IND v ENG 2021: Batsmen still have no answers to the left-arm spinner’s natural variation

Moeen Ali has tormented India with the one that goes straight on

Axar Patel kept things simple, and still bowled England out for 112

In what is a curious trend in modern-day cricket, the top international teams field wrist-spinners in the white-ball formats while reserving finger-spinners for the longest version of the game.

India have Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav in the limited-overs teams, while Ravichandran Ashwin is the lead spinner in Tests. England have Adil Rashid in ODIs and T20Is, while Jack Leach and Dom Bess are the frontline Test tweakers.

The same pattern manifests itself in the other top teams. Australia? Nathan Lyon and Adam Zampa. South Africa? Tabraiz Shamsi and Keshav Maharaj. New Zealand? Ish Sodhi and Mitchell Santner.

It’s certainly interesting to explore why this phenomenon occurs. The most obvious explanation is that finger-spinners have greater control over their bowling, and can be trusted to land the ball in the same place at least 5 balls in an over.

Of course, there have been exceptions. Two of the three leading wicket-takers in Test history are leg-spinners – Shane Warne and Anil Kumble. But the general idea behind backing finger-spinners in Test cricket is rooted in the concept of control.

Left-arm spinners in particular have been incredibly potent in red-ball cricket. Mitchell Santner, Ravindra Jadeja, Shakib Al Hasan, Jack Leach, Lasith Embuldeniya, Keshav Maharaj, Nauman Ali – almost every international side has fielded one in the recent past.

This leads us to ask whether there are reasons other than control behind teams preferring to field finger-spinners (especially left-arm spinners) in Test cricket.

In the most general sense of the term, natural variation refers to a change that hasn’t been consciously made by the bowler.

For example, the arm ball that left-arm spinners bowl is called so because it goes straight on with the angle instead of turning, even if the bowler delivered it with the intention of generating spin.

This is not to say that the left-arm spinner doesn’t have any control over it whatsoever. In fact, after taking 6 wickets against England in the 3rd Test in Ahmedabad, Axar Patel insisted that he learned how to bowl the delivery on his own and mastered it.

“I have learnt the arm ball myself. I worked with Venkat Sir (Venkatapathy Raju) at the NCA to master this delivery. I was a fast bowler in the early days of my career, which is why my bowling style is a bit quicker. So, I think my experience of being a fast-bowler also helps me bowl arm balls,” said Patel.

But in the past, we’ve seen various instances of bowlers letting their wrists and the pitch do the talking.

Moeen Ali tormented India on their tour of England a few years ago, with a number of off-breaks holding their line and catching the edge of right-handers’ bats on the way to slip.

Ravindra Jadeja himself is a wonderful exponent of the arm ball, while fellow left-arm spinner Rangana Herath scalped a considerable number of wickets with the same variation.

The arm ball is very successful, and mostly in Test cricket. This is mainly because batsmen in the longest version of the game are defense-first. But in the limited-overs formats, they play an array of cross-batted shots – which are largely unfazed by turn (or lack thereof) – with abandon.

When there’s not much turn on offer, it might be possible for batsmen to play with a straight bat and still survive the arm ball. After all, there’s not much sideways movement to account for, and the worst-case scenario will be a thickish edge which won’t be a problem if played with soft hands.

But when there’s a lot of turn on offer, or even occasional sharp turn like the 3rd Test in Ahmedabad, it becomes next to impossible for batsmen to counter. The safest option would be to play a cross-batted shot like the sweep and negate turn completely, but that’s easier said than done against bowlers like Axar who are quick through the air.

The natural tendency of most batsmen will be to play a defensive shot with a straight bat. If they are not to the pitch of the ball or deep in the crease, they are sitting ducks.

England’s first innings on Day 1 was a perfect example of the same. 7 of the 10 wickets to fall were either bowled or LBW.

Zak Crawley and Jonny Bairstow were dismissed in almost identical fashion after contrasting innings, with the arm ball zipping past their forward defense and cannoning into their pads. Jofra Archer and Ben Foakes suffered the same fate on the backfoot, but saw the ball evade their pads and crash into the stumps instead.

Even Ollie Pope, who you would’ve thought was safe from such a dismissal against an off-spinner in Ashwin, saw his timber disturbed. Ashwin cleverly switched to around the wicket, and a teasing top-spinner drifted across the right-hander before zoning in on the top of off.

England’s batsmen aren’t exactly proficient against spin, but India met with the same problems. Cheteshwar Pujara bagged a four-ball duck, caught in front of the stumps by Leach. Virat Kohli got a ball that didn’t turn as much as he expected it to, with the resultant inside-edge dislodging the bails.

On a wicket that didn’t offer great degrees of turn on a regular basis, both Indian and English spinners got wickets from balls that threatened to turn but didn’t. They perfectly exemplified why finger-spinners have been so successful in Test cricket.

The commentators, including one of the greatest-ever players of spin in Sunil Gavaskar, suggested that the English batsmen play for the arm ball. Their logic was that even if the ball turned, it was more likely to beat the bat than catch the edge. But that obviously isn’t a sustainable strategy in the long run.

The arm ball is a deadly weapon, but it isn’t unplayable. It requires decisive foot movement, a keen eye and complete confidence in the occasional attacking shot. It’s just a question of whether modern-day batsmen are equipped to tackle such a subtle variation, especially when they don’t encounter it often in white-ball cricket.

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