Are Asian batters the best at attacking spin? While popular perception given the pitches in the sub-continent might indicate that they are, the numbers tell a different story, especially in T20 cricket.
Mickey Arthur, who has coached Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well as teams in the PSL and BPL, believes that while the subcontinent does produce great spinners, he’s had to work hard with batters – even the likes of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan – to raise their game against spin.
“That was something that did amaze me,” Arthur said on ESPNcricinfo’s T20 Time Out during the Asia Cup. “I thought going and coaching in the subcontinent, which is a fantastic place to coach, we’d see batsmen play [spin] particularly well because they grow up with it. I saw incredible spin bowlers. But something we had to really work on was batsmen playing spin better. They could defend against spin but it was in the white-ball cricket, where you have the wrist-spinner or the finger-spinner that suffocated through the middle.
“You know we worked so hard on Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan, Fakhar Zaman using their sweep shots a lot more. And these were the areas we focused on and worked incredibly hard on. To make them better players particularly through their middle overs.”
Since the 2021 T20 World Cup, batters from the top Asian teams – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan – have better strike rates against pace than spin. On the other hand, teams like England (134.15 against spin and 135.26 against pace), Australia (131.04 against spin and 128.48 against pace) and South Africa (142.16 against spin and 143.17 against pace) have similar strike rates against spice and pace.
A top batter like Fakhar, who has scored at 130-plus against pace since the T20 World Cup last year, has a strike rate of only 105.95 versus spin. India’s openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul have the same issue: Rahul strikes at over 126 against pace but he slows down (86.11) against spin, while Rohit scores at 156.27 against pace and only 115.87 against spin.
During his time as coach in the subcontinent, Arthur observed that Asian batters are traditionally wristy players who don’t use high-risk-high-reward shots like the reverse sweep against spin. According to ESPNcricinfo’s ball-by-ball data, Virat Kohli and Babar have attempted the sweep or the reverse-sweep just twice and three times respectively since the 2021 T20 World Cup. Suryakumar Yadav and Dinesh Karthik, on the other hand, have attempted a sweep or reverse sweep 24 times (scoring 56 runs) and 20 times (scoring 36 runs) respectively.
“I found that the modern Asian batsman didn’t really sweep,” Arthur said. “They didn’t reverse-sweep. Australia, England, South Africa used the sweep shot and reverse-sweep shots a lot more than the Asian batters, who relied on their wrists to work the balls into an area. And it was once that we got the sweep shots going that teams then had to change fields – that created holes for the Asian players to use their wrists where they’re predominantly comfortable and confident scoring.
“Reverse sweep is something you continuously have to work on. It’s not like a cover drive that’s natural. This is something that takes subcontinent batters out of their comfort zones. Because they’ve relied so much on their excellent wrists – so if you look at the Indian batsman, Sri Lankan batsman or Pakistan batsman, they rely on opening the bat face and closing the bat face to push the ball into different areas. They don’t get a massive amount of power into those shots though. Those shots are good for singles or twos but not for boundary options. So they had to find options to get boundaries. For getting boundaries, it’s easier to attack the ball square of the wicket and that’s to sweep and reverse sweep …”
Has having to deal with four or five quicks in opposition teams made Asian batters prioritise playing spin less? Arthur said it could be a reason.
“We work on [playing] short-pitched bowling and pace because we think that takes them out of the comfort zone when they’ve got to play away from home. Where really if the batsmen’s technique is good, they play those balls particularly well. It comes down to actually playing spin, and that’s something as coaches we generally forget because we take it for granted that they play spinners well.”