The 1st Test of the 1993 Ashes series, played at Old Trafford in England, introduced the world to a spectacle never been witnessed before, and it has not been surpassed hence. After the Australians posted a competitive 289 on a spinning track, and England opened with a solid 80/1, approximately two hours into their innings, Aussie captain Allan Border tossed the ball to a relative newcomer playing his first Test on English soil. Facing up to him was Mike Gatting, a man in the twilight of his career but definitely good enough for a rookie – or so he thought. An innocuous run-up was followed by a perfect side-on action with a snappy release sending a loopy delivery towards the heavy-set batsman.
An observer would have seen the initial release push the ball towards the leg-side of the batsman, with drift taking it even further down, and attributed the seemingly wasted delivery to nervousness, inexperience, or a combination of both. What followed is not likely to have been predicted by anyone: the ball pitched nearly a foot outside the leg-stump and turned square to beat the batsman’s half-extended front foot and a relatively straight bat to crash into the outside half of the off-stump. As wicket-keeper Ian Healey exulted, umpire Dickie Bird looked shaken, and Gatting stood in disbelief, the world bore witness to leg-spinning legend Shane Warne dishing outthe ‘ball-of-the-century’ on one of the biggest platforms of world cricket.
Over that decade and a better part of the next, he was to torment batsmen around the world, along with worthy rivals Muttiah Muralitharan (Sri Lanka) and Anil Kumble (India), forming an indisputable triumvirate occupying the top 3 spots in the list of all-time highest wicket-takers in Test cricket. After their retirement, the world has been bereft of a spinner of their caliber; yes, there have been occasions where contemporary spinners have provided a whiff of that magic, but sustaining it over a consistent period of time has been a challenge. In the current era, where audiences have been titillated by the pleasures of T20 cricket and awed by aggressive fast bowlers like Dale Steyn and Mitchell Johnson, the art of quality spin bowling appears to have quietly stepped into the shadows. With one of the potential successors to the genius spin generation that seems to be beyond us, Saeed Ajmal, getting banned for an illegal action, one begs to ask the question: where have all the world-class Test spinners gone?
Scanning the current landscape
Without shooting arrows in the dark, it is important to scan the current global landscape for quality spinners. If I am found to be overtly critical, do bear in mind that the benchmark against which they will be measured is not average or above-average, but world-class.For better clarity, I will segment the Test playing nations into two categories – outside and within the subcontinent – and proceed to assess how their current spinners match up.
Outside the subcontinent: Had Graeme Swann been active in Test cricket today, I would have rated him the best in this segment and comparable to the tier 2 of world-class spinners (one which includes Harbhajan Singh, Daniel Vettori, Saqlain Mushtaq, etc.). Post his retirement, I find this segment pretty barren in terms of quality spinners. Australia’s current spin twins Steven Smith and Nathan Lyon are not likely to give batsmen nightmares, and leg-spinner James Muirhead, touted as promising by the Courier Mail, is fairly untested, even in the lower echelons of the game.
England do not have any world class spinner in their current ranks, or on the horizon, as admitted by The Telegraph. Imran Tahir (South Africa) and Ish Sodhi (New Zealand) have occasionally displayed glimpses of magic, but, with 40+ averages, both fail miserably on the consistency scale. This brings us to the final name in consideration – the mystery spinner from Trinidad, Sunil Narine; while the man has tied up batsmen in knots when it comes to the shortest format of the game, he has not exactly set the Test scene ablaze with his tweakers. Only 6 Tests old, his bowling average of 40.5 should reduce with experience, but, for now, his inability to bamboozle batsmen not looking to attack prohibits his entrance into the elite group of world class Test spinners.
Within the subcontinent: If I had embarked on this journey a couple of weeks back, Ajmal would have been a certainty in my list. However, post the ban and a very valid query by Indian spin legend Bishen Singh Bedi – “All those batsmen who lost their wickets to him, all those teams which lost a game because of an Ajmal spell, should they now come forward and say we have been wronged”, my options get limited. I do not see another Test spinner of Ajmal’s quality in Pakistan’s ranks, as of now. Coming to India, with a supreme effort at impartiality, I will have to admit that we do not currently boast a world-class Test spinner. I would still rate Harbhajan Singh, who is the only spinner among the top 10 Test wicket-takers besides the Big 3, as the best Test spinner in the country, with Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha following.
The turbanator’s performance in the few Ranji Trophy matches he played in the 2013-14 season indicate, as he keeps saying, that a couple of years of cricket may yet be left in him. For all his chutzpah, I cannot see Ravindra Jadeja breaking into or near-about the class we are seeking. The final nation under consideration, Sri Lanka, gives me the only current Test spinner I would rate as world-class: Rangana Herath. The stocky left arm orthodox spinner, who has developed multiple mystery deliveries of his own, has an almost identical Test bowling record as Swann but scores over him in the ability to run through a side. The man former skipper Mahela Jayawardene picked as the best spinner in the country, after Muralitharan, is arguably the only current exponent of the flight, guile and mystery associated with the golden preceding era.
So, where have the world class spinners disappeared?
