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Decoded: India's unceremonious spin conundrum

Last updated on 28 Jan 2022 | 02:59 PM
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Decoded: India's unceremonious spin conundrum

From Hardik Pandya's fitness to the dynamics of ODI cricket, the unforeseen downfall in India's spin returns has multiple layers

"I think through the middle overs we need to probably improve our wicket-taking options," said India head coach Rahul Dravid after the 0-3 whitewash in the ODI series in South Africa. “Spinners do play a big role in that”, Dravid admitted and hence mentioned the elephant in the room - the surprisingly low returns from the Indian spinners. 

India have had an indifferent time in ODI cricket since the 2019 World Cup. The most noticeable aspect of this unfruitful road has been the outcomes of their last three series outside Asia - 0-3 in South Africa, 1-2 in Australia and 0-3 in New Zealand. This dismal record is owed to many reasons but the unproductivity of the spinners is probably the most staggering entry to the list. Since the 2019 World Cup, there is no Indian representative on the top 10 spinners’ list from Test playing nations. 

It is a big downfall from the previous cycle of ICC events - Champion Trophy 2017 and World Cup 2019 - during which Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav topped the spin bowling charts across the globe.

They dismantled every batting line-up in their way. Their partnership was paramount to India’s first ODI series win in South Africa in 2018. Kuldeep and Chahal accounted for 33 of the 53 wickets India picked in that series. In the 2022 series in South Africa, India’s spinners delivered contrary results. They crashed dramatically, being outbowled by the spinners of a country that have never been known for their spin bowlers before. The difference is alarming.

A series-by-series comparison below showcases India’s spin bowling has got derailed, majorly since 2020. India spinners trumped their Kiwi counterparts convincingly but India were whitewashed 0-3 since spin was not New Zealand’s weapon. Post the pandemic break, Indian spinners have been poor against Australia, England and South Africa while being at par with Sri Lanka. The three ODIs against England were played on the flat tracks in Pune. In addition, India bore the disadvantage of bowling under the effect of dew in all games but an economy of 8 runs per over is still appalling. 

How did it come down to this? The answer has multiple layers. One will also have to understand India’s approach with their spinners. From 2013 up until the 2017 Champions Trophy, India’s spin bowling was largely about Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. 


Ashwin played 67 ODIs in this period and Jadeja featured in 76. They played 61 ODIs together, picking 165 wickets between them at 33.4 runs apiece. However, the management turned their back on both of them after the lost final in the Champions Trophy. 

From two finger spinners, India switched their strategy to two young wrist-spinners in Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav. Ashwin-Jadeja never played together since this overhaul, replaced by the Chahal-Kuldeep combo that appeared in 34 ODIs together until the 2019 World Cup. They pouched 118 wickets at 25.7 runs apiece. India reaped benefits from this shift. But since the World Cup, they have appeared only twice together. 

There are two concurrent reasons behind this second shift - Hardik Pandya fading away as an all-rounder due to recurring injuries and Jadeja's emergence as a batting all-rounder. The swap between a spin bowling all-rounder and a pace bowling all-rounder separated the Chahal-Kuldeep combo as the situation demanded India to play a third specialist seamer. It is amazing how little things can upset a setup.

Meanwhile, Jadeja returned as a batting all-rounder, averaging 53.9 and 67.4 with the ball in 2019 and 2020 respectively. This evacuated the bite off India’s spin attack, at least from one end. Interestingly, India have played at least one wrist-spinner in 23 of their 24 ODIs since the 2019 World Cup. Either one of Chahal or Kuldeep has featured in 22 of those. 


Unfortunately, both the wrist-spinners have been found out ever since their segregation. 

Chahal was always a bowler of limited variations. In times where we see many leg-spinners rely heavily on googlies, Chahal has bowled nearly 73% leg breaks in his career. It is followed by 11% of googlies. For long, his primary wicket-taking weapon has been dangling the carrot outside. It is probably easy to figure out such spinners. The same is visible in his numbers pre and post the 2019 World Cup. The leg-breaks have taken a toll. 

In a similar vein for Kuldeep, the variations drop alarmingly from his chinaman (68.9%) and the googlies (21.8%). His slow pace also makes him further susceptible. The management has also mismanaged him. For instance, throwing him under the bus in the second ODI in Pune.

In addition, the sweep has been their kryptonite. Since 2020, Kuldeep has been swept on 15.3% of his deliveries, going at an economy of 12 for only two wickets. For Chahal, the same numbers are, 11%, 15 runs per over and two wickets.

It is not that wrist-spin is not effective anymore. The overall aggregate for wrist-spinners in the 2017-2019 and 2019-present cycle showcase similar numbers. It is just a classic case of two spinners getting found out. You can also attribute it to them missing MS Dhoni behind the stumps but that would be shallow. Also, it is surprising that India didn’t give more games to Rahul Chahar who played only one ODI during this period. Maybe the mediocre second half of IPL 2021 pushed him out of the picture.


When Jadeja was not available for selection against England last year, India had a strange pecking order for the vacant finger-spin slot - Krunal Pandya, Washington Sundar and Ashwin. It is strange because Krunal hardly turns the ball. Yet, he got the nod ahead of Sundar who was available for selection. However, Sundar was the leading contender for the T20 World Cup before he broke his finger. That is when Ashwin came in, at the back of his decent outings in the IPL.

While his return to T20Is was smooth, the ODI comeback left a lot to be desired in South Africa. The trick lies in the tough conditions for the finger-spinners to prevail - only four fielders outside the ring in the middle overs (11 to 40) and two new balls. You may wonder why is it a challenge for a spinner with an impeccable record in T20 powerplays. But the batters have more time in 50-over cricket to get their eye in and attack. ODI cricket becomes too easy for batters at times. That is where the other layer behind spinners’ ineffectiveness unfolds itself, the one that is beyond their control. 


The pacers are not giving providing early breakthroughs for the spinners to feast on the pressure. During the peak of Chahal-Kuldeep combo, India bowlers averaged 35.1 in the overs 1 to 10. They picked 84 wickets in 62 matches. Since the World Cup 2019, they average 108.2 for only 13 wickets in 24 matches. The atrocious returns from the new ball are having a domino effect in the middle-overs, resulting in a complete failure of the bowling line-up. 

The lack of ODI cricket has also played its part. In 2021, India played 16 T20Is, 14 Tests and only six ODIs, three of which were with a second-string side. With the ODI World Cup coming closer, the focus is also slowly shifting on the format once again. There is plenty of time to fix things. On the upside, Indian cricket contain more options than ever. On the downside, every other option is either untested or looks better only because they have not played in recent memory. That is what you buy from Kuldeep’s selection for the ODIs against West Indies. He is picked without any competitive cricket in the last six months. 

The 18-member squad contains five spin bowling options in total - three wrist-spinners in Kuldeep, Chahal and the 21-year old Ravi Bishnoi alongside two batting all-rounders in Deepak Hooda and Washington Sundar. You expect at least two of them to play. Ideally, they should be among Bishnoi, Hooda and Sundar. But then, it is a measure of their novelty to international cricket rather than any proven value as yet. 

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