Firstpost Masterclass: Former India cricketer Murali Kartik deconstructs the art of finger spin

In this inaugural edition of Firstpost Masterclass, former India spinner Murali Kartik explains the intricate art and science of finger spin.

Shantanu Srivastava April 27, 2020 19:55:30 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: Former India cricketer Murali Kartik deconstructs the art of finger spin

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

New Delhi: Murali Kartik wanted to be a genetic engineer, but fate and a fair bit of hard work meant that he ended up playing cricket for India. A left-arm spinner in the classical mould, Kartik picked up a total of 61 international wickets across formats for India. The dominance of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh throughout his playing career meant the Chennai-born spinner could not appear in more than eight Tests, 37 ODIs, and a sole T20I.

Kartik, however, was a giant in domestic cricket, where he scalped over 600 wickets. He also plied his trade for four English counties – Lancashire, Middlesex, Somerset, and Surrey – across nine years. Later, he turned up for Kings XI Punjab, Kolkata Knight Riders, Pune Warriors, and Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL before moving to television commentary.

Currently locked down in his Delhi home, Kartik is gorging on Netflix and Amazon, besides doing a fair bit of reading – he has finished a book on late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, and is presently reading Sai Satcharitra and a book on late Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao. In this inaugural Masterclass, Kartik decodes the art and science of finger spin.

How did cricket happen to you?

I started playing cricket with my grandfather in Chennai. We had a fairly big house right opposite MA Chidambaram Stadium. That's where it all started. I watched cricket that was shown in Doordarshan then, but it was not as if I always wanted to become a cricketer. In fact, I wanted to be a genetic engineer. Later, we moved to a different place in Chennai and street cricket happened with cousins and friends. Cricket started in a sort of a semi-serious way when the school captain offered me a spot in the team. I was 11 then. The same year my father encouraged me to join a coaching camp, and I made it to the stand-by in the Tamil Nadu U-12 state team, and a year later, graduated to the main team.

Did you always bowl finger spin?

No, I was not a finger spinner. I used to bowl seam-up with the new ball and then I tried spin that never spun... I also batted in the middle order. My growing-up hero was Sir Garfield Sobers, and since he could do everything, I wanted to do everything too. As I started growing into the game, I began to idolise Steve Waugh and Maninder Singh.

Little did I realise that in a couple of years I'll move to Delhi and I will go to the same place where Maninder Singh trains and he would show some interest in me. That's how I became the spinner. My coach at the National Stadium, Mr MP Singh, told me that I won't go too far with my left-arm seam-up bowling because I was very skinny and not a very tall bowler. I remember I was in Class 11 then, and that's when the switch to left-arm spin happened. Eventually, Maninder Singh and Bishan Singh Bedi came into the picture. I'd say I was at the right place at the right time.

A lot of fast bowlers say bowling fast can't be taught because pace is something you are born with. Is it the same with spinning the bowl? Can you teach someone to spin the ball or is it something you are born with?

You have to have a flair for bowling. If someone has a natural flair for it, the hard work will take your skills to the next level, but definitely you can be taught the mechanics, basics, and the foundation of spin as well as the attributes to what makes a good spin bowler.

Fast bowling, in terms of pace, is natural, but many things withing that can be taught. There is nothing that can't be taught. Manoj Prabhakar learned to bowl reverse swing. Similarly, when I entered the Indian team and Kapil Dev was the coach, I remember him teaching Javagal Srinath how to bowl out-swingers.

You always learn. Speed obviously is something you are born with, but you can also increase that pace as you grow stronger and train properly.

I think basics can be taught and you develop as a bowler too. I am a classic example: I was never a spinner to start with but I learned through sheer dint of my hard work. Also, it is important to be taught the right away. I was lucky to be taught by two of the finest (Maninder Singh and Bishan Singh Bedi).

Firstpost Masterclass Former India cricketer Murali Kartik deconstructs the art of finger spin

Murali Kartik moved from idolising Maninder Singh to actually being mentored by him. Image courtesy: Murali Kartik

Does height play a big role in spin bowling? For example, fast bowlers are generally tall and sturdy, does it help if the spinner is slightly shorter to get more loop?

I don't think so. To be a good spinner, your mechanics of spin bowling have to be spot-on because it is a tough art. The contortions of shoulder are quite a lot in spin bowling. You'll see more spinners suffering from shoulder injuries than fast bowlers. There was a time when Shane Warne's arm speed was quicker than that of Glenn McGrath, so you can imagine what happens there. So, it is not always the height. Warne was a decently tall bowler, Lance Gibbs was quite tall, Bedi is a tall man, but not (Erapalli) Prasanna, so you see, it varies. Like I said, it is all about how well do you understand the mechanics and what you do with your action; do you have an easily repeatable action, are your fundamentally strong, and so on.

