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Cricket news - India's wristspin in shackles

Barring one game against Pakistan, Kuldeep has struggled to weave his magic in the ongoing World Cup

India, under the reign of Virat Kohli, like to operate with a formula. "You need to do things repetitively and that's exactly what we think of any game of cricket." said Kohli in 2016, still in his early days as Test captain.

In the years to follow, a blueprint of this ideology has seeped into the Indian cricket culture. In the bowling department, for instance, India have been beggars at a five-star buffet - with a plethora of world-class talent at their disposal in the recent past, including a fast-bowling all-rounder. Their plan with these bowlers has been centred around 'attack'. Bumrah is the guy who can do both equally well, Bhuvneshwar is good as a defensive option. If there's Shami, as is the case right now, then attack takes precedence. And attack with two wristspinners in the middle-overs.

Kohli, during his reign as captain, has at times adhered to a horses-for-courses theory, and has recognised players for a certain sets of conditions. With the all-attack mindset, however, India need to manage Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, who have been etched into the blueprint as all-condition attacking weapons for the middle-overs.

Wristspin was weaponized to ensure that the batsmen, playing well within themselves in the middle-overs, are attacked and forced to give their wickets away. This has led to the development of a floating hitter in the middle-order - to enter the arena depending on how well the openers have fared, and launch an all-out assault on the spinners.

The fizzling death-overs batting

"If you have an aggressive mindset and don't worry about the runs, it's amazing how many more wickets you take." says leg-spin giant, Shane Warne. "Easy to say and harder to do, but the sooner you can stop worrying about the runs, the better-off you'll be."

With a batting line-up like India's, which lacks batting depth, and hence, has a tendency to run out of firepower at the back-end of an innings, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal are stripped off the liberty to leak runs. One can't not think about the runs and look for the wickets, if they haven't got the batting line-up to score the runs - particularly if they're bowling 40% of the team's overs.

India have put all their eggs in the wristspin basket. On a tired track, it has worked wonders. On flatter wickets, tailored for batting, however, do the rewards really outweigh the risks?

It's something that numbers may struggle to prove. After all, how does one enumerate the flatness of a pitch? Can a wristspinner possibly bowl confidently in such conditions, where the *air-quotes* "powers that be" have conspired to send the ball soaring into the car park?

If, however, the new-ball bowlers are incisive enough to pick up early wickets; the entire dynamic of this strategy would change. This would mean that, with the all-attack option, the wrist-spinners and the new-ball bowlers become more codependent than ever before. Case in point: After surviving the incisive spell from Shami and Bumrah, Jonny Bairstow, who had played a total of 5 reverse-sweeps in his ODI career before the innings in question, scored 12 runs off 3 reverse-sweeps in his innings against India - clearly targeting the short square boundary against the wristspinners.

One of the biggest reasons for the revival of wristspin, at the expense of fingerspin, has been its use of the palm, between the wrist and the fingers, as a lever, and imparting higher number of revolutions on the ball - thereby making it more effective on less dry surfaces that are not particularly conducive to spin. Even on flat, batting belters they are capable of turning the ball significantly both ways, which made them difficult for consistent hitting.

Yuzvendra Chahal, who has picked up 11 wickets in six games in the World Cup, can perhaps consider his performance against England as an aberration. Kuldeep Yadav, however, has been below par, with a single performance of note coming against Pakistan - a team that has had the least experience facing him in the past. More importantly, Kuldeep has notably failed to beat the bat as consistently with his variations as he did in England last year, and in South Africa in January 2018.

"Kuldeep has been putting a lot more body into the ball in this World Cup," observed Sanjay Manjrekar on air. Why so? He simply doesn't trust the bats, the boundaries, and is convinced that the universe has conspired to make bowlers fail; that even if the ball does turn, and the batsman is beaten, the modern game is hardwired to make the batsman win.

In an attempt to put more revolutions on the ball, Kuldeep is putting a lot more body behind the ball, and has lost his shape in a desperate attempt to do so.

"Spin bowling is less about where the ball lands, and more about how it gets there," says Warne. Once the batsmen have started picking a spinner out of the hand, it follows that the said spinner is less likely to trouble the batsman. Particularly if the opposition has gotten a good start on a flat deck, can the wrist-spinner still immediately come on and take a wicket, or even stem the flow of runs consistently?

