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IND vs NZ: Decoding the Love Affair of Left-arm Spinners With the Wankhede Stadium

Ajaz Patel is just the third bowler in history to claim all 10 wickets in an innings. (BCCI Photo)

Ajaz Patel is just the third bowler in history to claim all 10 wickets in an innings. (BCCI Photo)

There is something about left-arm spinners and the Wankhede Stadium. They have a special love affair with this venue. The pitch conditions here offer something more to them because of the soil type, red and yellow soil that offers turn with bounce unlike the usual black soil at other venues.

Every spinner loves to bowl at the Wankhede Stadium. The turn that it offers with the bounce rewards the spinners who are accurate in their line and length. The close-in fielders are always kept interested right from the first day of a Test match, or a first-class fixture, at this historic venue. On the eve of the latest Test at this venue that has hosted 26 Tests from 1975, all kinds of bowlers have enjoyed bowling here. Often you hear players talk highly about the Wankhede Stadium pitch, offering everything to all skill sets that is required in a match.

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India captain Virat Kohli said on the eve of the Test last Thursday: “It looks like a typical Wankhede wicket with nice bounce and gives value for all kinds of bowlers at the Wankhede. When you bat well, you can score runs. All skill sets will be in play all the time. You know you can utilise the resources well. Team that does better can go on to win the Test. Batsmen can believe in scoring runs even in difficult situations because the pitch allows you to. You need to be a lot disciplined on this pitch. All bowlers, especially with the red ball, enjoy bowling here. A great cricketing wicket.”

And, left-arm spinner from New Zealand, Ajaz Patel created history by becoming only the third bowler in Tests to pick up all 10 wickets in a Test match, joining the elite club of Jim Laker of England (1956) and Anil Kumble (1999). With figures of 10 for 119 and match figures of 14 for 225. There is something about left-arm spinners and the Wankhede Stadium. They have a special love affair with this venue. The pitch conditions here offer something more to them because of the soil type, red and yellow soil that offers turn with bounce unlike the usual black soil at other venues.

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Among the 43 five-wicket hauls in Tests at the Wankhede (before the start of the New Zealand second innings on Sunday), 14 are by left-arm spinners. 15 are by off-spinners and rest 12 by the quicks underlining Kohli’s statement about “All bowlers enjoy bowling here”. Former India and Railways left-arm spinner and now a television commentator, Murali Kartik always enjoyed bowling at the Wankhede. In the two Tests here, he took 10 wickets. He is also remembered for his 6/27 at the very venue in an ODI against Australia in 2007. Kartik told news18.com: “For a spinner, this ground has always been about bounce. As a left-arm spinner, you have to play the ball. If somebody bowls wicket-to-wicket, you have to play at it. You bring a lot of things into play like the leg before wicket, bat-pad, slip catches. Bounce here has been a brilliant friend for a left-arm spinner at the Wankhede. For Ajaz, who struggled in Kanpur (first Test), to have a 10-for in the next game, he managed to get it right. Every time, he bowled wicket-to-wicket, turned the ball from the middle of the wicket.”

‘DANGEROUS WHEN IT STARTS TURNING’

Former Mumbai Ranji Trophy-winning captain, Test player and long-time curator of the Wankhede Stadium pitch Sudhir Naik said that it is not just a coincidence that left-arm spinners have the most five-wicket hauls at the Wankhede. The 76-year-old Naik explained to news18.com: “When the ball starts turning, normally on any turning wicket, left-arm spinners are more dangerous. Most of the batters are right-handers. When the ball pitches on middle and off, the batters are not sure which way it turns. Some go straight, some turn. Halfway if the batsman stands, it takes the edge. If he plays for the turn, there are more chances of him getting leg before wicket or being bowled.

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“With the off-spinner bowling, he has to pitch outside the off-stump to get a wicket. Right-hand batters step out and hit. Off-spinners like S Venkataraghavan can exploit these types of pitches because they are faster off-spinners. Off-spinners like EAS Prasanna flight the ball and do not get much purchase on such wickets. Against Venkataraghavan, batsmen had no time to step out. They have to stay at the crease.”

Naik said that traditionally, Mumbai maidan pitches helped left-arm spinners. He said: “In olden days, when Times Shield (Mumbai Cricket Association’s premier local tournament) was played in April or May, all the gymkhana grounds and maidans were turners and those who took a majority of the wickets were Padmakar Shivalkar for Tatas and Dhiraj Parsana and Eknath Solkar for Mafatlal. For ACC, Bapu Nadkarni made life hell for the batsmen. For right-handers to hit against the spin was difficult. Normally, the batsman tries to hit on the on-side.” Naik said that for his club, National CC, he always relied on two left-arm spinners Nilesh Kulkarni and Rajesh Pawar to deliver.

