In economics, the theory of comparative advantage explains a country should specialize in making and exporting goods and services that it can produce most efficiently. In a way this idea can also apply to sports like cricket. Every cricketing nation seems to have the ability to unearth talent in certain areas much more easily than others. India has the ability to produce run scoring machines, Pakistan unearths skillful swing bowlers with ease, South Africa is known for their world class all-rounders and fielders, while Australia has always been good with genuine fast bowlers. Bangladesh too seems to have the ability to produce a category of players with ease - slow left arm spinners (SLA’s).
Spin In World Cricket
If there is something missing in world cricket at the moment, it has to be the lack of world class spinners. Warne, Muralitharan, Kumble, have left a huge vacuum which their countries are finding very hard to fill. Australia has lost a lot of its edge since the retirement of Warne and MacGill. Even with the best coaching facilities and domestic cricket structure they haven’t been able to come up with anyone worthy of replacing Warne. Australia selectors will admit this is one of the team’s major weaknesses. Muralitharan played a huge role in Sri Lanka’s emergence in world cricket. Exit Murali, and they too have been struggling in this department. India has been shuffling several spinners and is yet to come up with someone who has cemented a place in the side (Read Akash Chopras Excellent Article on “India’s Bare Spin Cupboard”). South Africa never had much luck in this department. In recent times a lot of rules have changed, game formats have changed - all making life difficult for spinners. Yet they still play a key role in the success of many teams. England can thank Graeme Swann for a lot of their success in recent years in all formats of the game. Despite boasting so many quality fast bowers, Pakistan still prefers to use 3 spinners in Test and limited over cricket. West Indies is capitalizing on the skills of Sunil Narine. Nathan Lyon and Imran Tahir offer fresh hope to Australia and South Africa. Even New Zealand has been known to field two spinners in seam friendly wickets.
Fortunately for Bangladesh, we have a large pool of spin bowlers (Mostly SLA’s)-most of whom are untapped and undeveloped. Given the dearth of quality spinners in world cricket, many leading cricket teams would probably not mind taking and grooming some of our guys (Think about it, Xavier Doherty is Australia’s main ODI spinner, but would he get a chance in the Bangladeshi team ahead of Shakib, Razzak, Sunny’s.) So it must be asked what are we doing with such talent?
Spin in Bangladeshi Cricket
Spinners have played a key role in Bangladeshi cricket in all formats of the game. In Test cricket, 53% of all our dismissals have been by spinners (most by SLA’s). Close to 50% of all wickets taken in ODI’s are taken by spinners (again most by SLA’s). Out of 4 bowlers who have taken over 100 wickets in ODI’s 3 are SLA’s. Spinners also enjoy better economy rates and often strike rates. In the inaugural edition of BPL, our spinners dominated the wicket chart against many experienced world class bowlers. Five of the top ten wicket takers in BPL were our SLA’s.
Despite the success of spinners, we are often guilty of picking or prioritizing pacers ahead of spinners. Consider Asia Cup 2012, where we picked Shahadat Hossain in the final despite his struggle in previous matches. Had we picked Elias Sunny (fresh from his success in BPL) perhaps he would have given us 10 overs, probably at 30-40 runs less than Shahadat. And that could very well have been the difference. Now I am not saying our spinners are world class and they should be picked ahead of our pace bowlers. All I am suggesting is statistics wise our spinners have higher likelihood of success in comparison to a general pace bowler. Also our pace bowlers fall well short in terms of skill and physical ability in comparison to pacers in other countries. So while they excel in our domestic circuit, they struggle when introduced in the international arena. In contrast our spinners have less difficulty making an impact. Recall how guys like Saqlain Sajib and the Sunny’s were giving enough of trouble to quality batsmen in BPL.
BCB and we the fans have always been more fascinated with pace. Every nation finds it sexy to have a bowler or two capable of bowling in excess of 140 kph. We have held nationwide pace hunts, recruited fast bowling coaches, sent our young quicks to academies abroad. A lot effort has been made but with very little success. Why? Some people blame it on work ethic and physical fitness of our players, some blame it on flat wickets, and some blame the lack of quality coaches, some say it is because we lack a pace academy like many countries have. I am not going to debate the reasons. All I am implying is perhaps it is time to take a lesson from economics and divert some resources towards the development of spinners.
SLA, SLA SLA. Is It A Good Thing?
In 2007, Bangladesh probably fielded its best ever bowling attack. This was definitely a reason why we also progressed in the World Cup. Rafique, Razzak and Shakib formed an effective partnership which strangled and choked the opposition. Each of these bowlers had distinct strengths which they utilized to the fullest extent to making our bowling for once formidable. It wasn’t devastating spin, it was clever, crafty, accurate bowling which halted and frustrated the oppositions resulting in both forced and unforced dismissals. That was the last time we played three SLA’s. After that we preferred bowling 2 SLA’s with part time off spinners, or 2 SLA’s with three pacers. We tried numerous bowlers, numerous combinations yet our attack has never been as strong as it was in 2007.
