Forgotten art of playing spin

Forgotten art of playing spin

Everyone is an expert on pitches these days. Besides a capricious diagnosis of the surface from the colour of the soil alone, they know what the curator has done wrong because they are working on the assumption that they know what a fair contest is - philosophically at least. 

Well, here’s the kicker: it’s really not as black and white. It never was and never will be because cricket is often played in grey in-betweens. Sure, the villainisation of pitches is an easy narrative to cling onto in the aftermath of the second and third Tests of the Anthony de Mello Trophy, but our view, ideally, shouldn’t be as one dimensional. 

Were the pitches contentious? Yes. Was it tough for even established batsmen to score on? Yes. Was it as placid as Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma boorishly alluded? No. But some introspection will yield that the problem isn’t the surface alone. 

It’s definitely a conversation worth having since the Test match at the Motera ended after only 842 deliveries to become the shortest Test match since World War II. And also because no other sport loves a heated deliberation about the playing surface as much as cricket fans ensure. 

In the process though, it would be prudent to cast a glance in the direction of T20 cricket and how its insidious tentacles have practically abolished a skillset, one which was the true mark of a genuine batsman.

Playing spin, with or without elan, was an art form to those from the sub-continent for the parameters you needed consider before offering a bat were manifold. The angle of approach, release point, seam position, flight, dip, line, length, turn, no turn… all of these things have to be calibrated and adjusted to in a fraction. 

If you’re good enough, you will have spare time to think of fielding positions, bowlers’ strategy with a soft thought of the previous delivery and only then do you play the ball.

It’s playing chess when playing seamers is more checkers. The issue is that the checklist remains the same, but the batsmen don’t have the instinct or discipline to check it off. Men from the sub-continent grew up internalising these complexities before evolving into spin sentients. 

Not long ago, the Indian team had five batsmen who would feature in any all-time list pertaining to competence against spinners. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly were magicians against tweakers. Virender Sehwag didn’t care who bowled what but would strike a very different fear in spinners, the career-ending type.

The current team can play spin. It’s just not nearly as good as the generation which preceded it. Rigorously feeding on the riches that white-ball provides, players now aren’t used to biding time to study the bowlers’ objective, let alone the ball hurtling towards them.

They look about as clueless as those that tour the sub-continent. Part blame for this drop in quality has to go to the Board of Control for Cricket India’s insistence on pitches that assist pacemen. 

The intent was to evolve into a good touring side, one which handles pace, bounce and swing without looking blanched. In the bargain, they compiled the best pace bowling unit India has ever had and also a very competent touring team.

At home, however, the spinners were without their bread and butter: dust bowls. As a result, batsmen were starved of quality spin. Barring the likes of R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and now Axar Patel, there are few spinners on the domestic circuit worth mentioning. Batsmen didn’t need to develop their skills against spin. 

And it showed on a ‘sporting wicket’ at the Motera. They were bowled out for 145, and nine of those wickets belonged to Jack Leach and Joe Root. Even the England skipper couldn’t help but laugh at himself for picking up 5 wickets for 8 runs. 

England lost 18 wickets in the exact same conditions against a problem they have always had, and this time they looked particularly gaudy. That, one can attribute to the pitch and speak of how a balance must be achieved to push the game to at least four days. But to entirely defame the surface would be impetuous. 

Especially since the pitch for the fourth Test is going to play the same and keep this conversation going for more time to come.

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