‘BATSMEN HAVE TO ADAPT, ADJUST’

The tall Kulkarni, who played three Tests for India but was a domestic giant with his left-arm spin, picking up 357 first-class wickets, said: “At the Wankhede, finger spinners get extra spin. You beat everyone with spin and bounce and that’s when it becomes lethal. Non-regular bowlers have also taken wickets at the Wankhede. Michael Clarke of Australia is a classic case (6 for 9 in 2004). Because it has bounce, batsmen have to adapt and adjust. Wankhede soil is unique with red and yellow soil. It traditionally offers spin, and when it does, it becomes difficult to tackle. If people can adapt and adjust, they survive. Otherwise they struggle.

Wankhede Stadium, a paradise for left-arm spinners. (BCCI Photo)

“The challenge for people is to adapt to spin and bounce. Traditionally, Indian batters have done well here. They know how to adapt and adjust. Even though Ajaz took 10, which is phenomenal, India bowled them out for 62. The Indian bowlers exploited the wicket better. They bowled in the areas, got wickets in slips and some went for big shots. Whereas, Ajaz got a couple of wickets with batsmen going for hoicks at long off or mid-on. At Wankhede, if you bowl in the right areas with the right pace, you succeed. It is a dream wicket for the spinners.”

‘IT IS HOW YOU BOWL’

It is often said that left-arm spinners make life difficult for right-handed batters and vice-versa. Former India left-arm spinner Venkatapathi Raju, played two Tests at the Wankhede in the 1990s, picking up 12 wickets including 5/60 and 3/85 against the West Indies in 1994. Four of Raju’s eight wickets in that 1994 Test were left-handers. Raju said: “It is how you bowl on a wicket. Mumbai has always been good for anybody. It gives you a chance to bowl well and also gives a chance for the batsman to bat well. It is often said about right-handed batsmen being troubled by left-arm spinners or vice-versa. In the end, it is how you bowl.”

Kulkarni seconded Raju. “It doesn’t matter if there are more right-handed batters in the opposition. While other pitches in the country become slow, Wankhede is consistent with bounce. As the Test progresses it slows down, on days four and five, it slows down and does not turn as sharp as on the earlier days. In the current Mumbai Test, on the first two days, people could not go on the back foot and survive because of the sharpness, turn and bounce. You have to adjust length and pace. And, if you are tall, it helps. Anil Kumble was quick through the air and batsmen found it difficult to get time to adjust at Wankhede when it turns. Because of my tall stature, even if I did not spin the ball, I got wickets on bounce. I beat them with bounce.”

‘NEED TO BE VERY ACCURATE’

Former Test opener and a remarkable batsman for Mumbai, Wasim Jaffer, said about the challenges of facing a left-arm spinner at the Wankhede from his experience. He told this website: “First of all, you need to be very accurate as a left-arm spinner. Not every left-arm spinner took wickets here. Whoever got wickets were accurate and attacked the stumps. When you attack, leg before wicket, bowled, caught behind come into play. Whoever took wickets were actually consistent and bowled to the stumps. When the ball spins, it creates doubts on the minds of the batsmen. The pitch starts to turn on Day 3. The straight ball becomes dangerous. And when the ball is spinning, it becomes that much more dangerous. Any ball in the stump line makes the batsmen play. The straight ball is a challenge. You have to play at most of the balls. That is why those bowlers have done well at Wankhede. They get turn and bounce. On red soil, the ball turns with a lot of pace, which you did not see in Kanpur. Black soil makes the ball turn slowly. With red soil, it turns with the bounce. That is why spinners are always interested in the game at Wankhede.”

Jaffer, a right-handed batsman, has scored 1,944 runs in 31 Tests and 19,410 runs in 260 first-class matches. The 43-year-old current coach of Odisha said: “It all depends on surface to surface. Outside rough for the off-spinner creates trouble to right-handers. Everything comes in, you cannot leave. When the opposition has a left-arm seamer, it helps the off-spinner. That is why Australia’s Mitchell Starc will help Nathan Lyon as he is going to create rough for him. For a left-arm spinner, if you are attacking the stumps, you have to play a majority of the balls. Slips and silly point come into play. If you are consistent in your length, it makes it even more difficult for the batsmen.”

In this Mumbai Test, New Zealand fielded two left-arm spinners, Rachin Ravindra besides Ajaz. While Ajaz picked up 14 for 225, the best ever match figures at the Wankhede, Ravindra managed to take 3/56 in the second innings. While Ajaz was accurate and bowling wicket to wicket, Ravindra was often straying around off-stump and outside off, and with the ball turning away, there was less chance of him getting wickets. Even among the wickets he got, Kohli chopped the ball on to his stumps while cutting and Wriddhiman Saha was caught in the deep on Sunday. Ajaz was rewarded for his accuracy.

Naik said: “As regards to Ajaz, he was very accurate. Because of his short height and bowling in lower trajectory, he ended up getting more wickets.” Jaffer added: “Ajaz was far more consistent. He thinks like a left-arm spinner and bowls like a left-arm spinner. Rachin has not bowled as much as Ajaz has in first-class cricket. As a specialist, you bowl and think like a spinner. For someone who is a part-timer, he can do it for a smaller period but you cannot play him as a specialist and expect him to deliver like one.”

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first published:December 06, 2021, 10:02 IST