India’s recent losses in test matches has led to two stark revelations. One – our batters seem to be struggling big time against spin. Two – our spin cupboard is almost empty barring Ashwin whose performance outside sub-continent is still to be seen. Not too long ago, India seemed to be in surplus on both these factors and has suddenly become a deficit. I mean this is much like an economy which appears a tiger till the crisis exposes leads to all kinds of issues.
The recent loss to SL was outright shocking. SL which despite producing smashing cricketers hardly gets the attention. If Indian cricketers had done such a daylight heist, there would have been huge media coverage. It was all so shocking. The problem was not as much the second factor (as Ashwin bowled well) but the first one where we just could not chase a paltry 170 odd runs.
There are two articles which suggest it is the recent convert from spin pitches to fast pitches which is leading to the problem. First by the always briiliant Sharda Ugra and second by Karthik Krishnswamy.
India was losing regularly and badly to swinging and grassy pitches outside sub-continent. This led BCCI to make a rule in 2011 to leave 4 inch grass on the pitches which after an inning was always rolled. The result was spinners did not have a say in the game at all. As a result, even batters lost the patience etc needed to play spin.
The last decade has been marked by a slowly increasing clamour to change the nature of the Indian pitches. Following the 2011-12 debacles in England and Australia, there was a clear advisory given to curators nationwide to keep a minimum grass cover – between 4mm and 5mm mostly, with some going up to 8mm – on each surface and to ensure hard surfaces. The overall purpose was to ensure that India’s batsmen were able to handle pace and bounce when travelling overseas. The idea caught on slowly, but the drive to make tracks more conducive to fast bowling with more than a shred of grass is today widespread across state associations.
Such pitches have served three functions: they produce outright results, supply a regular stream of medium-paced seam and swing bowlers for the home team, and change the balance of the squad. More domestic teams now play three seamers and a spinner rather than the more traditional balance of 2-2.
These changes with regards to pitches has led to a very dramatic change in the outright results produced in the Ranji Trophy. In 2011-12, only two out of seven knockout matches had an outright result. In the 2012-13 Ranji Trophy, there were 46 outright results in 115 matches. In 2013-14, every knockout game was decided outright, barring the rain-marred semi-final between Punjab and Karnataka.
The outright results have also produced shortened matches, with even lesser involvement of the single spinner. In the last four Ranji Trophy seasons, no spinner has featured among the top three wickets-takers. In 2014-2015, the only specialist spinner to feature in the top 10 on the list was offspinner Swarupam Purkayastha of Assam, at No. 10. While Karnataka’s S Aravind, who does bowl slow left-arm, was the fourth-highest wicket-taker, he picked up most of his 42 Ranji scalps as a left-arm medium pacer.
The flipside of this predominance of pace-men has meant fewer spinners employed, fewer overs bowled by spin, and fewer opportunities for batsmen to tackle the slow men. This has led to a lack of exposure to quality spin for young Indian batsmen, and far too few of the “10,000 hours” of practice required in conditions assisting spin.
The experience earned by playing a range of spinners in a large number of matches over and over again every season gave young players of a previous generation the required “skill-set” against spin. But again, if that skill-set is not put to repeated use and examination, it can erode. India’sseries defeat at home to England in 2012 at the hands of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, as well as their struggles against Moeen Ali, are cases in point. Not enough quality spin in not enough pressure situations in not enough domestic games will add rust even to the most skilled practitioners of batting against spin bowling.
India’s new generation of batsmen find themselves trapped by the limitations of an altered cricketing reality. Capable against bounce, pace and seam, they are working with a far narrower range of experience against spin. Playing quality spin requires practice, as many hours of it as possible. Their game is neither put through a large bank of quality spin, nor are they tested enough to help them find individual solutions.
This is so different to read. From the perennial struggling against pace and bounce to struggle against spin. All in just 4 years?
SL is far clearer and has not doctored things:
What was on view in Galle from India was the utter reverse. The starting point, defence, muddied the waters and the batsmen’s mind. What followed was poor shot selection, with the bowler fully aware that the reckless strokes were just around the corner. India’s desire to juice up their pitches to aid their batsmen to succeed overseas and set their fast-bowler conveyor belt moving has also rapidly depleted their stock of spin bowling. The situation can definitely be redressed, but however long it took for the paucity of spin to come into play, it may take the same amount of time to get India’s confidence against quality slow bowling to be re-established.
The irony is that Sri Lanka, by contrast, are clear about what is to be done at home. Their domestic cricket, not as flush with cash as India’s, does not tinker too much with the tracks. Sri Lanka do not hanker for green tops and pace like fire. At home, their plans are clear with regard to what works and who can be called upon to do that work for them.