Yes, if you are shorter, the parabola appears slightly different as compared to a tall man, but that's about it. A tall spinner will extract more bounce whereas shorter bowlers have to work that much harder since they depend on the strength of their legs, help from pitches etc.

Does the grip change when you try to impart more revolutions to the ball?

No, the grip remains the same, but you can still do different things. The way you release the ball can impart some side-spin or get more of overspin or even top-spin. How quickly or late you release the ball is in the feel. It's again a feel when people say that this bowler gets the ball to drop. It is all a combination of a strong action, your delivery stride, the way you release the ball, and just the arm speed.

How important is the role of non-bowling arm?

Extremely crucial. I always say that you bowl with your non-bowling arm. It's the leading arm that dictates how your bowling arm is going to go. Any good spinner will always have a quicker bowling arm and a slower non-bowling arm. That's where the illusion of speed happens.

How do you decide the right length to bowl?

You get the feel. The length changes according to a batsman. One spot on the pitch doesn't work for all batsmen. Matthew Hayden's good length spot is different from say a Shiv Sundar Das or a Gautam Gambhir, because they are shorter and their reach and forward defence will be very different. So, it's a feel thing. The body actually reacts to the length you want to bowl in a very different way once you practice that much. So whether you want to bowl a quicker one or a yorker or whatever, people who work hard on their basics and on their bowling can naturally change the length you want to bowl.

How important is pivot for a spinner?

Huge. I call spin bowling a combination of three things: One is your run-up, second is how you own your crease at the delivery stride, and the third is your follow-through. That's where the pivot comes. People who have a strong pivot, and by that I mean that trail leg and trail knee at the time of delivery should be as close as possible with the front leg that should be ramrod straight.

For example, as a left-arm spinner, I will be bowling off my right leg. At the time of my release, if my left leg is away, then I create an 'A' in terms of the angle. In that case, obviously there is going to be tilt in the body. So all the good bowlers will have both their knees together at the time of release, which means their body is straight at the time of delivery.

Also, your back leg should be lifted and must be right beside the front knee. This will ensure that the body weight has been transferred well. Imagine you are trying to hit a ball and you have generated good energy through your backlift, but if the bat is hanging back at the point of impact, there' is hardly any power generated.

Similarly, as a bowler, when you gather momentum with your run-up, at the time of delivery if your trail leg is still on the ground or limp, the back of the body will still hold you back. In short, both your knees ought to be braced together the time of release and there should be hardly any gap between the thighs, and the back leg has to be lifted up at the time of pivot.

Sometimes, your natural action is such that the back leg doesn't go up. In that case, the bowling tends to lose pace too, because at the point of release, the back leg is still scraping the ground. Now look at Nathan Lyon and see how close his two knees are and how lifted, bent, and strong his back leg is at the time of release. As soon as the ball is delivered, his body moves towards the direction of the ball. That is what gets you the bounce and fizz off the surface. People say the ball decelerates after pitching, but sometimes the ball skids off the surface and hurries the batsmen. That is because of a strong action. You look at all the greats such as Bedi, Prasanna, Kumble, Harbhajan, L Sivaramakrishnan, Maninder Singh, and you'll find how their knees are braced at the time of release. That is why you call them a body bowler, and not an arm bowler. Body bowling will get you wickets everywhere while arm or finger bowling will only get you wickets on helpful surfaces.

We know fast bowlers talk a lot about the importance of a good, smooth run-up since it generates momentum. Is it the same with spinners? How crucial is the run-up for a spinner?

It is extremely important to own the bowling crease. I always say, you bowl with your legs, not your arms. Good bowlers with strong legs will always be better bowlers. Once you have strong legs, your 34th over will be same as your first over. If your legs are weak, they tend to collapse and tire very quickly. Once that happens, you don't get the same amount of zip or purchase from the wicket. So people with strong core and lower body will always make better bowlers. Sometimes bowling is a lot ground-up; you hit the pitch hard, you own that crease and then you go forward. Strong arms are only going to propel the ball, but bowling is a combination of your run-up, how you hit the crease, and your follow-through. You can't take one from another.

Also, as a spinner, a slight pause in the delivery stride helps. It gives you an extra split-second to see what the batsman is trying to do. It's a different thing when the batsman steps out after you have delivered the ball. But if you get an inkling that a batsman is going to jump out, you drag the length back which can be done either by slowing the ball down or quickening it, depending on the batsman and what you want him to do.

Why do certain left-arm spinners run across the umpire while bowling to right-handers? What's the logic?

