It has been said time and again that sub-continental batsmen are the best players of spin; there would be only a few who wouldn’t subscribe to that thought. Yet, about 70% wickets (out of 28) have fallen to spin during the first 3 days of the test between Sri Lanka and Pakistan at Galle; either the track is a rank-turner and the bowling exceptional or the batting skills inadequate. Quality bowling could be a reason but this is only the half side of the story; scoreboard pressure and nature of the pitch has got a lot to do with those numbers!
Who are the leading spinners in world cricket at the moment? Harbhajan? Vettori? Swann? Ajmal? or somebody else? Harbhajan is out of the Indian side for almost a year now, Vettori has become more of an all-rounder, Swann and Ajmal hold promise but would need to deliver something special to join the league of Murali, Warne, Kumble & co. So is world cricket devoid of players to carry the legacy of Bedi, Chandrashekhar, Underwood, Benaud, Qadir forward? If that is indeed the case then it is a serious threat, for that implies the slow extinction of an important facet of the game!
T20 cricket and the powerplay rule to ODI cricket could be looked upon as the turning point for the spinners’ community. It was speculated that spinners would find it difficult to adapt to the new format. 7 years since the first T20I you find that the projection has indeed realized. Spinners had, have and will continue to have a role in limited overs cricket, for more often than not it is the batsmen that make the move in pursuit of runs, thereby providing opportunities. Test cricket is a completely different avatar altogether, where the bowlers have to be penetrator and matches are won only after the opponent has been dismissed twice. By featuring in colored clothes more often spinners across the globe have allowed their natural ability to be overtaken by demands of scoreboard run-rates. The soft seam Kookabura and Dukes balls aren’t helping the spinners either; the effects are visible and evident.
Spinners are expected to be less effective during the first innings of a test match, yet Murali, Warne & Kumble lead the list of bowlers with most wickets in the first innings. The art of spin bowling isn’t meant to be based on support from the track. Variety in arsenal shouldn’t constitute alterations in pace and length only. A spinner shouldn’t be the bowler to bowl you through the day, but somebody who can be your attacking option at any point in the day. Saqlain Mushtaq discovered the ‘doosra’ but the game hasn’t seen any 'major' innovation thereafter. Spin bowling has to be about unpredictability, guile, forming a web, relentless persistence and not about bowling flat after a couple of hits, negative line, bowling to good economic rates with the field spread.
Bowling quality in general has dropped down few notches from where likes of Akram, Donald, Warne, Murali yet names like Steyn, Anderson, Philander, Zaheer reassure that seam and swing bowling isn’t dropping off too drastically. Flatter decks, shorter formats, newish balls for a longer period, shorter boundaries, and defensive captaincy has become the trend after the advent of T20 cricket. Today spin bowlers are meant to ‘squeeze-in’ economical overs and dry up the boundaries, rather than being the wicket-taker in the side. For the generation that grew up watching likes of Murali, Warne, Kumble the craft of spin bowling was an integral part of cricket watching. It could be that the change had to come at some point, yet you cannot forget Saqlain’s deceptive ‘doosra’, long spells from Kumble, Murali’s ability to run through a line-up and Warne’s jaw-dropping deliveries. For fans expecting to see 5 men round the bat when a spinner is bowling might soon become a rare sight, as almost every spinner today marks his run-up with an eye on the number of fielders on the boundary line, maybe that’s the way it shall be!