A few months ago, Pakistan Cricket Board’s very active social media team released a “drool video” for fantasy cricket fans. Babar Azam challenged Saqlain Mushtaq during a training session. The post-Pakistani team’s netting contest involving the coach and captain had some lessons, along with the obvious entertainment of kicks and laughs. Babar would be perplexed on the third ball – under pressure to hit the pre-set target, the wily Saqlain anticipated the world’s best batsman’s reckless exit from the crease mishap.
— Pakistani Cricket (@TheRealPCB) October 29, 2021
It’s not the usual lamentation over the fall of batting standards with particular disregard for today’s batting superstars. Nor is it an irrational judgment based on just-for-fun training time between stars separated by generations. It was an episode that tickled the thinking mind, it was a red flag for game stakeholders.
While the impact of T20 cricket on batsmen – it ruins their technique – and pacers – it increases their workload by forcing injuries – has been consistently highlighted, spinners have gone largely unnoticed and unwatched. Play T20, play flat, be thrifty, take cash, go home. Come back for testing, play on ruined tracks, grab wickets, grab cash, go home.
Recent Test matches in the subcontinent have sparked a worrying trend for Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Unlike India who had the spinners and pitches to be formidable at home, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were deemed lacking.
Lanka had no spinners in the class of Murali and Herath, for Pakistan the problem was deeper. They didn’t have quality spinners either, and they also seem to have forgotten the fine art of pitching that provides home-court advantage. The tracks in the Pakistan-Australia series weren’t evil or devilish turners, they were purely dead. Not just the spinners, even the curators had forgotten the nuance of the cricket test. Beyond the tests, there were bigger issues.
Blinded by the T20 ecosystem’s love of mystery spinners, has the subcontinent turned its back on those conventional slow and sneaky bowlers? In our constant search for the next Rashid Khan or Sunil Narine, spinners with no real Test record against top teams, will we continue to give breaks to players like Varun Chakravarty, bowlers with no real future in the longer version of the sport ? And more worryingly since most talent scouting is done by T20 franchise owners, can they be trusted to unearth the next R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja?
Throwback to the Pakistani net session, and the Saqlain vs Babar duel, the Sly vs Sharp head-to-head for the ages. Between smiles and laughter, Saqlain dared Babar to take 12 more points as he shared the exact position of his imaginary defenders. The GOAT office had a long, long out of the fence, no protection on the point and the square boundary. A cut and a pull could give Babar a four, a well-connected straight shot lofted a six.
Before Saqlain’s first ball, Babar talks to the camera about things on his mind – the slow pitch, the doosra and a few jokes about being respectful to elders. Saqlain is by far not the fittest 45-year-old. The elk still has the characteristic stutter, shuffling and sideways approach. His first two balls underline the popular belief in cricket – master spinners can lose sting but not accuracy. Saqlain just keeps it going – not short enough for Babar to exploit the vacant area of coverage nor full enough for him to take it on the half volley.
Now it’s Saqlain’s turn to share his thoughts with the camera. The conditions are not to his liking, the ground is flat, the ball is not suitable for rotations and Babar has not been adventurous. It’s not a lament, not a list of excuses, it’s not even an early warning of impending failure. It’s cricket’s best brains analyzing the data, showing there’s more to spin-bowling than spinning the ball on a crumbling lane.
“The captain remains in the enclosure. The ball is wet, so even if I let it go, or give a tear, nothing is going to happen. But I’ll try to get it out of the crease by straying wide from the stump,” Saqlain said, twinkling eyes betraying the overworked mind. Babar isn’t a one-dimensional player – he’s an old-school batsman with the adaptability to play any format. He looks for clues in the pitcher’s hands but with Saqlain it’s not easy.
As promised, the coach throws the ball wide. He’s also shorter, which he didn’t reveal. Babar dances on the track to meet the ball and send it long. Not on Saqlain’s watch. Babar’s wild swing is futile, the ball comes late. Babar is perplexed for 3, far from the target of 12 runs. The old fox celebrates, the young champion lets out a cry of agony. It’s checkmate. Soon there are laughs and hugs.
As Babar hoped, he had someone like Saqlain by his side. Pakistan, famous for the last of the express stimulators, has always had pioneering world-class spinners. The late Shane Warne, strange to write this, had a session with Abdul Qadir to learn the intricacies of leg rotation. Imran Khan’s love of pacers is well known, but he was also the biggest proponent of creative wrist spinners. Qadir won him several tests, Mushtaq Ahmed played a big role in the 1992 World Cup. If Mushtaq followed Qadir, Saeed Ajmal filled the void of Saqlain. Current Pakistan national team spinners Nuaman Ali and Sajjid Khan, as was evident in the tests against Australia, could not compete with Qadir, Mushtaq, Saqlain or Ajmal.
The test match spin bowling required elaborate setups. T20 wickets are easier, batters take risks and are mostly on offense. In the tests, they have time ahead of them, they are not in a hurry, their brains rarely fade. Getting the edge of the bat close to the pad is much more difficult than when it’s in the middle of a wild swing. Rashid’s test figures of the most wanted spinner in T20 cricket against India is Exhibit A. In his 34.5 overs, he made 154 runs and took 2 wickets, one of them being Ishant Sharma .
Spinners need variations, like Saqlain’s doosra or Ashwin’s carrom ball, but they need a plan that would help them outrun a defensive batter offering a dead bat on an unresponsive track. Something Saqlain did against Babar. He forced him to change his mind, he instigated him, he pulled him to him and failed him.
Raw pace is common ammunition for T20 and Test captains, and it’s why franchise owners spend crores on speedsters. In India and Pakistan, the T20 leagues have produced quality international leaders. What Mumbai India was to Bumrah, Lahore Qalandars are to Harris Rauf and Shaheen Shah Afridi, Pakistan’s top point guards. They were spotted and cared for by Qalandars trainer and mentor Aqib Javed. Spinners do not receive such attention or dedicated talent search operations.
— BCCI (@BCCI) March 14, 2022
India currently has two all-size spinners, but what about the bench? UP’s left arm, Saurabh Kumar, has been waiting in the wings for a while, he was recently part of the test squads. A classic left arm spinner, it is highly rated by Bishan Singh Bedi. It’s a work in progress that can possibly be a spinner for any format, any surface.
So, like Jasprit Bumrah, will he receive guidance from top spin coaches around the world. Who will be his John Wright, Lasith Malinga, Shane Bond? Any.
Saurabh was not sold at this year’s auction. He was not worth investing in, instead a franchise, KKR, opted for someone who was famous on the Punjab tennis ball circuit as Narine Jalalabadiya. KKR’s mentors will work on him to become the next big mystery spinner. Naturally, the fact that he has no Testing future is not their watch.
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National Sports Editor
The Indian Express