People do that to get in a side-on position at the time of delivery. That angular run-up helps them get into that position. However, not every bowler needs to do that. As a spinner, you need to understand what gets you in that ideal side-on position at the time of release. Also, when you are side-on, you can look at the batsman all the time as the arm doesn't fall in front of your eyes, which means you can catch some hint if the batsman is trying to step out.

Does every batsman drop some hint before stepping out?

Not always. There are certain players who you know will step out anyway. Guys like Gautam Gambhir, Amol Muzumdar, Pravin Amre will always run at you. Then there are people like Inzamam-ul-Haq or Carl Hooper who would hardly step out. They gave you very little, and they would hardly get stumped. Sachin Tendulkar never gave a clue before stepping out. So yeah, you don't get a hint all the time, but sometimes you read the situation. You know a particular batsman will step out because he is not able to do anything else.

How important is it to trust your stock ball?

Very important. Most important, I'd say. People talk about variations, but I think it is very important to have a gun stock ball. Everybody knew that Kapil Dev would bowl an outswinger and he would still get wickets off it. People know that Dale Steyn will bring the ball in quickly and move away, and he still gets them out. If your stock delivery is not your go-to delivery and you're relying on variations all the time, you will struggle. When you bowl your stock delivery well, sometimes different things happen because you get natural variations from the surface.

What do you do when you realise that your stock ball is not working? How long do you wait before you decide it is time to try something new?

Every day is different in bowling, and sometimes despite your best efforts, you do not get the ideal feel or the ball doesn't spin enough. Then, your Plan B must be to simply bowl well. By that, I mean do not go for runs and do the controlling job. A spinner has to realise that despite being a match-winner or a wicket-taking bowler, he has to change his role depending on the match situation. If I am playing in England on a green top on the first day of a Test and I am thinking to run through the opposition, it is not going to happen.

So when you are not getting the desired dip, arc or spin, that's when you decide to stick to a length and line to keep the batsman quiet. Do the controlling job for the captain. A good bowler is the one who understands his role and adapts as per the need of the team or situation. That's why it is important to have a repeatable, strong action.

A number of left-handed batsmen fancy their chances against left-arm spinners. You bowled to quite a few across your domestic and international career. What would be your plan against a left-handed batsman?

It's not that difficult, honestly. People always talk about taking the ball away, but for me if I am bringing the ball in, I am making the batsman play every ball. Yes, for a left-hander, playing certain shots against a left-arm spinner is easier because the ball is coming in their arc, but on a turning track, you have to play each and every delivery. If I am bowling to a right-hander and spinning too much, he is only going to get beaten whereas against a left-hander, I am always in play because the ball is spinning in. If the ball doesn't spin, slips are in play; if the ball spins, backward short-leg and short-leg are in play.

Having said that, it is always different for different batsmen. For someone like Hayden, a deep square leg and deep mid-wicket were catching positions.

Against someone like Ganguly, you'll have to take a chance against his dominating mindset because you'd know that he will step out and he was so good with lofted shots. Even if you beat players like Ganguly and Hayden in the air, they would still hit you. Gautam Gambhir was a different challenge because he would use his feet but he would hit all along the ground and not in the air. So, as a bowler, you need to be aware of what you need to do. That challenge is always there even with the right-handers.

Players like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid were so good with their footwork and defence; someone like VVS Laxman and Mohammad Azharuddin were so good that they would hit you in the completely opposite direction (of the spin) and leave you wondering what wrong have you done.

Challenges vary, but personally I feel if I am bowling to a left-hander, I am more in play. If I am bowling to a right-hander, I am trying to hit his pad while he is trying to block. There is a short-leg or a silly point and if I bowl a peach of a delivery, I may get him out in the first slip or get him bowled. However, with a left-hander, there are so many things that can happen: If he gets beaten, he can chip me to mid-wicket, then the close-in fielders such as short-leg, the keeper, the backward short-leg are in play because the ball is spinning in.

What's the key to setting up a batsman?

Observation. You must observe how the batsman is feeling, what is he trying to do, and you must be able to read the match situation. You must know how the pitch is behaving. All this constitutes your game awareness. Then, you must have a big heart. You must have that special self-belief that your skills are good enough even if you are hit for a couple of sixes. If you are afraid of getting hit, you'll push the fielders back, and are happy bowling defensively.

If I am happy conceding a single rather than getting hit for a straight six, that's the worst kind of bowling I can think of. It's like a slap across a spinner's face if batsmen are easily turning him for a single. Getting hit for a six means the batsman is not comfortable with his defence against you or he wants to try and put the pressure back on you and unnerve you.

You had a very deceptive arm ball, or the one that went straight with the arm instead of turning. How did you develop that?

It came through with a lot of hard work. Bishan Singh Bedi helped me develop a three-fingered arm-ball which was seam-up.

