Home >Opinion >The fine art of deception still matters in cricket

The literary scholar and cricket writer Sujit Mukherjee once used the first Indian treatise on politics to explain what makes spin bowling special. “Of the three strategies of overthrowing the enemy recommended in Arthashastra—deception, might, cunning—two could be used to describe the essential nature of spin bowling in cricket," he wrote.

The spin bowler cannot depend on brute force to get the batsman out. He has to deceive him. So it is nothing but a pleasant surprise to see spin bowlers do so well in the Indian Premier League (IPL); nobody had expected the trundlers to have an impact on games dominated by attacking batsmen, heavy bats and short boundaries. Four of the top 10 most successful bowlers in IPL 2013 by 11 May—the day this column was written—were spinners.

Some of the IPL teams this summer have taken the field with two spinners. The Mumbai Indians: Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha. Chennai Super Kings: Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Kolkata Knight Riders: Sunil Narine and Iqbal Abdulla. Leg spinners such as Amit Mishra of Sunrisers Hyderabad and Piyush Chawla of Kings XI Punjab have been regulars in their sides. Away from the IPL, superb spinners such as Graeme Swann and Daniel Vettori are on the job.

The beauty of spin bowling is that it involves a double deception: first in the air and then off the wicket. One of the finest displays of such double deception remains etched in my mind: the masterly Bishan Singh Bedi versus the twinkle-toed Kim Hughes. Bedi was never afraid to give the ball air while Hughes was always eager to step out of his crease to meet the ball.

Bedi first kept Hughes impatiently rooted to the crease—till the magical over began. The first ball was tossed up. Out stepped Hughes. The ball soared over the bowler’s head for a six. The next ball was also given air. Hughes was out like a flash to drive it away for four. Then that third ball in a sequence that was all planned in the wily Bedi’s head: He bowled one just short of a length. Hughes leaned back to cut the ball for another boundary. The ball dipped sharply, hurried off the pitch and crashed into the off stump—an armer. Bedi had his man with the double deception: in the air and off the wicket.

Great spinners such as Bedi could vary their deliveries with no perceptible change in their bowling action. He bowled in what was widely expected to be the twilight of his art, a time when the four-pronged West Indian pace battery had seemingly shown a future without spin bowlers. The rise of the great trio—Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Anil Kumble—brought spin back into the game, in almost a karmic cycle of rebirth.

The success of the younger lot of spinners in the IPL matches is thus reason for hope. A lot has changed as far as bowling styles go. It is no longer as easy to give prodigious flight to the ball, as the Bedi generation did, when the batsman at the other end is always ready to jump out of the crease to give the ball a good whack.

One part of the double-deception act, of beating the batsman in the air, may necessarily have to be blunted because of the demands of Twenty20 (T20) cricket. In his classic discourse on leadership, The Art of Captaincy, former England captain Mike Brearley argued that the art of beating the batsman in the air is especially useful on unhelpful wickets where the ball does not turn. The IPL bowlers usually bowl on unhelpful wickets that are prepared to help batsman score at will. Yet the short boundaries make it difficult for the spinners to give the ball air. That they have been able to succeed despite these two handicaps is a testimony to the skill on display.

I am not of the view that the flighted ball will be lost to cricket; it will perhaps become less common. Spinners have become quicker through the air, something that purists often hold against the current generation. But cricket has a long history on spin bowlers who did not flight the ball—men such as Sidney Barnes, G.A. Lohmann, Derek Underwood and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. What seems to have been lost in terms of flight has perhaps been made up by the sheer variety of display: the traditional spin, the googly, the flipper, the doosra and the carrom ball, for example. Watching Narine mix them up is a delight. During this IPL season, I have even seen spinners bowl a couple of deliveries “seam-up" in the style of a medium-pace bowler.

Most of the spinners on display have a long way to go before they can be spoken of in the same breath as the greats. Some of their performances in Test matches have been mediocre, so the odds are against them. But to make deception matter in a game that relies heavily on power, that itself deserves a standing ovation.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns

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