Learn how to play spin bowling like a pro. In the first of a two-part series, Graham Thorpe, the ECB’s lead batting coach and an expert against twirlers in his day, shares his tips on how to face the turning ball.
WINNING THE EARLY BATTLE
When I first walk out to bat I’m looking at the gaps and also looking to sniff out the danger. Those first 20 minutes against a spinner are the most crucial and you have to have confidence in your defence. One thing you don’t want to be doing is prodding on to the front foot and then getting caught by close catchers.
You have to be confident in your ability to defend either away from the ball or sometimes to the ball, but softly. The bowler is trying to land it as many times as he can on a length. As a batsman you’re trying to make sure that you end up either getting away from the ball, so you can watch it spin, or hit it on the half-volley. That is what you would call ‘picking length’, which is the key thing against the spinners.
WORKING AGAINST THE SPIN
Some people say, ‘Can you hit the ball against the spin?’ Well of course you can, so long as you pick length correctly. For someone like Murali, bowling round the wicket, I generally took a middle-stump guard to start with and even though he was a big turner of an off-break, I didn’t want to exclusively work on the off-side; I wanted to be able to have options, to be able to hit him through the leg-side, against the spin.
ASSESSING YOUR SCORING OPTIONS
If there are fielders round the bat then you’re going to have gaps to score, so you need strong attacking options. It’s important to have real clarity on whether you want to sweep the bowler early on, whether you want to put them under pressure, whether you’ll slog-sweep, whether you want to hit them over the top. Once you’ve made those decisions then don’t lose those scoring options in your head.
If the bowler misses his length and is a little short, if your technique works well then you can push away and hit them through the off-side off the back foot. You’re trying to disperse the field, to tactically move them.
Some people say, ‘Can you hit the ball against the spin?’ Well of course you can, so long as you pick length correctly
If you’re a good fine-sweeper of the ball and the bowler doesn’t have a fielder at fine-sweep, that’s an option as well.
If the bowler pitches it up, are you confident to hit him over the top? To someone like Murali I didn’t want to run down the pitch but if you do feel comfortable it puts them under pressure and maybe they’ll drop that man back, which opens up another gap for you.
Even if you don’t want to come down the wicket you want the bowler to think that you might because often that might create a quicker, shorter ball and then you’re in position to push back and execute a shot through the off-side for one, two or, if you hit it well, maybe even a boundary.
Everything stems from the quality of your footwork and having a method which is quick so you can execute that movement into a drive if the bowler overpitches or be able to push away if they drop shorter.
Sometimes when I’m coaching I’ll say to a player: ‘I don’t want you to hit over the top, I don’t want you to sweep and I don’t want you to play a forward defensive’. If you take out those three shots then the player can either drive off the front foot if it’s a fuller delivery or get away from the ball and play off the back foot if it’s a bit shorter. By restricting their range of shots you’re immediately encouraging the player to think about how they’re picking length and to move their feet correctly.
Imagine a line going straight down the middle of the pitch. Anything pitching outside of that line to an off-spinner is an option to sweep but you’ve got to be able to cover your stumps; you don’t want the ball spinning back round your legs.
UPPING THE ANTE
Having a proactive technique is important whether you’re playing fast bowling or spin bowling. Your first thought should be: can I score? Never miss out on the opportunity to score off a bad ball. Then the reasonably good ball: can I still score off it? And the exceptional ball: can I rely on my defence? You need your technique to allow you those options.
Against high-quality bowling you don’t have time to go, ‘Oh right, there’s a slightly bad ball, now let’s move correctly’. Your technique has to be quite proactive, and balance is key. If you’re coming down the pitch, your end position needs to be balanced.
Even if you’re driving a half volley off a spinner, you need to be balanced when you play the shot. And balance on your back foot means being strong on your back leg so you can execute shots on both sides of the wicket.
WORK THOSE WRISTS
An important aspect of playing spin is the ability to be quite supple with your wrists. A strong, heavy grip is not going to allow the flexibility in your hands that you need. I soften my grip, almost with my thumb and my forefinger, and all of a sudden I can manipulate the blade and that allows me then to hit against the spin. So an off-spinner, who’s moving the ball away from me, if I’m close to the ball just by changing my angle I can hit the ball on the leg-side.
You’ll see players now really work quickly through the ball, but that’s purely because they are right over the ball. You can’t play against the spin if you’re playing out in front of you and there’s a lot of turn, as you’re more likely to get a leading edge. But if you play it underneath you then you can really work through the ball. Good wrists – nice and supple and loose bottom-hand – will allow you to hit both sides of the wicket.
When playing the sweep you don’t want to be tall and upright because then when you go down to play the shot there are lots of rigid movements in there. You want to have soft knees so you’re not in a bad position to sweep, but if the ball is flat and fast you can still drive it.
If you’re thinking about playing the reverse-sweep you don’t want to give too many clues to the bowler, but you do need to have in your mind that you might be playing the shot so you’re not late on it. You might see some players softening and loosening their grip as the bowler’s running in so they can quickly manoeuvre into that position and get more leverage on the shot. If your grip is too tight then you can’t do that and you’re going to get into a bad position.
To work on using your wrists, when batting in the nets as a left-hander against an off-spinner, or a right-hander against a left-arm spinner, see how many balls you can play through the leg-side, against the spin. To be able to do that you’ll need to work the ball and have good, strong wrists. Try hitting three balls through the leg-side and then three balls through the off-side so it encourages a bit of fun but also skill.
If you’re coming down the track to the spinners try and keep your feet close together because if you come down with big paces then good bowlers can see that very quickly and you’ll be off balance when you play the shot.
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