Firstpost Masterclass Former India cricketer Murali Kartik deconstructs the art of finger spin

Murali Kartik practises his two-finger arm ball.

Maninder Singh, with whom I bowled in the nets, told me that there would be days when my wrists would get locked, and I would think that I had imparted enough spin and the ball should go the other way, but it would go straight after hitting the surface. So gradually, from that three-fingered arm ball, I developed a two-fingered arm ball.

How did you release the arm ball? Did the grip change when you bowled it and how did you decide when to use it?

I approached the crease with the regular grip, but at the time of delivery, I released it with two fingers. Then there's the undercutter, where the release is quite similar. It is quite deceptive, depending on your action and how you release it, the ball goes like a saucer.

Firstpost Masterclass Former India cricketer Murali Kartik deconstructs the art of finger spin

A two-finger arm ball release, as practised by Kartik. Image courtesy: Murali Kartik

So I had these variations, but I used them depending on the surface I was bowling on. For example, the two-fingered arm ball is fine with the red ball all the time, because the red ball swings and can come in. In case of the white ball, only the new ball swings, so if I am bowling in a Powerplay, I can use that arm ball. In fact, I once got Brian Lara stumped with my arm ball where he fell over because the ball swung that much.

The white ball will not swing in say the 34th over, and so you rely on different release and vary your pace.

Shane Warne once said, 'If it seams, it spins.' Is that true? How'd you explain that?

Yes, it is 100 percent true. If there is something for seamers in the wicket, there will be help for spinners too. The ball seams because of moisture in the wicket. If there is enough moisture or dampness, the ball grips the surface and seams. That's what you want as a spinner too.

Would you prefer bowling to an attacking batsman or a defensive plodder?

Well, who wants to bowl to an attacking batsman all the time? They do give you a chance, but again, it depends on what sort of attacking batsman I am bowling to. Guys like Matthew Hayden and Inzamam-ul-Haq were all very good at attacking, but also hardly gave you a chance. Then, there were those who were prodding away, but so solid with their prodding that you can't breach their defence. So it was all very circumstantial.

Did you always set the field or the captain did it for you?

I always set my own fields, because I know what I was trying to bowl and how capable I was. The captain is not bowling for me. I always believe that captains make a spinner. Someone like Azhar, Ajay Jadeja, VB Chandrasekhar, Abhay Sharma, Rahul Dravid were so good as captains because they gave the ball to you and trusted you. I am not telling a batsman what shot he needs to play; likewise, a bowler is not someone who merely enacts. As a bowler, I would hate it if the captain is setting the field for me.

Would you always start with a first slip and short leg to a right-handed batsman?

Yes, always, if you are talking about a days' game. There's no ideal ball though, but I have always felt, when a right-hander comes to bat, sometimes the best delivery is the one that pitches around the off stump and comes in ever so slightly rather than spinning away. It is because every new batsman wants to feel bat on ball, so if he is beaten on the inside edge, you have LBW in play.

You fielded quite a bit in close-in positions. Did that help you read the batsmen better?

Absolutely, it did. I could see how the batsmen were moving and what were they trying to do. Also, I used to chirp quite a bit. It actually helped me get into the battle quite early. I would constantly say something as it helped me stay clued in. Of course, having a sound temperament is very important. If you get drawn into the battle too much, it will be counterproductive.

They say rhythm is very important for a spinner. How exactly would you define it?

Rhythm is when you are not hurried. It is when things are happening quickly and slowly simultaneously in your head, when things are happening in the right way, but in a very controlled way.

Why don't we see Indian spinners spinning the ball so much these days? Is it the tracks, mindset, or skills?

It is a combination of quite a few things. I would primarily put it to the amount of T20 cricket on which a youngster is brought up. I am a firm believer of a solid, repeatable, fundamental action. Those are all attributes of being a good four-day, five-day bowler. Once you have learned your art that way, you'll adjust to every other format. You can bowl quick because you have a repeatable action to do it, and you also have the body dynamics to get the ball to drop.

Once you have sound basics, you can do different things, whereas if you have learned only to bowl darts, which is what happens in T20s, then when you go and play longer formats, you don't have the skill set to buy wickets. You don't have the skills to get someone in defence. You are only relying on the batsman to make a mistake or the tracks to be suitable for you to be effective enough. That's why I always believe that till they are 19 or 20 years, bowlers must be kept away from T20 cricket and must be taught the art to bowl after getting hit. Once you have the field up and the batsman is hitting you, you'll develop survival instincts and try to get the batsman out instead of bowling defensively with the comfort of long-on, long-off, and deep mid-wicket.

Any advice you'd like to young spinners?

Self-belief is the key. You need to have a big heart to be a spinner. Also, always work on the basics because only that will take you forward.

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