Since the 2019 World Cup, India’s spinners have the worst economy rate, 5.72, in One-Day Internationals among all the 12 ICC full-member teams. India’s average of 48.87 and strike rate of 51.2 are better than only Zimbabwe’s and marginally, England’s. Which means an average ODI spell by an Indian spinner in this period would read 10-0-57.2-1.17. Neither have they stemmed runs at the cost of a few more wickets nor have they taken wickets at the cost of a few more runs.
After the recent South Africa ODIs, coach Rahul Dravid had pointed out the need to improve India’s wicket-taking options through the middle stage of an ODI innings, when spinners are used more often than not.
“Mr (Sunil) Gavaskar would tell me, ‘you go for 50 runs in 10 overs but get me three wickets, and I’ll be happy with that.’ And mind you, 50 runs in those days was big,” says Laxman Sivaramakrishnan.
In his debut ODI series, the World Championship of Cricket in Australia in 1985, the former India leg-spinner memorably tossed up the ball and made it drift, dip and turn to lure batsmen to their fall. The magic was to vanish soon but what Sivaramakrishnan showcased in that series was classic one-day wrist-spin; the tightrope art of dangling the carrot of boundaries for the batsmen but not actually conceding them, and instead using that bait to reel in wickets.
Over the decades, an already difficult art has become harder and harder to practise. ODI rule changes pertaining to the ball and fielding restrictions, and the rise of T20 cricket where, ironically, leg-spinners have come to rule. These are global reasons. The failure to develop, in particular, wrist-spin bench strength in ODIs, and the two different worlds of domestic and international cricket. These are specific to the Indian predicament.
“The real big change to the game was the red ball changing to white,” Sachin Tendulkar had told this paper in an interview published on Friday. “The red ball became soft, got discoloured, and was hard to pick. So, if a spinner was bowling, one had to watch the hand closely as it was tough to see the ‘spin’ on the ball while it was in the air. Say, on a scale of sighting the ball, if a new red cherry was 10 on 10, the discoloured ball could be 5 or 6.”
Spinners took a hit again when two new white balls, one from each end, were introduced after the 2011 World Cup. “This meant that during an innings, a ball would get used only for 25 overs from one end,” said Tendulkar. “Even when the spinners came to bowl later in the game, it was not too difficult to sight. In ODIs, the spinners generally come in to bowl in the 16th or 17th over. But in reality, the ball was just eight overs old.
“So (unlike) an old red ball, a spinner can’t disguise a doosra or googly effectively since the white ball isn’t discoloured that much. Plus, it is only when the ball gets slightly scuffed up that the spinners can grip it better.”
Just a year after mandating two new balls, the International Cricket Council restricted the number of deep fielders in ODIs to four instead of five from the 11th to the 40th over of an innings. The middle overs went from ‘boring’ to boundary-fests, and the spinners, who operated usually in that period, bore the brunt.
“There is talk about spinners finding it tough to get wickets in ODIs as compared to T20s,” says Tendulkar. “That is because in ODIs, there are five fielders in the ring while only four in T20s. This changes the psyche of both the batsmen and the bowlers. In case that extra fielder was at, say, long-on, the batsman would think twice before hitting. That was because the ball would have gone soft and the batsman had to be dead sure he would clear the fielder.
“Because of new restrictions, the extra fielder is up in the 30-yard circle – it could be mid-on, mid-off or point – when spinners are bowling. So as a batsman, you feel that basically I have to clear the 30-yard circle and I am safe. Moreover, the ball remains hard since there are two of them.”
Says Sivaramakrishnan, “When I was in the ICC committee, I said that you should be giving five deep fielders, and not four.”
In late 2017, ‘KulCha’ became the flavour in Indian cricket, threatening to turn the bread-and-butter of finger spin to toast. Leg-spin was enjoying a revival of sorts courtesy T20; batsmen found they were unable to consistently hit wrist-spin with all its variations, giving us the sight of teams taking no risk against Rashid Khan in a format where risk was supposedly non-existent for batsmen. But we digress.
For a couple of seasons, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal were a treat for connoisseurs and a threat for batsmen. In early 2018, the wrist-spin pair looted 33 wickets in the six-match ODI series in South Africa. But gradually, Kuldeep’s returns started falling alarmingly, as did his game time, even in the IPL. India went back to the left-arm spin of Ravindra Jadeja, who’s averaged 58.75 at 5.5 runs an over since the 2019 World Cup. In the recent three-match ODI series in South Africa, the home spinners took nine wickets, India’s managed three. Forget Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj, even Aiden Markram had more wickets than Ravichandran Ashwin.
Virat Kohli led India’s white-ball teams for nearly five years, but not a single wrist-spinner not named Chahal or Kuldeep got a single ODI under him. Rahul Chahar did get a game, but under Shikhar Dhawan as part of the second-string side that toured Sri Lanka while the main squad was in England for Test matches last year. Once Kuldeep faded – and why his decline couldn’t be arrested deserves a story in itself – there was no real back-up. The team management tried to plug the hole with finger spin, but that was decidedly replacing apples with oranges.
