By V Ramnarayan
Rarely do we read sensible writing on spin bowling. A very popular—and completely nonsensical—cliché is the description of a slow bowler that he "varied line and length intelligently". Nothing could be more absurd. Unless you are express fast and can bowl a good bouncer, you never vary your length except to modify it to suit the reach and footwork of the batsman. A tall batsman demands a slightly shorter length than a short one or a predominantly backfoot player; otherwise a “good” length is sacrosanct, though a halfvolley is always a better delivery than a rank short ball.
As an off-spinner who began his career in the 1960s, I had partly intuitively been following precisely these bowling fundamentals. Both length and direction were unvaried in your arsenal of sharp off spin, faster deliveries, floaters and leg-cutters, not to mention the occasional outswinger, and this is something you learnt very early. My first mentor (excluding my cousin Venkatachalam who had often shared his cricket wisdom during conversations indoors when I was still in my arai nijar) had been medium pacer VV Rajamani, my senior in the Presidency College cricket team.
The one aspect Rajamani stressed was arm-speed from the top of my delivery stride to my finish (“that doesn’t mean you push the ball through; you whip the ball as if you were spinning a top; the arm comes down fast, but the ball travels in a parabolic loop”), with my left leg ramrod straight and right arm falling to the left of my left thigh. A pivoting action was essential on your delivery stride, and for this your left foot needed to grip the ground firmly. In all these years of cricket reading, I have not for decades come across a reference to arm speed, the Rajamani gem that helped me so much in my development as a spinner. (Among world class spinners, Shane Warne provides an exceptional example of this factor, his strong back and shoulders compensating in this regard for his short run-up; a longer, quicker run-up would normally provide the the necessary momentum).
In my adult life, I learnt some of my best bowling lessons from Hanumant Singh, the Rajasthan and India batsman under whose captaincy I played for State Bank of India for a couple of seasons in the 1970s. I made my debut for the bank’s all India team when he was captain; he softened the blow of my being dropped for the next game and final to make way for Rajender Goel, by complimenting my efforts and giving me some great insights into the game, spin bowling in particular. This is when he confirmed the correctness of my instinctive understanding of the game. “Whatever you are doing, bowling at your normal pace and trajectory, flighting the ball a little extra, pushing the ball through quicker, or bowling the wrong ‘un, make sure that the ball invariably lands on the same spot—same length, same line. This way the batsman is always in doubt, while you are giving nothing away by way of width or poor length.”
“Length is mandatory, while line is optional,” EAS Prasanna one of the best off-spinners of all time, has been quoted as saying. This could easily be misunderstood to mean that you can change your direction from ball to ball, over to over—unless you grasped the proper import of Prasanna’s words. No captain can set a field for you if you bowled on both sides of the wicket all the time. I believe Prasanna has other ideas: that you decide your line on the basis of the nature of the wicket, the amount of turn it is yielding, on whether you are attacking or defending, and on whether a right hander or left hander is batting. Once you decide your line of attack for the day (or the session in case conditions have suddenly changed), you pretty much to stick to it.
I played under a great captain for Hyderabad. Though there was not much spoken communication on the field between ML Jaisimha and the bowlers, all of us knew his cricket thinking and quickly learnt to bowl to his plans. For one thing, the field—sometimes extremely attacking—that he set for you clearly demanded a certain line of attack. Even on a typical first day wicket, he always gave the off-spinner two short legs—forward and backward. We would start with a slip, point, cover, mid-off , deep square leg, mid wicket and mid-on besides the two short-legs, with square leg the only deep fielder, some three quarters of the way to the boundary. All the other fielders except those in the close-in cordon were at single-saving distance from the bat. After a few overs, when he was confident I had settled down, he’d say, “All right, Ram?” and then proceed to bring in point to silly point, leaving that region totally unprotected. The field would then be slip, silly point, cover, mid-off, mid-on, mid-wicket, forward and backward short-legs and deep square leg. (You had to be absolutely accurate around off-stump; you simply could not afford to stray outside it the way you could with a less attacking offside field).
Once the batsman settled down, either slip or silly point was removed and only much later would a deep midwicket be added to the onside field, with the offside field reduced to point, cover and mid-off. Unless the batsmen really flourished and some 400 runs were on the board, the two short-legs were a constant. Even when one of them withdrew into the outfield, it was rarely the forward short-leg or bat-pad fielder that left his post.
This was a standard field deployed for a good off-spinner by the leading captains of the day, say Tiger Pataudi for India, Jaisimha for Hyderabad, V Subramanyam (succeeded by Prasanna) for Karnataka, or Venkataraghavan for Tamil Nadu. I have a serious suspicion that this kind of attacking field placement originated in the south, perhaps when Subramanyam was leading Karnataka, and evolved through brainstorming among all these greats of the period. And if I am not mistaken, this broadly speaking, is what Prasanna means when he says length is mandatory, line is optional).
On a turning wicket, you not only tried to spin the ball from outside the off-stump, but often went round the wicket to make the batsman play, once he started using the pads with no fear, thanks to the abundant deviation, of lbw. The trick was to still bowl around the same spot from round the wicket, the straighter angle forcing the batsman to play and increasing chances of leg before at least slightly. And a well-directed straight or away-going delivery from round the wicket could get you one of three kinds of dismissals: lbw, bowled, or a slip catch.
Playing in that era, you also learnt some superb lessons on how to bowl to left-hand batsmen from the aforesaid nawabs of cricket. Contrary to what many of today’s experts advocate, our seniors encouraged off-spinners to bowl over-the wicket, and maintain a strict leg-and-middle line, thus cramping the left-hander. You often had a forward short-leg to grab the bat-pad snicks, while you could still force an outer edge to slip, especially if the pitch offered some purchase.
In part two of this series, I hope to describe in some detail the great spinners of my era that I watched from afar as well as those I was fortunate enough to follow from very close quarters.