Then Karthik who gets more into stats and other details:
Some 20 or so faces were pressed to the main gate of the KSCA Stadium in Hubli. All peered at the Karnataka bus, which was slowly filling up at the end of day two of the team’s Ranji Trophy game against Jammu & Kashmir. The crowd at the gate recognised everyone, and called out their names. When Shreyas Gopal carried his kitbag up the bus steps, a chant went up. “Junior Kumble! Junior Kumble!”
It’s a massive comparison for someone who is only playing his second season of first-class cricket, but at surface level, there’s something to it. Shreyas finishes his action in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Anil Kumble, plays for the same state side, and has picked up his first 38 wickets at an average of 18.10. When Kumble was first selected for India, he had played one season of first-class cricket, in which he had taken 24 wickets at 19.62.
Dig a few inches below the surface, however, and it becomes clear that Shreyas and Kumble are entirely different kinds of cricketer.
In his debut first-class season of 1989-90, Kumble bowled 196.4 overs in five matches, or close to 40 overs per match. Shreyas, so far, has bowled 183.5 overs in 11 first-class matches, or a little under 17 overs per match. He has barely had an opportunity to bowl extended spells or set up dismissals.
His wickets, instead, have come in clumps. Where Kumble needed to bowl 48 overs to claim his maiden five-wicket haul, Shreyas only needed 16, against Uttar Pradesh in last season’s Ranji Trophy quarter-finals. His second five-for was even quicker: 9.5 overs, in the Irani Cup match against Rest of India, where his last three wickets came in a hat-trick.
This season, Shreyas has picked up six wickets at an average of 19.50, but he’s only bowled 37.1 overs in seven innings. There’s plenty to like about Shreyas’ bowling. He seems to give it a rip, and he doesn’t seem to bowl too many bad balls, but he has had little chance of showing whether he can sustain his bite and accuracy over a long spell.
He further points to the trivial role spinners are playing thanks to T20 cricket. Earlier, it was the case that faster lads just bowled a few overs to take some shine off the ball. Then spinners would take over only for faster ones to return to provide rest. Now, it is the other way round. Spinners come to relieve the faster ones!
Both Kartik and Chopra suggest that Twenty20 cricket could be a reason for spinners losing their sting.
“You look at all the old bowlers, they were used to bowling long spells,” Kartik says. “You learn your craft on good wickets, you learn your craft against good batsmen by bowling long spells, and you also practice that way. The more you bowl, that’s the way you become. It is not T20 games where you have to bowl one over and another one over and another one over where a consistent length is supposed to be really bad. You can’t allow a batsman to line you up. That can’t happen in first-class cricket, no? If I bowl five different lengths the batsman is going to hurt me.
“Any kid you go to, everywhere in schools cricket, what are they playing? It’s T20 cricket. All the old players including myself – not that I’m old – have been brought up on schools cricket which was two days, three days. I was brought up on league cricket in Madras which was three days against the best of opposition so you had to prise them out, you had to bowl well. And there was not just one game, you had to play 16 games. Which meant you were getting quality practice against the best.”
Chopra says he doesn’t see spinners beating batsmen in the air anymore. This, he says, could be because of habits carried over from Twenty20 cricket.
“In T20 cricket, spinners are challenged, they are pushed,” he says. “Unless you have already matured and know your game inside-out, there is a good chance, the moment you get in the shorter format, that you’ll start bowling flatter, you bowl straighter, you compromise on spin.
“If I hit you as a batsman, the bowler’s first reaction is to bowl fast and get away. But spinners at times have to bowl slow. But that variation comes to your mind only if you are a complete bowler already. A Daniel Vettori will not start bowling darts. But a young left-arm spinner, the moment he’s hit, he says okay, lets start bowling darts.
So, really a couple of reasons for Indian batters failing so badly against spin of all things. But then how did it happen so quickly? We have struggled with this pace equation for many years. All that was needed was a change in pitches and they would produce such quick results? Most players in Indian team are young but built their techniques in earlier times of spin based pitches. This idea of green pitches leading to loss of technique could only apply to cricketers just getting introduced to domestic cricket. Also does it mean that we are producing better fast bowlers? Indian pacers did really well at recent World Cup but test performance is still shaky.
There should be a balance. Australia, England etc have produced great spinners despite the nature of bouncy/swing pitches. Infact they actually worked harder given the nature of pitches.
More than pitches, it is the nature of game which seems to be a bigger problem. It is difficult for young cricketers not be swayed by the riches of T-20. T20 requires different skill sets and does not prepare for the grind of a test match. Earlier success meant a long grind now it all seems to have become easier. So, why bother for the grind? Earlier there was no option. One had to succeed at test level to be considered worthwhile. Now it does not matter..