Sri Lanka’s epidemic of non-spinning “spinners”

Dilruwan Perera

“They should be banished from the first-class game. It winds me up, if you are a spinner, spin the ball,” said Graeme Swann, arguably the second-best off-spinner to have played Test cricket since Murali’s retirement, about the trundlers in the English first-class system.

He was right. In fact, “spinner” is often a misnomer in cricket that is liberally used to refer to anyone who bowls slow. You aren’t a batsman if you can’t bat. You aren’t a fast bowler if you can’t bowl fast. But you are a spinner, no matter you spin the ball or not.

The peculiarity of this nomenclature is no more accentuated anywhere else than in Sri Lanka for, since the retirement of Murali, the island nation has hardly produced any genuine spinner but plenty of slow bowlers who have been conveniently pigeonholed as spinners.

The result of this can clearly be seen in the fact that the Sri Lankan spinners average 29.34 with the ball at home since around Mahela Jayawardena’s retirement despite there being evidence that the pitches have become extremely favorable for spinners since then.  

The proliferation of slow bowlers masqueraded as spinners at the expense of actual spinners has been the major reason for this poor performance of the so-called spinners at home, which in turn has resulted in the decline of the team’s performance at home.

How and why did it happen?

Well, as the mystery of Mendis petered out and the off-spin of Suraj Randiv proved to be ineffective during Sri Lanka’s frantic search for Murali’s replacement, Sri Lanka slowly settled in for Rangana Herath’s steady slow left arm.

This was a watershed moment in Sri Lanka’s recent Test history because beyond this Sri Lanka would stop looking for a lead spinner and allow Herath to take the reins as the leader of the attack. This is significant because this manifested a paradigm shift. That is, it showed that Sri Lanka was willing to wait for batsmen to make mistakes rather than prizing wickets off batsmen’s hands as they were used to during Murali’s time.

Herath wasn’t a wicket-taker. He hardly spun the ball. In fact, he hardly had any control over his much-vaunted and arguably his most dangerous weapon—the slider. By his own admission, even he had no idea if the ball would turn or slide on with the arm. But what worked in his favor was his unrelenting accuracy and his unassuming ability to outsmart and outthink batsmen.

Sri Lanka found assurance in his approach. You couldn’t have faulted them then because Sri Lanka’s production line of spinners had run dry and Herath was all they were left with at that time. However, instead of acknowledging Herath’s shortcomings and using him as a stopgap solution while trying to search for and groom a more attacking spinner, Sri Lanka made Herath’s way of bowling their template for success.

This slow-killing, time-biding approach of bowling dot balls after dot balls and strangulating batsmen coincided with Mathews’ ascendency to the helm of the Test cricket team. Mathews’ penchant for attritional cricket became the perfect match for Sri Lanka’s patient spin bowling and this lethal combination became a slow poison that started consuming Sri Lanka cricket from within.

As an aside, to top everything off, following the retirement of Sangakkara and Jayawardena, the batsmen too started adopting this attritional form of cricket, making Sri Lanka’s strategy to win Tests a who-blinks-first fest of taking it deep and waiting for oppositions to give away. In other words, Sri Lanka started to adopt its own limitations as its standard.

To make matters worse, Sri Lanka partnered Herath with Dilruwan Perera—who is a mirror image of the slow left-armer—further attesting to Sri Lanka’s commitment to this defensive approach.

At this point, it must be stated that building an entire thesis about the positive correlation between Sri Lanka’s poor show in Tests at home and the defensive spin bowling strategy on the premise that Herath wasn’t good enough may seem precarious.

After all, Herath is widely considered as a legendary spinner within Sri Lanka, and this belief will only be seen as a vindication of Sri Lanka’s approach. Therefore, it is paramount that this popular belief is debunked first.

Most may find the criticisms against Herath harsh for his average of 23.45 at home since Mahela’s retirement is only marginally worse than Ashwin’s average of 22.06 at home during the same period. However, one thing we should note is that Herath bowled on a lot more spin-friendly surfaces than Ashwin has. Yes, pitches in Sri Lanka have been more conducive for spin than the Indian ones.

To prove this argument, one only needs to look at how well the same team has fared against the same bowlers and vice versa in these two countries. Indian batsmen average 51.94 against Sri Lanka in India since 2014 whereas their average drops to 39.88 in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan batsmen average 23.67 against India in Sri Lanka while their average in India is a bit better at 26.4. On the other hand, Indian spinners average 28.22 against Sri Lanka in India and 22.29 in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan spinners average 47.26 in Sri Lanka against India and 58.66 in India.

Sri Lanka's and India's bowling average against each other since 2014
Sri Lanka's and India's batting average against each other since 2014

Batsmen from both countries have done worse in Sri Lanka while the spinners have done better. All this shows is that pitches in Sri Lanka have been tougher for batting and have offered more for the spinners. Consequently, this further widens the gap between Ashwin and Herath and makes Herath look a lot worse.

