The greatest bowling pack in the history of cricket is said to have existed in the 1970s, when a West Indies team of four fearsome express pace bowlers—Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Colin Croft—terrorised and intimidated the rest of the world. But around the same time, a very different and to-this-day unique bowling attack emerged from the distant shores of India. Instead of relying on a combination of fast bowlers and spinners, as is the norm, India began fielding, both at spinning tracks in India and seaming tracks outside, what came to be known as the Indian Spin Quartet. Four spin bowlers, each of them distinct, and all masters of deception and guile, came to form one of the deadliest bowling combinations in the world. The classical left-arm spinner Bishan Bedi, the fast leg spinner Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, and off spinners Erapalli Prasanna and S Venkataraghavan took between them a total of 853 wickets, 18 more than the fearsome pace battery of Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft. If you needed courage and guts to face the West Indian bowlers, you needed skill and supreme powers of concentration to survive the Spin Quartet.
India had possessed quality spin bowlers in the past too, from the likes of Vinoo Mankad to Subhash Gupte. But the Quartet established India as the land of magical spin. Even after the members of the Quartet retired, there was almost always someone waiting in the ranks. Maninder Singh, Narendra Hirwani, Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju, Sunil Joshi, Harbhajan Singh—always around to replace one another and torment opposition batsmen. The Indian spinners often struggled in seaming conditions overseas. But on India’s dusty and sharp-turning pitches, they spoke in a language that only the most skilful batsmen could decipher.
But now a new transformation is afoot. In the land of spin, the very nature of the land is changing. Pitches in the country’s first class cricket tournament, the Ranji Trophy, are now lush with grass. The balls now seam and swing on the first few days, and, after they are rolled, tracks become flat wickets for batsmen to feast on runs in the following days. Many times, the pitches refuse to offer turn even on the fourth and fifth days, when tracks are traditionally supposed to start crumbling and aiding spinners.
This change in the nature of pitches has been quietly brought about after the Indian national team, struggling to bat against fast bowlers, lost eight consecutive Test matches in England and Australia in the 2011-12 season. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), in a bid to better prepare batsmen for foreign conditions, had issued instructions to pitch curators across the country to prepare wickets that help faster bowlers.
But, as the former leg spinner Hirwani puts it, this has led to an unexpected outcome. He says, “In the last few years, the quality of spin has rapidly declined. Indian spinners now actually struggle.”
In the recently concluded Test series in Australia, the highest wicket taker turned out to be a spinner, Australia’s Nathan Lyon. He took 23 wickets in four matches at a respectable bowling average of 34.82, running through India’s batting order in Adelaide with 12 wickets. In comparison, Ashwin, the more celebrated spin bowler, took only 12 wickets in three matches at an average of 48.66.
This has in fact been the case for a few years now. Less fancied spin bowlers from other countries now increasingly outperform their Indian counterparts, whether they play in India or overseas. Two years ago, when India played host to England, two English spinners, Graeme Swan and Monty Panesar, delivered their country a 2-1 Test series victory, taking a total of 37 wickets at an average of 25.70 runs. In contrast, the Indian spin duo of Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha took 34 wickets at an average of 39.82. The solo performance of the leader of the Indian attack, Ashwin, was even worse: he took 17 wickets at an average of 52.64. Last year, when India lost 1-3 to England in England, the English off spinner Moeen Ali alone picked up 19 wickets. In that same Test series, India’s two fancied spin bowlers, Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, taken together, could only manage 12 wickets. Apart from Ashwin, several spinners have made it to the national team over the years, from Ojha and Amit Mishra to Jadeja and, more recently, Karn Sharma. But except for Jadeja (who is more of an allrounder), almost all of them have fallen by the wayside.
During the India-Australia series, while analysing the poor quality of India’s spin bowling in the series for a TV show, former Indian spinner Murali Karthik claimed the malaise runs deep, right down to the country’s domestic circuit. “You will not find any spin bowler in the domestic circuit who loops or spins the ball in a big way. It is tragic but gradually the art of spin bowling is declining. The pitches are now just grassy and aid seam bowling.” On the same show, Rahul Dravid pointed out how even in his home state’s Ranji team, Karnataka, the role of the spin bowler has been reduced, saying, “During this year’s Ranji tournament, Karnataka’s young spinner Shreyas Gopal got to bowl a total of just 35 overs in four matches. How can a spinner ever learn his art if this is the way he is used?”
In the last three seasons of the Ranji Trophy, after the BCCI diktat to pitch curators regarding tracks that help seam bowlers came into effect, very few spinners have done well. In the 2012-13 season, only a single spinner—the left- arm spinner from Jharkhand, Shahbaz Nadeem—made it to the list of top 5 wicket takers. There was no spinner in that list of five top wicket takers the next season. In this season’s matches so far, spinners have fared even worse. At the time of writing this article— 20 January—there is a solitary spinner in the list of top 10 highest wicket takers. Malolan Rangarajan, a 25-year-old off- spinner from Tamil Nadu, made a late entry at seventh in the list, with seven of his 25 wickets coming in the last match against Uttar Pradesh in Chennai. The southern city with its red soil and heat is still known to favour spinners compared to cities elsewhere. If you expand that list to the top 20 wicket taking bowlers, just one more spinner makes the cut, the slow left-arm bowler Swapnil Singh from Baroda, who is ranked at 18. That makes it just two spinners among the top 20 bowlers in a tournament known to favour spinners.
