Friday, 14 October 2016

Cricket: How to play spin

Sanjay Manjrekar in Cricinfo


Going into this grand home season for Indian Test cricket, many felt that India would find New Zealand the toughest team to beat. As it turned out, the New Zealand spinners were not all that potent and their batsmen did not quite measure up either. In the end it was a clean sweep for India, and with big margins too.

To be fair, you could say New Zealand did the best with what they had. Not once during the course of the three Tests did you get the impression that they were giving anything but 100%.

Their tactics were admirable. Throughout the series, you saw a definite, sensible plan in motion, one based on a sound study of Indian conditions and players. The problem was New Zealand's quality of execution, and it eventually came down to ability. In these conditions, the Indians were just more able, more skilled than New Zealand, and that decides the fate of a contest.

More than their bowling I was disappointed with the New Zealand batting, especially against spin. And this can be said of a few other teams too: the world is not playing spin too well these days.

The first and most basic thought when facing up to spin, especially on a turning pitch, is to try and judge the length of the ball. This has to be the only thought occupying your mind, nothing else.

Is this ball full or short? Depending on the length, you play forward or back. Watching batsmen play spin these days, I don't think enough importance is given to this thought. Maybe other ideas cloud their minds.

There is a chance you will survive on a seaming pitch without moving your feet too much, but on a turning pitch against good spinners, if you are not moving your feet, you have no chance.

The thing is, you can't attack your way out of trouble against spin. We saw this approach predictably fail when Ross Taylor tried it in the final innings of the series.

Reading what is coming out of the hand is not as necessary as it is to judge the length, and depending on it, playing off the front foot or back. Kane Williamson was the best at this for New Zealand.

The idea after that is to get the bat right to the pitch of the ball: even if you can't stretch forward too much to get your foot to the pitch of the ball, you need to get the bat right to where the ball has landed. Mohammad Azharuddin used to do this. He never stretched his front foot too far forward but ensured that the bat was still very close to the pitch of the ball. If you do this, you don't have to worry which way the ball is going to spin.

When you are unable to get the bat to where the ball has pitched, you need to go right back deep inside the batting crease, a la Virat Kohli, and then watch the ball off the pitch - which you should have time to do, since you have gone right back.

Despite your best intentions, there will be many occasions when you err in your judgement of the length and are caught half-forward, not quite to the pitch of the ball. This is when alarm bells must ring in your head, and you must become extremely wary of the ball, like you would with a deadly poisonous snake, for you have given it a chance to strike at you.

You now have to make a small, critical adjustment with just the bat; it's too late to do anything with your feet now. You have to be ready to quickly draw the bat away and not play the ball, open or close the face of the bat or simply change the original position of the bat depending on the behavior of the ball. It's like how a keeper changes his glove position when he is up to the stumps, as opposed to standing back, and there is a deflection off the bat.

When not to the pitch, I found there were far too many New Zealand batsmen offering rigid bats that did not change their original position if there was a change in ball behaviour. They were hoping that the ball would hit the centre of their bats. This is a recipe for disaster.

These limitations of the New Zealand batsmen should take no credit away from R Ashwin, nor should his performance be given less credit because it has come at home.

To start with, this series didn't have rank turners where all a spinner had to do was turn up. The jury is out on how Ashwin will fare overseas, but his returns in favourable conditions are mind-boggling, and his performance in this series has been truly praiseworthy. If a batsman gets 20 hundreds in 39 matches we call it Bradmanesque; what do we call this?

I stumbled on a remarkable difference between Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh with regards to their modes of dismissals.

When Harbhajan was at the 200-wickets mark in his career, he had a total of 47 lbws and bowleds. Ashwin at the same stage had 90, almost twice as many as Harbhajan.

This is no comment on who is better. Harbhajan will have had more bat-pad dismissals than Ashwin. But this is an important reason why Ashwin has a greater strike rate: along with bat-pad dismissals, he gives himself the opportunity to get lbws and bowleds too. He is willing to experiment and find new ways of getting wickets, while Harbhajan was quite one-dimensional and rarely had a plan B.

Finally, it was a delight to see Virat Kohli maturing quickly as a captain, in keeping with his rapid growth as a batsman in international cricket.

This observation does not come because he has just won a Test series; it is more to do with how he has been visibly more patient, when earlier his almost child-like exuberance seemed to get the better of him. The tendency to make frequent field and bowling changes seems to have gone now. Kohli's on-field tactics this series had the perfect blend of attack and defence; not once did it seem like he was over-attacking or ultra-defensive.

His cheerleading to get the crowd to make some noise and back his team up when things were quiet was a nice touch. Why, some fans might come to the ground just to be cheer-led by him.

Kohli was in the game every minute of the series.

Above all, for someone who is very much a modern-day product, in the way he looks and plays the other formats of the game, he showed he cares deeply for the five-day game. And that is a boon in these times for Test cricket.

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