Still, an average of 23.45, you might think, shouldn’t warrant such harsh criticisms. Yes, Murali did average only 19.56 at home but it is unfair to expect anyone to be even close to as successful as Murali was, you may say.

But there is one thing to note here. Since around 2014, pitches in Sri Lanka have favored spinners more than they ever have in their history. Besides, Herath was fortunate to have the best part of his career coincide with the DRS era during which umpires became more willing to rule batsmen out LBW when spinners beat their inside edge. Thus, it is not entirely unreasonable to have expected Herath to average close to what Murali did.

However, Herath’s record would have still been good enough for a support spinner. There is no denying this fact. But the problem was that he was Sri Lanka’s lead spinner.

You could also argue that Sri Lanka’s record at home would have been a lot better had Herath’s partners bowled better. But the fact is that Herath wouldn’t have picked as many wickets as he did had his partners been better.

There is a reason why Herath wasn’t really effective when he played alongside Murali. Murali was blast fishing while Herath chucked the sinker and waited for batsmen to take the bait. But after Murali, Herath didn’t have to compete with anyone for the fish. They were all his to take.

Nevertheless, Sri Lanka’s lethargic approach to spin bowling was not just a product of Sri Lanka’s post-Murali survival plan. If you look at the domestic circuit, you will realize that this approach is only an extension of the deeper malaise afflicting the domestic system.

Sri Lanka’s domestic system is littered with slow-left armers who hardly spin the ball. They have been dominating the bowling charts for a long time. In fact, four of the top five wicket-takers in the last season of Sri Lanka’s first-class tournament were all left armers. In the previous season, all of the top five wicket-takers were left armers. The last time less than four of the top five wicket-takers were left armers was four seasons ago.

This is because our first-class matches are played on rank turners. So, all that the ‘spinners’ need to do is to bowl accurately as the pitch does the rest for them. This inhibits the growth of wrist spinners particularly since the pitches nullify their biggest strength—their ability to produce prodigious turn. Since finger spinners are generally more accurate than wrist spinners and the pitches allow finger spinners to turn the ball as much as wrist spinners, playing finger spinners brings the same benefit but at a vastly diminished risk. And since slow left armers take the ball away from the right-handers, who are the majority, the system is skewed in favor of left armers.

Image result for malinda pushpakumara
Slow left armers galore at the domestic level.

However, when these slow left armers bowl in Tests, they are defanged by the better pitches that offer comparatively less assistance. Having been trussed by the pitch, these spinners are, then, reduced to relying on tight bowling and building pressure to earn their wickets, a modality that isn’t good enough to outperform batsmen at the Test level.  

This argument is further strengthened by the fact that Malinda Pushpakumara, who is a domestic legend with an average of 20.03, averages a whopping 37.14 in Tests despite having played all of his Tests at home.

Two years back, he made headlines when he picked up a ten-wicket haul in an innings in a first-class fixture. But little did people know that another left armer, Chamikara Edirisinghe, fell short of Pushpakumara’s feat by only a wicket in the same first-class match. This shows how rotten spin bowling in Sri Lanka is.

However, Sri Lanka don’t seem to have learned their lessons and are continuing to favor defensive spinners over attacking ones. The island’s latest infatuation is with Lasith Embuldeniya and he is being hailed as the next Herath, and rightly so.

Like Herath, he too struggles to get the ball to rip consistently and relies more on his accuracy than spin to remain effective. But the problem is that Sri Lanka don’t need another Herath. There are plenty of Heraths in the domestic circuit. What Sri Lanka need now is a wicket-taking spinner.

Yes, Embuldeniya picked up ten wickets in the second Test against England. But despite his ten wickets, England managed to score 344 in the second innings and 164 without much trouble in the fourth innings.

Of course, the usual defense would be that he wasn’t ably aided by others. But had his aids bowled better, he wouldn’t have picked up ten wickets in the match. Now, we have heard this argument before, haven’t we? Yes, we are back to square one. Sri Lanka can’t afford to go through another Herath episode.

That being said, like it could have been the case with Herath, Embuldeniya would make an excellent support spinner. But if Sri Lanka are going to fall back on him for the role of the lead spinner, they are only going to repeat the mistakes of the past. The time is ripe for Sri Lanka to start looking for a wicket-taking spinner.

Sri Lanka already have two in their ranksTharindu Kaushal and Lakshan Sandakan. Neither of them has been utilized properly and has been discarded prematurely as consistency is more rewarded than brilliance in this part of the world. But this is precisely why Sri Lanka have struggled to win Tests at home.

At the same time, it should be realized that such wicket-taking spinners are only a rarity in the system. Of course, the long-term solution is to revamp the domestic structure. But we have been speaking about it for ages. A more practical solution would be is to handpick spinners from the club circuit who genuinely spin the ball and groom them separately as we do with our fast bowlers.