Wrist spinners inherently lack control. Given that finger-spinners use their fingers as their tool to turn the ball, whereas wristspinners release the ball with a lever, using the wrist as a fulcrum, and the most unnatural release - possibly the bowling equivalent of a cross-batted shot, and, fittingly, with inherently high chances of error. Half-trackers and full-tosses made up two-thirds of Kuldeep Yadav's first over against England, with the looming prospect of being taken to the cleaners by Bairstow and Roy - 46 runs in his first four overs, before he staged a recovery.

It's all in the mind

It is then, that the mental aspect of the game comes into play.

The importance of holding the ball loosely between the fingers, to impart maximum leverage, is well-documented. However, the ability and the toughness required to still be able to play with the batsman's mind after getting hit for runs, the ability to not bowl a half-tracker because one is simply gripping it too tight due to anxiety, holds the key to being a successful wristspinner in limited-overs cricket. The use of drift, making the ball swerve with the direction of the sidespin revolutions before the contact with the pitch counters it, causing it to turn in the opposite direction; the use of overspin and sidespin to create a continuous spectrum of variations with differing amounts of overspin (bounce) and sidespin (turn), using the crease and the angle - there is an abundance of weaponry in a wristspinner's arsenal, if only he's given a free reign, and a clear mind amidst the carnage.

Alas, the clearer you try to keep your mind, the louder it screams back "58 meters!" or "You've already conceded a six" - that's human nature. The mind recognises fears, and knows when to make you privy to any danger - and the instinct is to panic - except there is no testing the fight-or-flight instinct here. There is but one option. The wristspinner needs to master achieving foolhardy levels of delusion in order to thrive in the modern one-day game. Is there a solution? If a bowling attack is to succeed in conditions tailor-made for butchering them, at least four bowlers need to bowl 10 overs each. What, then, is India's alternative to playing two wristspinners?

Perhaps a fingerspinner - a more defensive option. Ravindra Jadeja, for instance, can be picked ahead of one of the wristspinners, for more control. In addition, it also gives the Indian line-up batting depth, and an extra hitter, should some fireworks be the call of the hour to cap off an innings. And herein lies the codependency between the batting the bowling line-ups: is it worth the risk, playing a lesser but perhaps better defensive bowler, and risking extra runs for some batting firepower at the death? The fingerspinner is certainly more likely to pay off dividends on more tired tracks that offer grip, in addition to bowling more defensively and cutting off the runs on flatter wickets.

India's semi-final, be it in Edgbaston or Old Trafford, will not be played on a used wicket. Moreover, it is also more likely that a centre strip will be used as opposed to the game against England, ruling out the square-boundary conundrum. Their line-up in the game against Bangladesh showed that they had figured out this problem, and were unlikely to play into the opposition's hands again. Hence, within rational reasoning, this option in unlikely to be utilised in the knockouts.

India certainly showed, in the league game against Bangladesh, that have the arsenal to do what that they have never done before - play four quick bowlers, including Bhuvneshwar, Shami, Bumrah and Pandya. This would certainly guarantee them forty overs of specialists bowling (including the spinner), and 10 overs of the all-rounder.

It is, however, the kind of comfort zone that even Indian cricket's greatest mavericks have refused to let go of. In fact, the move to play four seamers on a used track against Bangladesh suggests that it may well have been an experiment, or a reaction to the England debacle; yet it is one that could certainly work out on fresh pitches prepared for the knockouts. An amalgamation of the volatile weather, the low-clay-content soil, and the unpredictable nature of the wickets throughout the tournament, however, suggest that playing four seamers is certainly a gamble. That said, it is certainly an option that the Indian think-tank implemented perhaps one game too late in the league match against Bangladesh.

If, however, the intention to attack with two wristspinners do outweigh the alternatives, then it is time for the duet to pay dividends, what with their captain placing his trust on them in the pre-World Cup press conference - "they are the two pillars of our bowling line-up." If India are to play two wristspinners, they must consistently deliver their 20 overs in tandem - regardless of the length of the boundaries, the willow, or its wielder. They are compelled to become the rebels that triumph against all odds, as the final frontier beckons.

They simply have to be that good.

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