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New Zealand Could Not Come To The Terms With The Art Of Playing Spin

October 11, 2016

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It has been like a tradition for the overseas batsmen to find themselves all at sea on their tour to India for a test series. The same batsmen might have scored a lot of runs in the following or preceding ODI series, but so many times we have found so many batsmen sinking in the dustbowls of typical Indian designer spinning test tracks. The ongoing test series with New Zealand hasn’t been much different. The familiar sight of umpire rising his finger to the loud shout of a spinner followed by a shriek from the close-in fielders with their feet in the air and the batsman walking off with a sense of disbelief and confusion has been pictured at regular intervals. This New Zealand team, like many others before, didn’t have a clue regarding how to face spin.

On the other hand, India have been up against the teams in the past having quality spinning options; yet not many were able to pose much threat for the Indian batsmen. If one of the reasons for that was the unlearnt skill of the overseas spinners to master the SG ball, another must be the unmatched skill that Indian batsmen possessed to withstand any spin attack. So many times we saw Tendulkar and Dravid batting together making the pitch look ridiculously easy to bat on with nothing happening around, but just within half an hour or so as the opponent was asked to bat, the dying pitch suddenly seemed to have turned into a Bunsen burner. It wasn’t rare to see the first ball turning square, second one turning and bouncing off the turf, third one keeping low and as the batsman plays the fourth ball for turn the ball would skid through or straighten after pitching and trap him right in front of his middle stump. It is hence the ability of the Indians to play spin which separated them from their opponents to make the contests look one sided, which otherwise could well have been even stevens.

Playing fast bowling and playing spin demand completely different sets of cricketing skills. The first one needs physical courage to get behind the ball. Here the top half of the body is always in the firing line. Thus it will have to be ever so prepared to duck the short-pitched deliveries. Facing spin in contrast takes a lot of mental courage. It’s about getting the fear of edging towards slips or bat-padding to the other close-in fielders out of the way. It’s about maintaining the perfect shape of the bottom half in order to get to the pitch of the ball quickly and use your footwork to move forward or back at the crease. Most of the overseas batsmen have got the former attribute, not the latter.

Spinners enjoy bowling maidens more than anything else. So it’s important to hurt them early in their overs – something what Sachin Tendulkar used to do very well. He was never afraid of being deceived by the flight. He would rather act as a happy cavalier blazing through the opponent bowling. He did not allow bowlers to get into their rhythm. Neither did he allow them to bowl when they wanted. These days we often see Jadeja finishing his overs within a minute and a half, rushing into the batsman for the next ball as the batsman has just defended the previous one. Effectively he minimizes the time for the batsman to think about what’s going around. Tendulkar however used to control the momentum of his own. At times he came down the wicket between deliveries and tapped gloves with his partner to make the bowler wait for a few extra seconds.

I remember another exemplary instance when Sachin forced the field changes. It was Shane Warne bowling to him from round the wicket with 4 close-in fielders around the bat. The idea was to exploit the pitch by bowling into the rough. The Little Master simply didn’t allow the ball to pitch. He came a foot ahead of his crease and met the balls on the full to hammer Warne for back to back horizontal batted sixes. As a result one of the fielders was moved from catching position to deep mid wicket and never did Warne come round the wicket against Sachin in that series.

Like New Zealand batsmen have stuck into their crease without going either forward nor back most of the time, had the same been tried against the likes of Murali, Warne, Kumble or even Harbhajan; they would simply eat you up in no time. So use of feet is a prerequisite at this level. What one can do with the proper use of his feet was perhaps best shown by VVS Laxman on his way to a majestic 281 at the Eden Gardens. He was ever so decisive whether he had to play a ball off the front foot or back foot. There was an instance of Laxman coming two and a half metres out of his crease to drive a good length ball past wide of mid on for four. The next ball Warne went for a shorter length with a higher trajectory, at this point realizing that he won’t be able to get to the pitch of the ball Laxman quickly moved onto the back-foot and pulled through mid-wicket. There was nothing wrong with the two deliveries; it was just an exhibition of top level batting against spin.

Kane Williamson was out to Ashwin more than once playing the false cut shot. A player of his quality is expected to learn from his previous mistakes whereas he repeated the same again. The balls were too close to cut and he was in no position to play the shot as he was limiting his option by closing down his body. He could have opened up to instead, something what Pujara did a number of times in the series by moving his front leg towards the leg umpire, hence creating the arc where he could place the ball. Also most of the Kiwis were found to be playing away from their bodies in an undeterministic manner. If you play away from your body you either need to have magical wrists like Azharuddin to help the ball along the gap, or may be perfect combo of balance and hand-eye coordination which allowed Sehwag to go through with his shots.

While up to this point I have mentioned only the names of some of the Indian players who are considered as phenomenal players of spin bowling. But we have also had some overseas players who perhaps could not manage to do all the aforesaid things in order, yet found other ways to survive and succeed on spinning tracks. Just as Michael Clarke used to make great use of his feet to nullify the turn or Kallis used to shuffle across the off stump or sometimes even take an off stump guard and work almost everything with the spin sitting on the back-foot. The important thing was that they had a plan to deal with the turning tracks. But it is highly surprising to see New Zealand batsmen not having such a Plan-B or C despite being aware of the fact that they could fall well short even after performing with all their might. They simply went down tamely without any significant fight with the bat, especially from their top order.

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