Have we all been get­ting in a spin for years over this flawed the­ory?

As Eng­land strug­gle against spin in In­dia, Garfield Robin­son of­fers a sur­pris­ing in­sight into why some ac­cepted truths may be caus­ing the prob­lem


West Indies bats­man Ros­ton Chase was bat­ting serenely on 31 dur­ing the sec­ond in­nings of the first Test against Pak­istan at the Dubai In­ter­na­tional Cricket Sta­dium.

The hazard of fac­ing Yasir Shah on a grip­ping fifth-day sur­face was ex­ac­er­bated by the rough that had long de­vel­oped out­side the right-han­der’s leg-stump. The Pak­istani leg-break bowler was do­ing his best to ex­ploit the dis­turbed area. The bats­man was do­ing his best to cope.

Shah aimed for the rough and found it; Chase made a siz­able stride to leg and smacked the ball through the mid­wicket area for four. “Play­ing the shot against the spin!” ex­claimed one com­men­ta­tor on tele­vi­sion. “Chase dares to go against the turn,” one text com­men­ta­tor wrote. “How’s that for au­dac­ity?” went another.

Next ball the bats­man at­tempted a sim­i­lar shot to a de­liv­ery in the same vicin­ity. He was bowled.

His wicket was seen as jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the scep­ti­cism sur­round­ing the wis­dom of his pre­vi­ous shot. But the shot was risky, I’d sub­mit, not be­cause it was played against the spin; rather, the hazard rested in the fact that with the ball land­ing on the rough area, it was im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict its de­gree of turn and height of bounce. The shot there­fore could not have been played with any rea­son­able level of cer­tainty.

Cricket ex­perts are of­ten heard chastis­ing bats­men for play­ing against the spin. This is al­ways held as dan­ger­ous and in­ad­vis­able. The right-handed bats­man, for ex­am­ple, is en­cour­aged to play the ball turn­ing from off onto the leg-side. Hit­ting such a de­liv­ery back to off is to court dan­ger. And pity the un­for­tu­nate bats­man who gets out flout­ing this pre­cept.

To con­sis­tently play against the spin is to vi­o­late crick­et­ing or­tho­doxy. Pun­dits and ex­perts of­ten look askance at bats­men com­mit­ting this trans­gres­sion and coaches of­ten be­rate their charges for do­ing it.

One highly re­garded coach­ing web­site, of­fer­ing use­ful tips and of­ten fea­tur­ing elite play­ers giv­ing in­struc­tions, dis­pensed this coun­sel: “If the ball is turn­ing in (off-spin to a right handed bats­man); the best ar­eas to score are be­tween mid-off and mid­wicket. If you keep an open body po­si­tion with your hips to­wards the tar­get area the swing of the bat can be straight. It’s safe be­cause you are ac­count­ing for the ball turn­ing back into you (play­ing with the spin)…Driv­ing wide on the off­side is more dan­ger­ous be­cause you are play­ing against the spin.

“For the ball turn­ing away, the dan­ger changes and so does the scor­ing area. Now you would look to drive from straight to cover. The wider the line of bowl­ing, the wider you can di­rect the ball safely.”

Noth­ing out of the or­di­nary there. Most afi­ciona­dos would agree with those in­struc­tions. These are sim­ply tra­di­tional the­o­ries passed from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, that have as­sumed a veil of truth. So widely ac­cepted are they as to be long re­garded as crick­et­ing science.

But the­o­ries can be de­bunked or ex­panded. His­tory is re­plete with con­cepts held to be true, only to have been dis­proven, or, in some cases, to dis­cover they have some ad­di­tional di­men­sion not pre­vi­ously con­tem­plated.

Play­ing with the turn might just be slightly more dan­ger­ous than play­ing against it. Con­sider this: to play the off­spin­ner to the leg-side, which is to say with the spin, is to play across the line; while play­ing him back into the off­side, or against the spin, is to meet the ball with the face of the bat, and more likely a safer way to play. In pre­sent­ing the full face the bats­man has the great­est chance of find­ing the mid­dle of the bat.

Brian Lara scored 688 runs at 114.66 in a three-Test se­ries against Sri Lanka and Mut­tiah Mu­ralitha­ran in 2001/2002. Af­ter the tour he re­vealed some ad­vice re­ceived from Sir Garfield Sobers. Lara sought the great man’s coun­sel prior to the visit and was ad­vised that he should play the off-spin­ner “back to where he was com­ing from.” In other words, Sobers told him to play against the spin.

To be sure, Lara is one of the best

To play off-spin to the leg side, with the spin, is to play across the line. Play­ing back to the off-side is to meet the ball with the face of the bat

bats­men the game has seen and, with his wide range, ag­gres­sive in­tent, and pre­cise foot­work, was rightly viewed as be­ing adept at han­dling spin. But if he thinks he was made even bet­ter by Sobers’ guid­ance then who are we to dis­agree? Mu­rali, in­ci­den­tally, thinks the left-han­der the best bats­man’s he faced.

In his book, Be­hind The Shades, Dun­can Fletcher, the highly re­garded former Eng­land and In­dian coach, tells of an in­ci­dent, also in Sri Lanka, where Gra­ham Thorpe was striv­ing to de­ci­pher the puzzles pre­sented by Mu­ralitha­ran. With Thorpe be­ing a left-han­der, Mu­rali’s stock de­liv­ery would have been turn­ing from leg to off.

“Thorpe’s ini­tial the­ory, based on pre­vi­ous ad­vice, was that he needed to close him­self off in his stance and look to hit the ball through the off side, even though, as we said, Mu­rali was pitch­ing the ball on or out­side the leg stump. I told him to think about how he could hit the ball back where it spins from, hit­ting a straight ball with a straight bat. The an­swer was to open up his stance and hit to the leg side with a straight bat. That might seem like hit­ting against the spin to old-timers, but the laws of ge­om­e­try will back me up to prove that he was, in fact, play­ing a straight ball.”

The ad­vice Fletcher gave Thorpe was sim­i­lar to that which Sobers of­fered to Lara. And if their suc­cess against the Sri Lankan ma­gi­cian is any­thing to go by, the ad­vice seemed to have been help­ful. What this means is that bats­men, over the years, might not have been well served by this long ac­cepted method of ne­go­ti­at­ing spin bowl­ing. Per­haps, there­fore, coaches should no longer frown when they ob­serve bats­men play­ing against the spin.

“Hit­ting a straight ball with a straight bat,” as Fletcher ad­vo­cated, is what the coach­ing man­ual has al­ways in­structed. Play­ing the ball turn­ing from off, to the leg-side does not fol­low that guide­line.

There is no doubt that bats­men are re­quired to play both with and against the turn, es­pe­cially when con­fronting a good spin­ner. But play­ing against the spin should not, as it fre­quently is, be thought of as reck­less.

It just might be the bet­ter way.

PIC­TURES: Getty Im­ages

Is he break­ing the rules? Ros­ton Chase, of the West Indies, pre­pares to hit Pak­istan’s Yasir Khan through mid­wicket

Un­ortho­dox: Gra­ham Thorpe played Sri Lankan great Mut­tiah Mu­ralitha­ran into the leg side against the spin

Best of the best: Brian Lara was Mu­rali’s tough­est op­po­nent

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