Spinners: India stare at vacuum beyond Ashwin, Jadeja

'Spinning' out of fashion: India stare at vacuum beyond Ashwin, Jadeja

Can anyone look beyond Jadeja and Ashwin and say with conviction, "Here is a spinner who can step up to the Test cauldron as and when required?"

R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who both are on the wrong side of 30, maybe handling the spin mantle effectively but the field is barren beyond them. Credit: AFP File Photos

Two notable events have transpired over the last few weeks, both surrounding R Ashwin, which have forced the advocates of spin bowling to ponder over the future of this compelling art in a country that once proudly flaunted its enviable spin riches.

Though there has been a perceptible decline in both the quantity and quality of spinners emerging from the elaborate domestic structure in the last few years, the exclusion of Ashwin from the Tests during the England series and the off-spinner's inclusion in India's squad for the T20 World Cup offer two key indications. First, India no longer feel the necessity to field their best spinner while playing in certain countries. And second, the dearth of quality tweakers is so stark that they had to fall back on the same bowler for the shortest format, more than four years after he was discarded for not being good enough for international white-ball cricket!

The wrist-spin theory in limited-overs cricket, conceived and implemented by all-powerful skipper Virat Kohli with much fanfare, appears to have run its course, at least for the time being. Rahul Chahar is the preferred leg-spinner now while the finger-spin duo of Ravindra Jadeja and Ashwin, dumped together in 2017, are united now that the latter has managed to regain favour. While that is a vindication of the pair's skills, it's also a reflection on the poor supply line. In limited-overs formats, this lack of depth in spin can be glossed over, but it is a huge concern when it comes to Tests. 

Can anyone look beyond Jadeja and Ashwin and say with conviction, "Here is a spinner who can step up to the Test cauldron as and when required?" In the absence of the injured Jadeja, Axar Patel did exceedingly well against England in the home series, but his wickets came on turners where the Indian batsmen were only marginally better than their English counterparts. And even though it is true that spinners mature with age, Axar is hailed as promising at 27!

"Spin bowling is suffering," agrees former India leg-spinner-turned-pundit Laxman Sivaramakrishnan. "We don't have too many spin bowlers that can play for the country at the Test-match level other than Jadeja and Ashwin at the moment. I don't think any of our white-ball (spin) bowlers can come and play Test cricket straightaway."

The decline in the standard and the number of spinners has coincided with the mushrooming of fast bowlers, quite a few of them world-class. The BCCI's accent on developing pacers has been evident in recent times but, as laudable as the move is, spin has taken a backseat with the stunting of the supply chain.

Siva, as he is fondly called, attributes it to how our domestic cricket works and how a majority of the captains, knowingly or unknowingly, discourage the growth of spinners capable of playing the longer format.

"This is because our domestic system is defined by poor captains who don't know how to handle spin bowlers," he says, without mincing words. "And secondly, the SG ball... Because it (reverse) swings when it's old, they like to use the fast bowlers with the new ball and the old ball and spinners are just used with defensive fields.

“Even in the Ranji Trophy, if you are going to bowl with fielders in the deep, you are going to develop this habit. You are then always apprehensive about bowling with a slip, silly-point and forward short-leg. When you are apprehensive about bowling with close-in fielders, you are going to bowl a lot of loose balls. So, I think the captaincy part needs to be improved," he explains. 

This attitude, Siva feels, has discouraged spinners from developing into bowlers that can succeed in Test cricket. The spread of T20 and IPL has also taken a toll on spin bowling, particularly off-spin.    

"These days, you find in every T20 team or an IPL team two or three leg-spinners or left-arm spinners," he points out. "Off-spinners aren't preferred much in the IPL unless they want them to go after left-hand batsmen. If somebody is to bowl four overs in a T20 game and 10 overs in a 50-over game, I think they should work hard enough to find a place in the Test team by performing in the Ranji Trophy. There is nothing like performing in the Ranji Trophy over a long period of time with an attacking field. They need to have a mindset about not bowling bad balls because in T20 and 50-over games, because you have fielders in the deep, you can get away with bad balls."

For someone who made his Test debut at 17 and single-handedly won a Test when only 19 (he took 12 for 181 against England in Bombay in 1984-85 to fashion India's win and claimed 23 wickets to be adjudged the man of the series), Siva should know a thing or two about bowling in Test cricket.    

While not overly concerned with how things stand, Siva emphasises the need to scout for new spin talent, both in the interiors and the cities. He shares an interesting fact about the mindset of young spinners from his own experience.   

"I did a coaching camp in Baroda in December (last), and we found a lot of young spinners good enough with the red ball, but a lot of them don't want to flight the ball," he notes. "This is a problem because in Test-match cricket, the pitches are going to be flat (for spinners), unless you are playing in India where the ball will turn from day one or day two. But where the pitches are flat, you have got to flight the ball because you can deceive the batsman in the air and off the pitch.

"People have to be encouraged to flight the ball and impart a lot of spin, even if they don't bowl very accurately at the beginning. Once, as a spinner, you start spinning the ball and getting it to turn off the pitch, you can work on your accuracy later. What's happening now is people don't want to go for runs, so they are working on the accuracy more and deserting the part where they have to impart spin on the ball."

Caught between the negative mindset of domestic captains and the demands of T20 cricket, the art of spin bowling in longer formats is dying a slow death. There is a crying need to strike a balance between investing in the development of pace resources and enhancing the spin reserves that have served Indian cricket so well all these years.