Column | What ails Indian batsmen in tackling spinners?

Zampa gets Jadeja
Adam Zampa celebrates with Steve Smith after removing Ravindra Jadeja in the Chennai ODI. File photo: AFP/Arun Sankar

Question: Who is the best batsman against spin bowling in the world?

Answer: You may be surprised to know that it is Sunil Gavaskar

This question and its answer had appeared in a popular sports magazine in the country during the mid 1970s. It was not in doubt that Gavaskar was among the top batsmen in the world for an entire decade commencing from 1976. As an opener, his skill and prowess were more recognised in the area of tackling the fiery fast bowlers rather than playing the spinners. However, his ability to take on the spinners, particularly on a pitch that was providing them assistance by way of turn and unpredictable bounce was unmatched. This was mentioned by Erapalli Prasanna, the great off-spinner of the yore, in his autobiography “One More Over”. And the Indian public could witness his skillsets in full bloom in the last innings he played in Test cricket, when he scored an immaculate 96 on a minefield of a pitch against Pakistan at Bangalore in 1987.

Gavaskar had sharpened his technique by playing spinners for many years in domestic cricket. He was fortunate in that the Indian domestic cricket scene boasted of an abundance of riches when it came to the spin bowling department during those years. In addition to the famous spin quartet comprising Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Bishan Singh Bedi, Prasanna and S Venkataraghavan, there were superb tweakers such as Rajinder Goel, Padmakar Shivalkar, V V Kumar, Mumtaz Hussain, M V Narasimha Rao etc who all adorned the Ranji Trophy circuit during the 1970s. They were followed by the likes of Dilip Doshi, Ravi Shastri, Shivlal Yadav, Arshad Ayub, L Sivaramakrishnan and Maninder Singh during the late 1970s and early part of the 1980s. Hence batsmen like Ajit Wadekar, Dilip Sardesai, Gundappa Viswanath, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohammad Azharuddin were never really troubled by spin bowlers during their years in international cricket.

All cricketers who turned out for the country during the last century invariably played in all matches in the first-class circuit and thus gained expertise and experience in tackling top quality spin bowling. This trend of domestic circuit possessing good quality spinners has not been broken though one sees an increase in the number of quick bowlers as well. One can say with confidence and pride that all the batsmen who donned the national colours till the first decade of the the current century were excellent players of spin bowling. This would be vouchsafed by all time greats such as Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan who never found the going easy when bowling to the Indian batsmen. In fact, Ian Chappell, former captain of Australia, once rated V V S Laxman as one of the best players of spin bowling he had seen.

V V S Laxman
V V S Laxman was a terrific player of spin bowling. File photo

A study of the Indian batting during the recently- concluded Test and One-Day International (ODI) series against Australia reveals that most of the top order batsmen are not comfortable while facing spin bowlers on tracks that offer turn and uneven bounce. Except for Rohit Sharma, who scored a century in the first Test, the bulk of the runs made by India in the first three Tests came from the blades of Axar Patel, Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Aswin - none of who can be considered as specialist batsmen. Even Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara found the going difficult against the Aussie spinners in these games, all of which were played on pitches tailor-made for spin bowling. This edginess while facing the spinners was also seen in the last ODI played at Chennai where Adam Zampa, a leg-spinner of modest abilities, ran circles around the Indians to pick up four wickets and placed his team on the road to victory.

What has happened to the present generation of Indian batsmen that they have been relegated to the category of “modest to moderate” with regard to their ability to tackle top quality spin bowling? The short answer is that participation of most of the national players in the domestic first-class circuit is very limited at present. This happens because of the busy international calendar and the commitment towards the franchisees in the Indian Premier League (IPL) which gives them little time for anything else. In addition to this, the fringe players are drafted into the 'A' side, with tours to other countries. Hence, very few of them take part in Ranji Trophy matches and other longer version first-class fixtures on a regular basis. This, along with the increased focus on IPL, which attracts both money and glamour, has pushed conventional domestic cricket matches way down the list of priorities for the current generation of Indian cricketers.

An obvious corollary to this is that top performers in Ranji Trophy seldom get the recognition they deserve. The highest run-getters and wicket-takers in Ranji Trophy during the 2022-23 season - Mayank Agarwal of Karnataka and Jalaj Saxena who represents Kerala - are hardly in the reckoning for a place in the national squad. In fact all the five top wicket-taking bowlers in Ranji Trophy - Saxena, Shams Mulani, Kishan Singha, Dharmendrasinh Jadeja and Sagar Udeshi - are spin bowlers. None of the members of the playing eleven in the current national side figures in the list of top run-scorers in Ranji Trophy either during 2021-22 or 2022-23 season. Thus, it will not be an exaggeration or distortion to state that batsmen representing India are not used to the playing conditions within the country nor adept at handling quality spinners.

Sunil Gavaskar
Sunil Gavaskar could handle both spin and pace with aplomb. File photo: IANS

Playing spin bowlers requires a technique and temperament different from that needed to tackle the speedsters. A batsman should possess nimble footwork which enables him to reach to the pitch of the ball so as to either smother the spin, if playing defensively, or play attacking strokes. While doing so, it should be ensured that the head and shoulder remain in line with the feet so that the weight of the body can be applied properly to guide the ball as required. Thrusting out the pads while staying put at the crease is not the correct method to play spinners, especially on a turning track as both head and shoulder lag behind the feet, resulting in loss of control over the strokes. Good players of spin bowling like Gavaskar, Ian Chappell, Laxman were adept at using their feet and used this to good effect to score mountains of runs in international cricket, irrespective of the state of the pitch or quality of bowling on offer.

The setbacks suffered by the national side against Australia should open the eyes of the mandarins in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) about the need to take urgent steps to correct this malady. The BCCI should consider making it mandatory for all players in the reckoning for a place in the national side to play a minimum number domestic first-class matches. This would not only help to improve the status of the games and the quality of cricket played therein but also assist the batsmen to sharpen their skillsets for tackling top drawer spin bowling. It should not be forgotten in the glitz and glamour surrounding IPL that domestic cricket offers the lifeline for millions of aspiring cricketers in this country. It is high time we invested time and effort to upgrade our domestic first-class circuit and place it on the same pedestal as the IPL. Domestic cricket needs to be sustained and supported as its downfall will lead to ultimate disintegration of the entire cricket infrastructure in the country.

(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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