Why do we produce so many SLA’s? A lot can be attributed to Mohammad Rafique, one of Bangladesh’s first cricketing icons. Shakib Al Hasan is now continuing Rafique's legacy by inspiring a new generation of young prospects. The nature of the wickets and the batsmen in Bangladesh have also played a role. Bangladeshi wickets have always been known for slow, low bounce and little turn. So a spinner is better off keeping it straight and flat rather than giving it air. A former Bangladesh coach Gordon Greenside had always said a major problem with our batsmen is their tendency to play with the bottom hand. This usually results in a lot of them playing across the line and getting caught in front as a result. We also have quite a lot of right handers in comparison to left handed batsmen. Combine these two facts, and you get a perfect environment for SLA’s to prosper in.
It is good that we produce so many SLA’s. That’s our comparative advantage and we must capitalize on it. But our attack can become even stronger if we can develop a few quality off spinners and leg spinners as well. It is definitely something for the selectors and management to ponder about.
2 VS 3 Spinners
Should we field 2 or 3 specialist spinners? This is probably something our selectors and team management debate about all the time. It obviously would depend on the strategy, opposition and type of wicket. At home it is always better to have more spinners. Against a team like New Zealand or Zimbabwe or South Africa it is always best to field three specialist spinners in most wickets. We often get stuck with the mindset that fielding three pace bowlers is always the best option in Australia or South Africa. But think about it, can our medium fast bowlers extract anything special out of Australian wickets, and can they do anything to threaten the batsmen? Often a part timer Aussie all-rounder will be able to generate more pace and bounce than our frontline bowlers. Harsh, but that is the reality. Our mindset prevents us from picking three spinners who perhaps have higher likelihood of success than our pace bowlers.
Is it a good idea to field three slow SLA bowlers? Many think our attack will become one dimensional. It worked for us in the past, and it could work for us again. The key is the variation each of the bowlers offer. Rafique, Shakib, and Razzak had different styles and strengths.
The Road Ahead
Maybe it is time for one of the big Telcos to sponsor a nationwide spinner hunt. Perhaps they can bring our national heroes like Shakib, Rafique, Razzak and international stars like Murali and Kumble to all cricket centers of the country and identify the best spin prospects. One thing is for sure, the campaign will yield more spin talent than bowlers who can bowl in excess of 140kph. Fast bowling is not something you can develop overnight and with no infrastructure. MRF Pace Academy was set up in India in the late 1980’s. Only recently India has been able to unearth genuine fast bowlers. Spin seems to come more naturally to us. In the short term we have a higher probability of unearthing spin talent than fast bowling sensations.
Perhaps it is also time for us to look beyond SLA’s just to add some variety and spice to our bowling attack. This too cannot be achieved overnight. We do not have off spin and leg spin legends to inspire the youngsters either.
The mindset must also be changed. Due to the nature of our wickets, T20s and so on our spinners just try to keep it flat and wicket to wicket. They must be taught to beat the batsmen with flight, turn and variation. Our spinners often wait for batsmen to make mistakes. World class bowlers like Swann, Ajmal force the batsmen to make mistakes.
A lot of experts have suggested we change our wickets to develop our batsmen and fast bowling. This will help spinners as well. Harder wickets will help spinners generate more bounce and turn. There will be other ways to dismiss batsmen than trapping them in front!
A Pakistani leg spin legend once said, “A leg spinner is like a tree. You can't expect it to give you food and shade straight away. You must nurture it, protect it and eventually it will yield what you are looking for.” Now this applies to any type of cricketer, but a lot more specifically to spinners because it is a difficult art to master. Unfortunately we lack the means to nurture our pool of spinners. Through Mushtaq Ahmed’s coaching and mentoring Graeme Swann has become one of the best spinners in the world. All our current spinners will praise former fielding and spin bowling coach Mohammad Salahuddin for the work he has done. Since his resignation, this position has been vacant. There is some positive news with the board approaching Saqlain Mushtaq to take over the role on a temporary basis. It is a start, but we must aim to get someone on a full time basis not only to work with the national team spinners, but also those in the pipeline - even perhaps run a spin academy.
Spin bowling can make a big difference for Bangladesh whether in T20, ODI or Test Cricket. It is time for BCB to take it a bit more seriously. Think how Muralitharan made the Sri Lankan bowling attack so menacing all by himself in the early 1990’s. Time for us to unearth our own Murali. There is plenty of talent out there - BCB has to adopt the right strategies to find and get the best out of them.