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Ashwin can succeed in overseas Tests: Swann

Former England spinner concerned over lack of development of his kind in the country

The day Graeme Swann announced his retirement from Test cricket, it was not only England that lost their best spinner. His retirement robbed cricket romantics and purists around the world of the joy of watching a classical off-spinner with a simple, clean action. Swann was like an opera singer in the midst of pop-stars that are the mystery spinners.

Now enjoying his second stint in cricket, as a broadcaster and commentator, the amicable former England spinner caught up with BCCI.TV during the Lord’s Test between England and India to talk on his favourite topic – spin bowling.

Swann told us the secret of his success while bowling on unresponsive pitches and pondered over England’s current spin conundrum. He also spoke in detail and with fondness about India’s spin spearhead, R Ashwin and reminisced his battles with Virender Sehwag.

You and Warne are two modern day spinners who were successful despite playing most cricket in unhelpful conditions. What was the key?

When bowling in unhelpful conditions, I used to break my spell down. I would accept before the match that I was not going to get five-six wickets and that I had to do a job for the team. Later on when the pitch is four to five days old there will be help for me. But for the first couple of days I would say, I’ve got three overs before lunch, I bowl eight or nine before tea and 15 in the last session and I want one or two wickets on the day. When you have these little competitions with yourself, all of a sudden you realize that at the end of the day you have 3 for 60 and you’ve done the job for your team.

But that also depends on the captain, doesn’t it?

It does, and that’s why it is important to win the trust of your captain. Once you’ve done that he’s happy for you to set your fields and whatever tactics you want to apply against various batsmen. I had that rapport with Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook. They would just say, you know what you want to do, just do it. I prefer that as a spinner because if I messed up, I had only myself to blame. If it was somebody else’s fault, I’d really get mad.

Do you think the fascination with mystery spinners is bringing classical off spin to extinction?

It is. When I first started playing they hadn’t even heard of a finger spinner to play more than half a dozen Test matches. Everyone is obsessed with doosras and other variations. But good orthodox spin is as effective as the doosra and that’s been proven by stats. So, I just think you should do what you do bloody well, don’t try to be someone you’re not. For me, bowling doosras and all that stuff wasn’t my game. I couldn’t do it.

Did being a classical off spinner in the era of mystery spinners make things easy or difficult for you?

I think it was easy. I always like being a maverick, stand out and be different than anyone else. People told me you’re not going to make or fit in because you are a classical spinner. I took that as a challenge because I’ve always had that ‘I’ll prove you wrong’. I think it’s good. You want to be different, right? I do.

Let’s talk about India’s current No. 1 off-spinner – R Ashwin. What is your impression of him as a bowler?

I like him. I think he should have been playing here (at Lord’s). He hasn’t bowled enough overseas to be judged yet. When you’re used to bowling in India it is not easy to adjust quickly to bowling overseas. That’s because in India it is very easy to find the right pace to bowl at as a spinner as compared to these conditions. Since most wickets in India are pretty slow and low, even if you are a little wayward, you don’t get punished. In England and especially Australia, if you pitch it slightly short or wide, you get smashed. I’m sure Ashwin can bowl really well outside India because his record in India is fantastic. And if he can do it there he can do it anywhere.

What kind of change in pace is required depending on conditions?

It’s tricky. For me, I used to try and bowl the quickest I could while still getting the ball to turn. Once I nailed that, I stuck to it; that was my pace. It depends on different wickets. For instance, when we played in India, I had to bowl much slower in Kolkata than I did in Mumbai. The Mumbai wicket was beautiful – it had the spit and jump. So, I just had to bowl quickly and as soon as the seam hit the ground, the ball went bang! It was glorious to bowl on. On the slow and low Kolkata pitch I had to bowl really slow to get any turn. But again, in England, you have to bowl much slower. For instance, to get any turn at the Lord’s, you have to take the pace off the ball because it tends to skid on. The Oval is opposite – the faster you bowl, it digs in the pitch and turns, especially later in the game.

He (R Ashwin) is an attacking bowler by instinct. But in these conditions he is often expected to play a containing role. How do you alter your mindset?

I think you have to be flexible throughout the game. During certain parts of the match you have to be defensive in England. On the fourth and fifth day, you are just thrown the ball and you go on an all-attack mode. On the initial couple of days, I wouldn’t be attacking much. I’d still be trying to take wickets but in a very different way. I’d want a short leg, a deep midwicket and a catching midwicket because you know the batsman will try to hit you straight or flick you and you could get catches there. On days four and five, I’d want three men around the bat – a slip and two catchers – and I’d want a short midwicket. So, at different times, you have to have different strategies.

Does he (R Ashwin) need to accept that?

It should be admired that he is prepared to stick to his guns and be aggressive. Since he’s not been playing so far, he has a good chance to work his way on the English wickets – go to the nursery grounds, get batsmen to face him, bowl different deliveries, vary his pace and ask the batsman, ‘alright, what works? What is easy and what feels dangerous’? That’s what I used to do. I’d take a batsman and tell him, ‘I’ll bowl you five balls. Tell me which one you did or didn’t enjoy facing. Tell me which one you didn’t give monkeys about’. Sometimes I realized that what felt better to me, was not necessarily what most batsmen found tough.