The more prominent names of spin bowling seem to be all but lost in the wilderness. Amit Mishra, who plays for Haryana, has taken only five wickets in four matches this season. Piyush Chawla has eight wickets in five games. Harbhajan Singh, India’s most successful off-spinner with 413 Test wickets, is trying to make a comeback to the national team, but has only two wickets in two matches. Ojha took four wickets in three matches before his bowling action was found to be illegal and he was banned.
“There was a time when every Ranji side had a quality spinner,” says Bedi. “These spinners weren’t any less than those that played for the country. Through- out the Ranji tournament, they bowled the most overs. They took the most wickets. And when they bowled, you could even hear the ball spinning in the air.” “But now,” he adds, “every slow bowler just bowls flat and fast.”
Praveen Tambe, the 42-year-old leg- spinner from Mumbai, who played two matches for Mumbai in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy before he was dropped for this season, asks, “Commentators and experts on TV say we spinners should flight and spin the ball. But do you know how tough that is now on these pitches?” “If we do as they ask and get hit around, the captains immediately remove us from the attack.” According to Tambe, almost all pitches in India now sport around 4 mm of grass on the first day. This means the seam bowlers have the upper hand for the first two days. By the third day, because of the use of heavy rollers throughout the course of the match, the wickets become flat and easy to bat on. “There is no turn or variable bounce. There is sometimes no turn on the fourth day also. There aren’t even footmarks to exploit,” Tambe says.
Recently, unlike cricketers who are known to be reticent about speaking against BCCI policies, Harbhajan Singh protested against the Board’s policy of preparing seamer-friendly pitches. “I don’t have an issue with leaving grass on the wicket. But we shouldn’t leave so much grass where even a 120-kmph bowler appears like Malcolm Marshall… Our wickets make such bowlers look unplayable. Some of these bowlers end up picking 50 wickets in a season. So you can’t ignore them. When such a bowler is picked for international cricket, he gets exposed while bowling on a slightly drier surface. The ball doesn’t reach the batsman,” he told the cricket web portal Cricinfo. “There should be help for bowlers but if a batsman applies himself he should also be able to score big. And on the fourth-fifth days, spinners should come into play.”
According to a top official of the BCCI who is involved with curators for preparing pitches for domestic matches, the change in the nature of wickets has improved the ‘quality’ of cricket in the country. “The grounds and pitches are much better these days. There are more results in Ranji matches as compared to before when boring draws were the order of the day. Even the batsmen are now better batters against seam bowling, as seen in the way Indian batsmen played Australia this time,” he says, requesting anonymity.
The official points out how there are now seminars and courses for pitch curators to attend, and how pitch and ground conditions are closely monitored. “Yes, the spinners are doing poorly this season. But that’s also because the Ranji Trophy this year is being held in winter, where fast bowlers get more help,” he says. When it is pointed out that this has been occurring for the last few years, even when the tournament was not held during the winter, he says, “I agree this is a concern and we’re trying to work out what can be done to ensure spinners also get help.” From the next few matches onwards, according to the official, the liberal use of heavy rollers to level the pitch will be discontinued. “We are going to ensure that a roller is not used until cracks are visible on a pitch. Even then, we will not allow the roller to go over the pitch more than four times. This will ensure that the pitch doesn’t become flat and assists the bowlers.”
According to Aushik Srinivas, a left arm spinner who plays for Tamil Nadu, the role of the slow bowler is rapidly changing in Indian cricket: “The spin bowler is no more an attacking option. He is the one who contains runs and enables fast bowlers [to] catch a breath.” In order to minimise the flow of runs, Srinivas says, spinners reduce the spin and flight of the ball. This may reduce their chances of taking wickets, but allows them to be more accurate. As Srinivas points out, most teams now field around three seamers, an allrounder who can bowl medium pace, and a single spinner. “[Fast bowlers] bowl when the ball is new and moving, and with the old ball when it is reverse swinging. We spinners just get a few overs in between when the fast bowlers need to rest,” he says.
Bedi claims the lure of Twenty20 has also played a major role in the decline of spin bowling. “Everybody wants an IPL contract, where you have to contain runs. Spin bowling is all about learning your craft over a period of time. I used to practise for six to seven hours daily when I used to play. You can’t learn spin bowling by delivering just four overs in a T20 match,” he says.
When asked what will happen to spin bowling in the future, the former left arm member of the famed Indian Spin Quartet appears furious. “Just let that be,” he says. “You don’t care about it. I don’t care about it. Nobody cares two hoots about it.”