Eleven overs into the opening match of the 2022 T20 World Cup against India, Pakistan are struggling to break free. Having reached 70/2, they don’t know which bowler to target. India’s pacers have been disciplined and off-spinner R Ashwin has also been on the money in his first two overs.
Up next is left-arm spinner Axar Patel. Coming off a good home season, the bowler is expected to stifle the run-rate further.
What follows, however, stuns the Indian camp into silence. Iftikhar Ahmed, who till then has focused on knocking the ball around to reach 30 off 26 balls, has been waiting for the left-arm spinner. The first ball is a trademark Axar skidder delivery, speared towards the leg-stump.
Iftikhar simply clears his front leg, swats down on his back knee and slog-sweeps it into the stands at wide long-on. It is not just about timing the ball but the savageness of the stroke that is intentionally done to puncture the confidence of the bowler. Rattled by the blow, Axar struggles to find his rhythm. He is smashed for two more sixes by Iftikhar in the over. The India spinner is taken out of the attack and doesn’t bowl another over after the spell of 1-0-21-0. Axar fails to have an impact on the tournament. In five matches, has three wickets.
The Gujarat spinner has been very effective with his deliveries which tend to skid through. But, the gully-cricket experience of the sub-continent teaches you street-smartness beyond the coaching manuals. Batters from the region, brought up on a staple diet of spin and tennis ball cricket, have unorthodox ways of attacking the spinners. And, as shown by Iftikhar, left-arm spin doesn’t hold as much of a threat for them.
India have gone into the Asia Cup and next month’s World Cup with two left-arm spinners – Ravindra Jadeja and Axar. Clearly, the spin attack has been picked not just for the two bowlers’ wicket-taking ability but to lend depth to the lower order.
The pitches will be under the supervision of the ICC’s chief curator but spin is expected to be a big factor during the World Cup. As it was in the last ICC tournament hosted by India, the 2016 T20 World Cup, where the opening game itself against New Zealand at Nagpur was on a turning track. Hence, the focus is on India’s spin strength. India will be hoping it clicks but the combination they have picked is already being perceived as a risk.
Overall, Axar has 58 wickets from 52 matches, while the highly-experienced Jadeja has 197 wickets in 179 ODIs. A look at the recent record of the two left-arm spinners, however, isn’t very impressive.
In the last series against West Indies in July, Axar was used only for two overs in the only ODI game he got a chance in. Before that against Australia in March, he had two wickets to show for in the combined 11 overs he bowled in two games. Versus Sri Lanka, at the start of the year, in the two innings he bowled he picked up just one wicket (in 15 overs). The December ODI series in Bangladesh also comprised mediocre returns of two wickets in two games.
In the two series that Jadeja has played this year since returning from injury, he has claimed five wickets in six ODIs. He was part of the 2019 ODI World Cup team but made the playing XI in only two games, a league game against Sri Lanka and then the semi-final against New Zealand.
Though they have different strengths, the angle is the same. Predominantly not strike bowlers, both bowlers look to strike by by keeping things tight.
No wonder former India ace spinner Harbhajan Singh is astonished to see no right-arm spinners in the squad that also includes left-arm wrist-spinner Kuldeep Yadav. “We have chosen two left-arm spinners, and both of them will never play in the same match. The day Jadeja plays, Axar won’t. And it’s also possible that when there are a lot of left-handers in the opposition, Jadeja may not even bowl. That day, you need a bowler who can take the ball away of the left-arm batters,” said Harbhajan during a press event organised by Star Sports.
Former India left-arm spinner Venkatapathy Raju, who played in the 1992 and 1996 World Cups, is also not sure about the logic behind having two left-arm orthodox spinners in the side.
“It is a bit surprising not to have an experienced off-spinner. India has one or two left-handers but against other teams (with more left-handers), the off-spinner will always be effective,” said Raju.
He added: “If you are not playing three spinners, then you needed somebody who could just fill in because in 2011 you had Yuvraj Singh all the way, he picked up wickets. We had Sachin Tendulkar who could bowl off-spin and leg-spin, you could use him for a couple of overs then Raina came in, he did that job. You need a bowling option who can bowl at least seven overs with wicket-taking abilities, if you (main spinners) have a bad day. That’s why it is surprising not to find even a part-time off-spinner.”
Raju also feels the selectors could have gone back to the veteran Ashwin.
“People may be saying he is old but on Indian grounds you don’t have to run long to save runs, it is either a single or a boundary,” said Raju.
Former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh, who was India’s main spin bowler at the 1987 World Cup at home, backs the LAS (left-arm spin) combination, saying India’s selection is based on the modern trend.
“Anybody can get targetted on the day. I don’t believe in this theory that you need to have an off-spinner for the left-handers. If you are good, you are good, whether it is a left-hander or right-hander. I used to love bowling against the left-handers — it is a bigger challenge. That is the name of the game,” said Maninder, who had picked 14 wickets in seven games at the 1987 tournament.
Maninder agreed that the bowling style of Jadeja and Axar is similar but felt it’s the modern trend of beefing up the batting. “Their styles are pretty similar, actions are more or less similar. (But) In these days, how many attacking bowlers do you see in international cricket? You are always looking for bowlers who can contain, and when it comes to batting give you extra, quick runs. They (captain, coach and selectors) are having faith in his abilities.”