Spin. And a Fresh Turn.

Rohit Brijnath in this morning’s Straits Times – on the joy of watching Spin.

 

 SOME days a sport reminds you why you fell in love with it as a boy. Why nationality is irrelevant in front of art. Why for all the plastic surgery a sport undergoes – and cricket can sometimes be unrecognisable – an essential beauty lingers still. One of those days was Sunday. When men ambled in, took a few dancing steps, turned their arms and spun hallucinations with a ball that left me and a host of batsmen giddy.

Of 89.3 overs bowled on Sunday in the second India-England Test match, 78.3 were spin. Six bowlers, three left-handed and three right-handed, bowled spin. Two of them were Sikhs with different passports and stalked by Son of Sardar jokes. A third mangles tunes for a band called Dr Comfort and the Lurid Revelations. Fifteen wickets fell all day and all to spin. It was like Merlin having his brothers over for a conference on magic spells.

Fast bowlers have menace, limited vocabularies, possibly bad breath and low IQs. Or that’s what batsmen say. But spinners are a different breed, first cousins of fellows who love drop shots in tennis, footballers who like to dummy and basketballers who use no-look passes. Fabrice Santoro would be a hell of a spinner.

Fast bowlers have plans, spinners have conspiracies. Fast bowlers own a hitman’s glare, spinners have a conman’s gleam. Fast bowlers will hurt you but bruised fingers will heal; spinners will cause much more sweeping and serious harm. They make you look stupid.

When Englishman Mike Gatting had his nose broken by West Indian Malcolm Marshall, he resembled a bruised, black-eyed fighter from a manly art; yet when Shane Warne deceived him with his magical ball in 1993 – a delivery simply known as that ball – Gatting’s face had the stunned look of a man who’d committed a faux pas on TV.

Recently, a bowler wearily told me that almost every kid in India wants to be a batsman because they know who gets the applause. Batsmen get an ovation after every boundary, every stylish shot, every subtle cut; the bowler only when he gets a wicket. But not this Sunday.

This Sunday, cricket balanced itself. It was India against England yet something greater than nation against nation, it was spinners against batsmen. A battle of forms.

This game tilts towards batsmen yet here they were mostly revealed as duffers, illiterates who could not read nuance. Spinners can evict you even by not turning a ball, but by making you think they might. Monty Panesar bowled one straight at Sachin Tendulkar and he was gone.

Only one of 11 Indian batsmen lasted 20 balls in the second innings and even the surliest, flag-painted jingoist had to guffaw at this irony. At home, on Indian wickets, made at their own request, India couldn’t – comparably – bowl spin or play spin. While Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook played it as if their driveways in England are layered with 22 yards of Indian mud.

Sunday was not quite Warne in his pizza-eating genius prime. But the intensity was making my TV smoke. Between a fast bowler’s deliveries there is time as he returns to his mark. Here there was no respite. The spinners moved rapidly from ball to ball, over to over, suffocating the batsmen, the ball fizzing, leering, drifting, darting. Tempo is a lovely word, coincidentally to be found in music, in chess and in Panesar’s action on Sunday.

The English weren’t over-experimenting, weren’t flirting with this new-age nonsense of teesras and carrom balls. As Bishen Bedi, the former Indian spinner, said: “The English bowlers were delightful to watch. They didn’t try to do too much.”

All the while, fielders tightly encircled batsmen like a hunting dog pack. Batsmen can hear conversation and intent. They feel closed in, but do they dare step out? In his knee guards, short-leg stands there like an armoured acrobat.

There is a great bustling of activity in a small space like many men stuffed in one boxing ring. Tension is inevitable when a spinner bowls. Says former batsman Rahul Dravid: “There’s a feeling of claustrophobia and it’s intimidating at times.”

Yes, and riveting.

When India lost 0-4 to England last summer, there was endless teeth-gnashing. Which ended with the expected defiance of the defeated: “See you in our backyard”.

England came, are 1-1 in the series, won by 10 wickets, and by using an art form Indians claim as their own. Even Doctor Dhoni can’t spin such a defeat. But really, I don’t care who wins. In the end, it’s only the craft that remains in sport.

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