A notable feature of the ongoing Ranji Trophy championship is the virtual absence of off-break bowlers in the higher end of the bowling honours list.
This ought to be seen as an unhappy development in a country for which this type of finger spinners — with the ball breaking into the batsman’s body allied with flight and line and length variations with a high intelligence quotient of the practioners — have played a distinguished part and has been regarded an important cog in the wheel of India’s bowling arrangement.
The decline of quality off-break bowlers has been a gradual feature in the last two decades and in this season the sheer anxiety of being called for illegal action has eliminated this particular facet of the game in India.
Harbhajan Singh is an exception though since 1998. The off-break bowler in the current Ranji Trophy Super League bowling honours list is Bengal’s Saurasish Lahiri with 17 wickets in four matches.
He is followed by Tamil Nadu’s Ravichandran Ashwin with 13 wickets from five matches. Ashwin has been included in the Indian team for the two Twenty20 matches against Sri Lanka.
Former India and Himachal Pradesh’s Sarandeep Singh is a way down third in the list. But after ten years in first class cricket, he was called for bowling with an illegal action in the Mumbai-Himachal Pradesh match recently.
Harbhajan Singh was lucky. A rookie off-spinner ten years ago, his action was sorted out in less than two days in London by former England off-spinner Fred Titmus.
New Zealand’s left-arm spinner, Stephen Bock was once reported to have said: “He (Harbhajan) was not within cooee of a legal action”.
But Titmus who was instructed by the ICC then to rectify his action along with the MCC Head Coach Clive Radley felt that there was not a lot wrong to the naked eye at normal speed of Harbhajan’s bowling, but the faults could be spotted with use of technology.
Titmus had said then that “He (Harbhajan) was running up too far and coming in from a funny angle as so many young spinners from the sub-continent seem to. It means that by the time they reach the delivery they are starting to bend over a bit too much in to the action and tending to lean backwards. It makes getting the arm over straight a bit more difficult.”
Harbhajan switched to a straighter approach to the bowling crease and since he’s proceeded to strike a worthy combination with Anil Kumble (501 wickets in 99 Test innings together). On Sunday he also completed 50 wickets against Sri Lanka in 13 Tests.
There were days when there was competition, modicum though, between off-break bowlers. Gopal Sharma, Rajesh Chauhan had a decent run of 21 Tests and Aashish Kapoor, M. Venkatramana, Nikhil Chopra, Ramesh Powar had their chances. There’s big vacuum today.
The India Under-19 team picked for the ICC World Cup does not have a single specialist off-spinner and that’s because the BCCI’s junior selection committee did not find a successful off-spinner with legal action.
“Majority of them are chuckers and we have Mumbai’s Harmeet Singh as a specialist left-arm spinner and Gaurav Jathar and Manan Sharma (as allrounders who bowl left-arm spin),” said a BCCI official.
Right from Ghulam Ahmed in the immediate post-independent India to Shivlal Yadav in the late 1980s, India has been well served in this department. Ahmed (407 first class wickets including 68 in Tests), Erapalli Prasanna (957 fc including 189 in Tests), S.Venkataraghavan (1390 fc including 156 in Tests) and Yadav (330 fc including 102 in Tests) all came from South Indian states of Hyderabad, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Harbhajan has been the most successful from the Punjab plains.
While credit should be given to the BCCI for eliminating an evil in the system, the authorities and coaches have to do some soul-searching and find ways to create opportunities for all types of bowlers.
The future looks good though in the left-arm spin department with selectors providing opportunities to Harmeet Singh and Aushik Srinivas.