there was room for just one slow bowler in the final 11. While it is debatable whether the off-spinner deserved a place ahead of India’s highest wicket-taker on many of those instances, Harbhajan appeared a natural successor to his senior mate. The duo formed a deadly combination and reaped rich rewards complementing each other’s styles, especially at home.

The undisputed leader to the spin throne after Kumble’s retirement, Harbhajan’s effect appears to have waned a bit now. It could be either because of lack of quality bowlers at the other end capable of sustaining pressure and allowing him to attack the batsmen more or the sheer lack of competition from the practitioners of that art that has allowed him to slacken a bit; either way India’s spin attack lacks spine at the moment.

The bizarre selection policies haven’t helped India’s quest for an effective replacement for Kumble. Murali Kartik was always third in the pecking order after Kumble and Harbhajan, but somehow the left-arm spinner didn’t find much favour with men that matter.
Their inconsistency is amply shown in the way they are handling left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha and leggie Mishra. The two haven’t quite set the turf on fire, but you can’t either find any logical explanation behind the manner in which the two bowlers are picked and dropped for particular series.

Ojha did no harm to his cause in the previous two series he appeared at home against Australia and New Zealand. In fact the Hyderabad spinner, who has been in good form for county team Surrey this season, had scalped 28 wickets in the last six Tests he had played, yet for some strange reason Mishra went to the West Indies and subsequently was brought to England where his horror run touched a new low, managing just three wickets at an average of over 106 in 81 overs spread over two Tests.

The revolving door policy adopted by the five wise men isn’t going to help the confidence of the spinners. While Ojha, if fit at that time, is certain to walk back into the side for the series against the West Indies at home later this year, it wouldn’t be a bad move to try R Ashwin in the longer version. Branded the limited-overs specialist, Praveen Kumar turned out to be a pleasant surprise in Tests as well.

Ashwin too is bracketed in the same category, and who knows the off-spinner might just turn out to be equally efficient like Praveen in the longer format that might just force Harbhajan to buck up.

Selection methods apart, the handling of purveyors of this craft in domestic cricket needs to change. Spinners also need a long rope (something a batsman like Suresh Raina seems to enjoy) to prove their worth and the problem begins at home. The defensive and impatient State or club team captains haven’t been sympathetic to slow bowlers who are expected to control the flow of runs and take wickets at the same time, sometimes even on unresponsive tracks.

A spinner needs time and overs to lure the batsmen to their doom but it’s been often seen that impetuous skippers driven by instant-result mindsets, operate the tweakers only in short bursts, not exactly the right way to make use of or hone their skills.

In the bargain, not only is there a dearth of quality spinners but batsmen too have been deprived of a chance to develop their game against the turning ball. The way Raina was found fishing against Swann, picking up a pair in the final Test, reflected the depressing state of affairs. In this scenario, playing on turning tracks even at home will be fraught with danger.

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