Do you remember Anil Kumble from the early 90s? And how he changed from then to his final Test match in 2008? Yes, the big nerdy glasses and mustache gave way to a more clean cut look. But more importantly, his bowling style had evolved slowly and surely over the years, making him a complete all-conditions leg-spinner. His approach to the crease became slower. His leg-spinners hung in the air for longer when the pitch didn’t have any assistance. He added a potent googly that wasn’t the hardest to pick but it still beat many a top-order batsmen. He still had the zip and bounce of the old Jumbo. And when situation demanded, he could even trick the them by bowling seam-ups, like he did in the second innings against Pakistan at Bangalore in 2007, dismissing several clueless Pakistani batsmen.
How about Muttiah Muralitharan? Remember him from his early days and how he sneaked in to bowl, almost side stepping perpendicular to the pitch. He always had a beautiful loop and could turn the ball big even back then. What he didn’t have, was a Plan B when his line and length became predictable. By the end of his career though, Muralitharan had a bag full of tricks both in terms of variations and line of attack.
Shane Warne didn’t change much from his original self if you leave out his weight issues and botox. In fact, as his career progressed, he seemed more content on bowling his stock leggies and toppies all the time instead of exhibiting his full repertoire of tricks with his zooters, flippers, and googlies. His leg-break itself had enough variations of flight, line of attack and side spin that were enough to bamboozle most batsmen.
The underlying theme in the success of the three most successful spinners of all time was how they kept evolving with time despite experiencing success at almost every point of their career. A wicket-taking spinner must keep evolving and improving to ensure longevity. Of course, this is true for most things in life. You can’t have a truly rewarding career in any field or a truly fulfilling relationship with anyone if you are not constantly evaluating yourself and evolving.
One modern spinner understands this need to evolve better than most. In fact, he can be accused of taking it too seriously at times. In his short career, we have seen Ravichandran Ashwin making more changes to his actions than any other spinner. In one of his interviews, he said he bowls with a different action in Test and T20 games to allow him to adjust to the requirements of each format.
Ashwin’s evolution isn’t limited to his action, of course. He constantly works on new deliveries and new lines of attack for each batsman. He is probably the most studious player in the game currently. He doesn’t just get batsmen out. He sets them up and plots their dismissal. Before getting Kumar Sangakkara caught in slips and silly point several times in his last Test series, he had run the simulations in his head before coming into the actual game. When he sees a batsman who likes to sweep, he is always looking to pitch one fuller than usual that sneaks under the bat to get that leg before.
The way Ashwin operates is in contrast to someone like Harbhajan Singh, who despite being a skillful bowler, was never brave enough to evolve his game. He would stick to one line of attack and get frustrated and defensive when he wasn’t getting wickets or had batsmen going after him. Ashwin, on the contrary, seems to thrive when given the challenge of bowling under pressure even if he isn’t successful all the time. After getting a proper hiding by Glenn Maxwell throughout IPL 2014, he didn’t miss a chance to declare on camera that he will be bowling over the wicket to him in the next game. He lives for these duels. He isn’t scared of losing a battle on the day in an attempt to prize out a batsman, a quality you will probably find in all great spinners who have played the game.
The flip side to Ashwin’s great desire to change according to the situation is his tendency to lose control of his bowling at times. There was a time when he was bowling a short-pitch ball every over in ODI games. He was trying too many ways to get a batsman out in Test matches. At times, it seemed Ashwin is trying to evolve during a game itself without even going back to the drawing board again. Such tendencies have now reduced, especially in Test cricket, and he has started enjoying the process of bowling a long spell.
Spinners are a mysterious breed in cricket. It often takes a champion spinner just one wicket to turn from friendly to unplayable. Warne was having a torrid time during the 1999 World Cup. It took one ball to spin across Herschelle Gibbs defense in the semifinal and suddenly the gladiator got reminded that he owns the arena.
Often spinners burst on the scene with unbelievable heroics only to fade away grimly. India has seen Narendra Hirwani making the greatest debut of all time only to be found out after a few games. Maninder Singh’s career never achieved the heights it promised after he lost his action post an injury. The ability and craft of slow bowling can be a deceitful mistress. It makes you feel on top of the world with your bag of tricks that no one, but you, possess. Then it suddenly deserts you one day without warning, leaving you with grim questions and termites of self-doubt. Sounds cruel, right? Ask Hirwani, or if your memory doesn’t run that far back, ask Ajantha Mendis.
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