Ashwin is a very intelligent cricketer—he thinks about the game a lot. Do you think that goes against him at times?

Sometimes, it does. It can be a hindrance and a help. When you’re bowling well, your variations tend to come off. When I was bowling badly – when my rhythm was bad, my fingers didn’t feel right and I knew I couldn’t spin the ball – I always kept a plan B to fall back on. I’d just look to hit the top of off-stump and get a lot of top-spin, so the ball dips and the batsman won’t be happy driving. This method could help him.

If the wickets in the last three Tests indicate the future of the nature of English wickets – slow and low – do you think you retired at the wrong time?

The wickets have become a lot slower and lower because all the moisture has been sucked out of the pitches and the grounds on the whole. I wish I could still play. Watching the last game and this too, I wished more than anything else that I was out there playing instead of talking about the game. But it’s not meant to be.

Are you worried about England’s scarce spin resources now that spinners will play a bigger role on these pitches?

They need to place genuine emphasis on developing spinners at grass-root level. Throughout England there are a lot of batting coaches, fast bowling coaches, nutritionists, mental conditioning coaches, etc. Spin coaches are few and far between. Last year, we had Mushy (Mushtaq Ahmed) with the team and he was part-time. So, as a spinner, for the half of the series I had no one to talk spin to. England haven’t really focused on spin bowling over the years, but now that the grounds and the wickets are drying up, they will need to. They need at least two world-class spinners quickly.

Do you intend to play a role in that development?

I don’t know. I am committed to broadcast at least for the next three years. I am happy to mentor any young spinner coming through but whether it will be a bigger or different role in the future, I’ll have to wait and see. I’m not a very good coach (smiles). Peter Such is one and he is trying to grow, which is great.

Are you worried about the fact that we don’t have many finger spinners these days who are happy to bowl in half sleeves?

I used to bowl in long sleeved shirts but that’s because I used to get sunburned. But yes, it does bother me a bit. I’d like to see more spinners bowl with a classical action. I think there’s something nice about the game when it’s played without any questions asked about it. One thing I am really proud of is that my action was never questioned. If you have to have a look at someone and say, ‘oh, wait, it that a chucker or not?’, if people have to stop and ask you, ‘is that a throw or not?’ what does that tell you?

Who is your favourite current spinner?

I like classical spinners. I like Nathan Lyon, who I think is fairly similar to me – very straight arm, high-chested action, gets revolutions on the ball. I like Scott Brothwick, the leg-spinner from Durham. I am the biggest advocate at the moment to push him forward. I believe he spoke to Shane Warne and got a couple of tips from him. Hopefully that’s helped him. With England’s current situation, he’s as ready for Test cricket as anyone else. If you’re going to play a spinner, play a guy with most potential and Scott is a world-class spinner. The problem is, he doesn’t get to bowl much for Durham. I don’t want to upset my friends at Durham but I feel he should switch to a county where he is bowling all the time.

One distinction you have over Shane Warne is that your record against India is fantastic. What is the secret of that?

I enjoyed playing against India. When we went to India, people said you’ll get lot of wickets there because they are all spinning pitches. First, I tried to convince them, ‘look, they’re not spinning wickets; they’re batting wickets’. I used to worry about that – the expectation that I was supposed to get loads of wickets in India. But then I just said I’m just going to embrace it. So, I made myself believe that no matter how I bowl, I will always pick up the odd wicket. I think that was a good mindset to go there with. India have some of the best players of spin in the world but they also tend to be the aggressive ones. The likes of Sehwag, Tendulkar, they look to knock you off your mark and play their shots.

I loved having a battle with Sehwag. He was such an aggressive player that I knew if I could get the ball exactly where I wanted, I could spin him out of the game. That happened only about three times but I enjoyed the battle. He played that lovely drive on the onside and I knew I could get one to sneak in through his gate as he played that shot. When that actually happens, the feeling is so elating. You enjoy it because you know he’s playing the same game. He knows that that ball could get him out but he doesn’t give it up. I don’t give up bowling it even though I know I could be hit for a few fours.

Shirin Sadikot

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Want Ishant to be the leader: Dawes

India’s bowling coach talks about his large and varied group of pacers in England

“Scoring runs is all very well. But to win a Test match, you need bowlers to take 20 wickets”.

As clichéd the sentence is, its worth cannot be overstated. And so, the five wise men in charge of Team India’s selection, decided to send a pack of seven pace bowlers – including a seam bowling all-rounder – to England for the five-Test series.

While the batsmen ruled the roost in the first Test, the Indian pacers put up a rather courageous and disciplined performance on a moribund Trent Bridge pitch. Bhuvneshwar Kumar bagged his first Test five-wicket haul and Ishant Sharma delivered a burst of brilliance during his post-lunch spell on the third day.

The way the pacers stuck to their plan of bowling full and straight, was testimony to the time and effort they put into their preparations since getting to the UK.

To get an insight into how the bowlers readied themselves for the big Test series, BCCI.TV spoke to India’s bowling coach, Joe Dawes ahead of the Lord’s Test. Dawes spoke about the variation in the pace attack and discussed some of the bowlers individually.