“A captain has a huge part to play in handling spinners. In my time, Sunil Gavaskar was outstanding as skipper. His man management was superb. Dhoni was better than Virat the way he led the spinners,” says Sivaramakrishnan. “I remember he had a chat with Chahal after he had gone for 64 in four overs (in a T20I at Centurion in 2018).”
Feeder line empty
Not that the cupboard is overflowing with options. While the likes of Adam Zampa, Rashid, Shamsi, Wanindu Hasaranga, Hayden Walsh as well as Chahal continue to strike blows in ODIs for wrist-spin, Indian domestic cricket has its own narrative.
In the last five years in the one-day Vijay Hazare Trophy, only two of the top 10 spin wicket-takers are wrist-spinners – Mayank Markande and veteran Piyush Chawla. That number doubles to four – Chawla, Shreyas Gopal, Chahar, M Ashwin — for the T20 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, an indication of leggies finding more success in the shortest format.
Chawla points out that the slower pitches in domestic cricket allow even part-time off-spinners to get away without too much damage, thus reducing captains’ reliance on leggies in one-dayers. And less adventurous batsmen mean wrist-spinners aren’t tested enough.
“Domestic pitches are different from your usually true international surfaces. They are much slower,” says Chawla. “We get very few paatas (flat pitches) these days. Also, in these times, we have a lot of matches at the same venue, so the pitches get tired after a while and slow down further. I think the odd game should be played at a high-scoring venue so that spinners get that experience.
“Also, domestic batting line-ups are not that aggressive,” Chawla adds. “You may get a couple of batsmen who are aggressive in the top order but not much after that. So often teams end up playing safe. A score of say, 275 or 280 is, seven or eight times out of 10, a winning score. But the opposite is true in international cricket.
“A spell of 10-0-50-0 is considered very normal nowadays, and there are plenty of finger spinners in domestic cricket who will give you that. So captains feel why should one risk bowling a leggie with only four men in the deep.”
“People were surprised when I was chosen for the World Championship. They asked how a leg-spinner was playing one-day cricket. And now leg-spinners are playing only T20s,” says Sivaramakrishnan. “They get wickets caught in the deep when batsmen are trying to slog them or caught at extra cover at the most.”
That doesn’t work to the same extent in ODIs, partly because of the four-fielder rule, and largely because it is a different format, according to the 56-year-old commentator.
“People have been mistaken. Fifty-over cricket is not an extension of T20,” says Sivaramakrishnan. “It is a restriction of Tests. A batsman can pace his innings in a one-day game, but a bowler has only 10 overs, so you have to be really excellent in order to succeed.
“(Shane) Warne and (Anil) Kumble, both high-quality Test bowlers, were high-quality ODI bowlers. Mystery can take you only so far as a spinner. What happened thereafter… (Sunil) Narine and (Ajantha) Mendis could bowl only four overs.”
A leg-spinner’s mindset in ODIs, Sivaramakrishnan says, should be about taking wickets, just like it is in Test cricket. “In one-day cricket, your aim is to cut down the boundaries. So you have to bowl as many good balls as you can. Even going for five singles in six balls is a rate of five an over. I had to bowl a good ball if Javed Miandad was at the other end. And a wicket-taking ball remains a wicket-taking ball.
“But spinners lack heart now. They are happy to go at a decent economy rate without going for wickets. Even if you see the U19 (World Cup) final, most of the (England) wickets fell to pace. Only one wicket fell to spin and that too off a slog-sweep.”
It is also a matter of declining skills; the basics of spin bowling are being gradually lost, feels Sivaramakrishnan. “People do not use their body much these days, they bowl with their hands instead. Even Kuldeep wasn’t using his body too much.
“You are supposed to spin the ball more, not just bowl quick through the air. You need to give it a proper rip. You cannot rely on the pitch. The amount of turn you get also depends on the pitch, yes, but what is spin… spin happens in the air. That tweak has to be provided by the bowler. You can say there is nothing in the pitch but that is where your craft comes in.”
Sivaramakrishnan declares that unless something is done to stem the rot, “you will see the death of spinners in Test cricket too. Spinners now come into play only in the 4th innings.”
Further, in the last five years, Pakistan’s Yasir Shah is the only leg-spinner among the top 10 spin wicket-takers in Test cricket.
Sivaramakrishnan advocates a spin-bowling coach for every team. “The art of coaching has to develop. We keep saying the game has changed, but what about us? Have we been able to change ourselves along with the game? It is easy to identify the problem, but are there people available to give solutions?
“We have learnt from fast bowlers around the world and have developed a good bunch now. But we have forgotten that our strength is spin. A spin coach can be the intermediary between the captain and the spinners. All teams should have a spin-bowling coach, and there is no one to teach it better than Asians.”