Indian spinners - A bare cupboard and an empty bench
A young Harbhajan Singh bowls to Shane Warne. A sea of fielders are chirping around. A buzzing Eden Gardens cheers in the background. Warne pokes and prods at the ball. Sadagoppan Ramesh at short-leg holds on to the catch. A magical moment unveils as waves of ecstasy sweeps across India. A cricketing nation matures and graduates to the next level.
That magic has, unforunately, gradually weaned and disappeared as India has grown from a valiant fighter to a world champion.
Whenever India loses a couple of matches on the trot, the ‘fix the blame’ games start immediately. And often, the buck stops at either a batsman who has had a flimsy average to show in the past year or a fast bowler who has been hit all over the park for a match too many. While most of the arguments against these non-performers are justified, many blame games pertain to superficial issues. If one batsman is not performing well, then two are equally capable on the bench to replace him.
As a team, Indian has never had faced problems concerning dearth of the batting. On the other hand, fast bowling has never been India’s forte. What is worrying at this juncture in the backdrop of India’s displaced No.1 ranking is the bare cupboard of Indian spinners.
The picture isn’t rosy at all. Ashwin has struggled to find form for some time now, and Jadeja’s left-arm darts have stopped garnering wickets. To his credit, Ashwin has been the fastest to 100 wickets in Tests for India and his rise has reflected in many home series wins India have bagged under MS Dhoni.
However, in the 50-over format, Ashwin has never been the go-to spinner for the skipper. Jadeja and before him, Yuvraj used to provide the crucial breakthroughs in the middle overs. But both Ashwin and Jadeja have looked different bowlers outside India. It would also be an exaggeration to call Ashwin and Jadeja incompetent outside the subcontinent as they have had some quality performances too. The problem is in fact deep-rooted.
India has always been a country known for its spinners. Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivasaraghavan Venkatraghavan, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Bishan Singh Bedi, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan have been unplayable wizards in their peaks. The best phases of their careers have seen teams bundling out and batsmen apprehensively defending surrounded by a fort of short-legs and close-in fielders.
The visual delight of an Indian spinner completely confounding the opposition has been a rarity for quite some time now. Ojha’s heroics in Test matches have had glimpses of those times, and Mishra’s leggies have flattered to deceive. Since Kumble’s retirement, India’s spin troubles have been compounded by Harbhajan’s lean form. Murali Kartik and Piyush Chawla have made several comebacks only to fall by the wayside. Rahul Sharma too made an appearance along Ashwin but never left a mark in selectors’ mind.
Further, Yuvraj and Sehwag’s exit from team has meant lack of a fifth bowler, who helped squeeze out partnership-breaking wickets for Ganguly in ODIs. Jadeja, though bagged a lot of wickets in 2013, has looked far from formidable. His slow left-arm might look bland when India takes guard at the WC 2015. The signs of that have been already visible in New Zealand.
If we scratch below these layers, the issue worsens. The domestic performers haven’t been much encouraging. Parvez Rasool has made some buzz in the ongoing Ranji season and his batting skills can push his case. But Rasool isn’t a classic off-spinner, rather more of a street smart spinner who keeps trying to outwit the batsman. Given the lack of options, he might get a look into the Indian squad before the WC 2015 campaign.
Besides Rasool, the performances from Mishra, Shadab Jakati, and Jalaj Saxena have been few and far in between. The sudden dearth of spinning options has meant easy runs for oppositions and a looming trouble for Dhoni.
Till now, spinners, both part time and frontline, did the repairing work after pacers took a beating in the shorter format. But when Dhoni’s go-to men have stopped looking as potential wicket-takers, the batsmen have started to fall short of mammoth targets.
As India fights it out this year on foreign lands, the batsmen and pacers will come under the scanner quite often. But somewhere behind them in the queue are spinners who have no one to threaten their incumbency if their spin magic fails to weave. Ahead of the 2015 campaign, India has no choice but to hope that Ashwin and Jadeja show some form.
The cupboard is bare and the bench empty.