The easiest answer to that question would be to bury my head in the sand and say that the Big 3 are once in a generation spinners, and the world was just privileged to witness all of them in the same era. So, expecting current spinners to match up to them would be like expecting another Don Bradman every couple of decades. The Big 3 were undoubtedly special, but what is worrying is the apparent lack of quality even a rung below them. So, it would be worth exploring some of the possible causes of this ‘disappearance’:The rise of T20: Decline of quality spinners coincided with, not surprisingly, the rise of the shortest format of the game, particularly the marquee ones like the Indian Premier League (IPL) and the Big Bash. The combination of unhelpful tracks, short boundaries and batsmen baying for bowlers’ blood almost every delivery resulted in an over-reliance on variation by current spinners, to survive the onslaught. Unfortunately, variation usually translated to bowling flatter, shorter and quicker, as captured aptly by former Indian cricketer Aakash Chopra in a Cricinfo article.
For bowlers not blessed with variation skills akin to a Narine, this has been the mantra for survival, and also for picking up wickets, usually when batsmen miss-hit and hole out (3 out of the top 4 wicket-takers in the history of IPL are spinners). While it is perfectly fine to adopt a defensive strategy in T20s, a cardinal error would be to carry on this mindset to the longer format, as well, which, unfortunately, most current spinners do. To emphasize my point, it is perfectly acceptable for an Ashwin to bowl quicker and flatter after being carted for a six in an IPL game, but to do the same as a response to a couple of boundaries in a Test match would be unpardonable.
Missing the ‘Test bowler’ mindset: The Big 3 did grace the IPL with their presence, and, while they were not as successful as during their glorious Test careers, their mindset was always to get wickets, much like their hunger while playing in whites. They did get carted – respect is not a sentiment often associated with the IPL, but their mindset did not change over the course of their respective stints. Besides them, the only bowlers exhibiting a similar mindset have been Pragyan Ojha, especially in IPL 2010, where he emerged as the highest wicket-taker, and Amit Mishra, who is the highest wicket-taking spinner and the second-highest overall (behind Lasith Malinga) in the history of the IPL. The short clip below and Mishra’s record are proofs that one can be successful in IPL with a Test bowler mindset, but the reverse, i.e., success in Tests with an ‘IPL bowler’ mindset, is unfortunately not true.
Negative captaincy: There are a lot of memories associated with the famous India v Australia Test match in Kolkata, 2001, mostly related to the superlative batting of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, and India’s fantastic bowling on the final day to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, not many may recall that, with Laxman well past a double hundred and India already with a substantial lead, Warne continued to bowl with men in catching positions and majority of the fielders within the 30-yard circle.
While the move may have resulted in an infamous defeat for the Aussies, one cannot but help doff the hat at the positive captaincy of Steve Waugh, who led the ‘Invincibles’ at the turn of the millennium. How many captains today would have, in that situation, not banished fielders to sweeper, extra-cover, long-on and long-off positions, etc.? Not many, I would imagine. This would encourage a spinner to bowl short and wait for a batsman to make a mistake, as opposed to the classical approach of pitching the ball up with plenty of flight and loop in a bid to deceive the batsman.
Focus on medium pacers: While most non-subcontinental teams have always cultivated medium pacers as opposed to spinners, the last decade or so witnessed, even among subcontinental teams, a disproportionately higher interest in seamers as opposed to tweakers, probably to target more overseas victories. Considering India as an example, between 2003-date, 16 medium pacers and only 6 spinners debuted at the highest level: a clear indication of the shifting focus. While this did usher in a golden decade in terms of overseas victories, it also saw the home fort being breached on several occasions: a sign of dwindling quality in spin bowling. Even at the domestic level, 8 out the top 10 wicket-takers in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy are medium pacers, indicating that the situation is not likely to change in the near future.
Is there a recipe for a world-class spinner?
Unfortunately, there isn’t. What can, however, be done is nurture and protect the ones who do exhibit a potential for greatness. Throwing them into the deep end of a crocodile-infested lake (read: expose them to quality batsmen in unfavourable conditions) could destroy their Test career even before it begins. Herath and Swann are prime examples of quality spinners who have been protected from the travails of highly competitive T20 tournaments.
While both have been exposed to domestic T20s, the batsmen they would have encountered there are not likely to leave long lasting scars, the ones frequently meted out in the IPL or the Big Bash. While protectionism is a possible solution, it may be easier said than done: a quality spinner is always on the watch-list of a cash-rich franchise, and financial lure is something few are able to resist. The best case scenario would be a quality spinner who can seamlessly transition between a run-restrictor in T20s to a wicket-taker in Tests, but, in the event of this scenario not materializing, boards around the world need to think out a plan to protect the precious few spin reserves we have left while providing for their financial security as well. It is gradually becoming difficult to distinguish between a spinner and a medium pacer bowling good leg and off-cutters, and that is not an evolution cricket needs.
Disclaimer: The article considers only the current generation and the previous one; spinners prior to the 1990s are not considered for the analysis
This article was first published on Sportskeeda: http://www.sportskeeda.com/cricket/ugly-truth-behind-disappearance-world-class-test-spinners