How challenging is it to come here with such a young and inexperienced bowling group?

There’s no doubt it is a challenge but it is more exciting really. We have seven young bowlers. You can spend a lot of time getting overwhelmed by that fact but you’d rather take it as an exciting challenge. We prepared well and used the two warm-up matches to get the lengths right and adapting to the conditions. That has made the boys more confident.

It’s important for them to rest their bodies but then also get stronger before going into a series of five back to back Tests. That is a massive task for us – to get their bowling right and also ensuring their fitness level is high.

Although the wicket in first Test was more like an Indian pitch, what is the single most important thing they need to be mindful of when bowling on England pitches?

It’s all about sticking to a simple plan of trying to hit the top of off-stump and bowl a good bouncer. This group of bowlers did well in South Africa and New Zealand and they have learnt that in overseas Tests when the conditions are in your favour, you don’t need to try too hard. Just stick to the plan and let the wickets do the rest.

We put a target on the top of the off-stump and ask the guys to hit it. You’d rather get driven on the front foot than hit off the backfoot. The process started when we got here. In Leicester, in our first practice match, the boys were still adapting and they bowled short often. In the second warm-up, that improved and the length got much fuller. We saw the result in the first Test where the boys bowled consistently full length.

How has it been to have such a large group of pacers?

We are in a good place when it comes to our pace attack, having seven, including Stuart Binny, to choose from. For the first time we’ve got a couple of tall guys in Ishant and Pankaj, which is good. We’ve got Bhuvi, who swings the ball and we have pace in Shami and Varun. Stuey can be very useful in conditions conducive for swing. So, irrespective of the kind of wickets we get, we have all basis covered when it comes to our bowling.

Stuart Binny didn’t bowl much in the first Test. Do you reckon he will have a bigger role to play with the ball in the coming matches?

Stuey could play a very important role in this series if we decide to go in with five bowlers in most matches. A seam bowling all-rounder is great to have in any side. The good thing about him is that he is a really fine batsman too. That means playing him doesn’t deteriorate our batting. And even if he doesn’t bowl many overs, we still have a proper batsman down there. He has worked really hard on both his bowling and batting.

A crucial weapon for the pacers is the bouncer. Do you think it remains as effective with the pace of most Indian bowlers?

I know the bouncer is not that effective on the slow and low wickets. But it is a weapon that every pacer has to develop. Bhuvi is perhaps our slowest bowler in this attack and yet he has the best bouncer in the group, because it is a surprise. He has gotten Chris Gayle out with a bouncer a couple of times. The key is when to bowl it. But if you don’t bowl it, you’re letting the batsman off.

What is your first impression of Ishwar Pandey?

He’s a good bloke and good bowler. He’s someone who would just settle in and bowl good line and length. We think he is a big part of the future of this group because he is someone who can just lock in from one end, ask questions all the time off the batsmen.

How has it been working with someone like Pankaj Singh, who is a veteran in India’s domestic circuit?

Pankaj has been fantastic. It’s been such a learning experience to talk to him and to listen to him talk about cricket. That maturity of having been around longer than the other guys shines through. He knows what he wants to do. He has to step up to meet the challenges of international cricket like anyone who gets in the team first and he has been working hard. But he comes in with a belief in his game, which is a big part of the process.

Who is the leader of India’s bowling attack after Zaheer Khan?

The obvious choice is Ishant. He has been around for a long time, played 55 Test matches. He needs to step up and assume the leadership of this attack.

Do you think he is ready for that role?

I think he is exciting. You’ve got a bloke who’s 25 years of age and played 55 Test matches. He has had a pretty rough time so far – came in as a super star, got injured, went in and out, had various levels of success – some incredible highs and lows. I admire the fact that he doesn’t let much of that affect him. We push him to be the leader and he wants to be one. We’ve got high expectations off him and does he always meet them? No. But that has never been for the lack of trying.

Don’t you think for a bowler of his skill and potential he is a little inconsistent?

I know people are sick of hearing that Ishy is unlucky. I don’t think he is unlucky but he doesn’t always get the reward when he bowls well. He bowled really well in SA and NZ and got some good wickets too, but it still doesn’t reflect how well he actually bowled. One thing I can tell you is that now he understands the mental side of bowling much better. He knows what he wants to do and we have seen that in the last year or so. There is still a ball every over that you don’t want and that’s frustrating. But I believe he is improving in the consistency aspect.

He seemed to have a lot of problems with his front foot, especially during the two practice matches.

I think it’s a sign that he has improved his pace and was trying to get his lengths right. We worked on his run-up during the second practice match – a run-up is something that keeps evolving with time. Because he is now a little fitter and stronger than he was and is more confident, he needed to make a tweak in his run-up, which we did.

What is your take on R Ashwin?

I admire that Ash has great belief in his ability and that he is very single-minded in what he tries to do. Can he keep it simpler? I think he can. But that is part of the learning process. He is the fastest Indian spinner to 100 wickets and that is amazing considering the great history of spin bowling in the country. He now has to adapt bowling on the overseas wickets. 

Shirin Sadikot

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