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A Swann among the geese

Doosras, carom balls, hyper extension of arm – these are a few of the terms that have been associated with the art of off spin bowling since the end of the 90s. In the mid 90s, when limited overs cricket became a dominant force, spin bowling hit a reality check. Heavier bats, field restrictions, smaller boundaries and stricter laws saw spin bowlers face immense humiliation in front of the big hitting mercenaries. Even though leg spin was still considered an attacking option, off spin was demoted to being a weapon of mere containment.

“Bowl it flat, don’t concede runs…” were the general instructions for the poor offies. Then a certain Saqlain Mushtaq came along, took the game by the scruff of the neck and twisted his wrist to turn the fate of the upcoming off spinners in a totally doosra way.

According to the legendary “Spin Doctor”, the late Terry Jenner, a leg spinner is born with talent and is a special breed. True, leg spinners are special. Tougher to pick and blessed with more variety. Adorned with googlies, flippers and straighter-ones, leg spin was more like a multiplex while off spin had to rely on the classical incoming delivery with the occasional arm-ball thrown in. But not any more. Inevitably, like all single screens, the art of off spin too underwent a complete makeover. Muttiah Muralitharan, Ajantha Mendis, R. Ashwin, Sunil Narine, Saeed Ajmal and the latest Akila Dhananjay have spun their webs to elevate off spinners to Hitchcock mode.

However, in this age of “mystery” spinners, there’s one man who’s stuck to the conventional way of bowling off spin – Graeme Swann. Regarded as one of the best spinners of the world, Swann is, thankfully, different. The Englishman neither bowls the doosra nor the carom ball and the umpires don’t have to worry about the angle of his arm. In short, there’s no mystery about him.

His strengths – simplicity, accuracy and patience. His repertoire – the old fashioned flight, drift, loop, dip and turn.

What works for Swann is that he keeps it simple. In this age of T20 cricket, bowlers look to surprise the batsmen with a wide range of variety. If the batsman has the reverse sweep, the Dil-Scoop, the switch hit for assault, the bowlers have the doosra, the split finger delivery, the back of the hand slower one and of course, the carom ball to counter with. Swann, however, works with simpler weapons. He bowls only conventional off spin. He concentrates on using the width of the crease, the release and the revolutions imparted on the ball. His art is more concerned with the index finger and the thumb rather than giving it a flick with the middle. His height coupled with a high arm action helps him extract enough bounce to fox the batsman.

The first test match against India bore testimony to his skill. He pitched it outside the off stump, relentlessly, and troubled all the Indian batsmen except Cheteswar Pujara. While Gautam Gambhir looked all at sea, Virender Sehwag and Virat Kohli paid the price of not picking the length. However, the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar showed the class of the man. After sweeping him to the square leg fence, Tendulkar tried to loft him over mid on. The shot was on since the ball was around the off stump but the drift took the ball “in” towards the middle. The sudden dip and turn caught the inside half of Tendulkar’s bat and the ball nested comfortably in Samit Patel’s hands at deep midwicket.

What makes him better than others is his performance in the sub-continent. Though the pitches are more conducive to spinners here, not many tweakers from foreign lands have been able to make an impression. Even the great Shane Warne went back torn and tattered with nightmares of Tendulkar dancing down the track. But Swann has been a striking exception. He bowled well in Sri Lanka, Dubai and now in India too. Agreed, he has gone for a few sometimes but his patience and accuracy have been rewarded with rich returns. He has bowled against batsmen who have ended careers of many a bowler and has come up triumphs.

Swann is a now the most successful off-spinner that England has ever produced. He is perhaps one of the few estranged species of proper Test cricket left. He takes you back to an era where good cricket was greeted with applause and not by screeching loud music of the DJs. When asked about his lack of mystery, he honestly replied

“If I could bowl mystery balls, I would. But I’m too long in the tooth and too old. With me what you see is what you get. I just rely on patience and hard work to get my wickets.”                                  

Swann might not be labeled as a “Mystery Bowler” but according to the great EAS Prasanna, an off spinner’s biggest mystery is his guile. And Swann has plenty of it. His biggest achievement is that he has brought the classic back into fashion. Flighting the ball is cool again thanks to him. He needs to be preserved and taken care of, else the coming generation might not know what the term “giving it air” means!

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