Ashwin, Jadeja And The Magic Of Spin

Spin bowling is physical, though it doesn’t always show. It takes a strong body to impart 2000-plus revolutions per minute on a ball. And yes, it is artistic too.

The Jadeja-Ashwin duo claimed 15 wickets between them against Australia in the 1st Test at Nagpur.

Indian cricket is thankful for at last being in a position where it has adequate pace bowling rations. But even at such a time, there is something about spin that brings out the cricket romantic among fans. Fast bowling is exciting. It is essential for success. But spin has more variety and hand skill to it. India’s rich history in the department, thanks to masters of the turn like Vinoo Mankad and the 70s quartet (Bedi, Chandra, Venkat and Prasanna), makes spin almost a component of the Indian genetic makeup.

And while spin may be perceived as second in hierarchy to pace, three of the four highest wicket-takers in the world in Tests are spinners (Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble). Murali also leads the charts in ODI cricket. Tim Southee is the highest wicket-taker in T20 Internationals, but it is spinners at spots No. 2, 3 and 4 (Shakib Al Hasan, Rashid Khan and Ish Sodhi).

Spin was at the forefront yet again in Nagpur last week, when Ravindra Jadeja, 34, and R Ashwin, 36, employed the art to telling effect against Australia. Both took five-wicket hauls. Their contrasting skills added to the joy of watching them. One bowled left-arm spin, the other off-spin. And that is just a basic definition of what they do.

Beyond basic descriptors are myriad variations a spinner bowls that he himself might not be able to put a number on. There is finger spin and wrist spin, the traditional leg-break or off-break, the googly and the

‘doosra’, the flipper, the slider, the Chinaman and carrom ball and lots more. Before Australia’s memorable tour of India in 1998, there was an advertisement with a range of road signs – right turn, left turn, hairpin, zig zag – with the words ‘Caution: Shane Warne Ahead’.

Spinners not only make the ball do things after bouncing but also before. They get it to drift. Or to suddenly drop short on a batsman expecting a half-volley. The great Bishan Bedi could even make it hang in the air a fraction longer.

How much a spinner plots could be gleaned from Marnus Labuschagne’s analysis of Ashwin. It was like playing chess, said the Aussie, the only Australian batsman along with Steve Smith to show some resistance to the Indian attack in Nagpur.

“That’s what I like about Ashwin. His thoughts about the game, the way he tries to get you out in a certain area. But also the way he might not go to that area early. So, he might be attacking you on the inside edge for a while and then he’ll bowl that one which he undercuts and slides away and get you caught first slip. He’ll keep mixing it up, where most other bowlers will just try and bowl their best ball,” said Labuschagne.

Jadeja’s strengths are his accuracy and stamina. The latter has led the likes of Ashwin and Ian Chappell to commend his athleticism. Gone are the days of tubby spinners, who in the evening would get busy at the bar with what Sunil Gavaskar once called “wrist exercises” (the act of raising a glass to the lips). Contemporary spinners know exactly what muscle to work and strengthen. You need strong arms, palms and knuckles to grip and turn the ball at over 2000 revolutions per minute. The fingers of Bapu Nadkarni, the 60s left-arm spinner, and a few other tweakers, became permanently bent in service to their craft. Turns out the hip is crucial for spinners as well. In 2019, Loughborough University, UK, studied the actions of spinners and came to this conclusion. This led many players, Ashwin included, to open their hips at the time of delivery.

In Nagpur, Jadeja also used the crease well and showed his variations. Ian Chappell was especially impressed by his dismissal of Labuschagne, whom Jadeja got to go for a drive and end up getting stumped.

“He used flight to entice Labuschagne into playing a cover drive. It was an indication how much Jadeja has improved, beyond just being one of those bowlers who darts the ball in very accurately,” Chappell told a cricket portal. “Now he can spin the odd one, flight the odd one. There is a lot to his bowling.”

Bharat Arun, India’s previous bowling coach, had once said about Jadeja, "If you see most left-arm spinners, they'll go wide of the crease and bowl. They can hardly use the crease. But his [Jadeja’s] action is so good that it allows him to use the crease at will. It adds a lot of dimension to your bowling, because you're spinning at different angles, the ball behaves differently from different angles. Not many bowlers have it."

The second Test starts on Friday in Delhi. And it offers us another chance to see the magic they call spin.