Can Sri Lanka’s spinners tie up Pakistan again in the Asia Cup final?

Before the first ball he faced off Maheesh Theekshana, in the second over of the match, Babar Azam changed his stance from leg and middle to the middle stump. The intention was clear, Babar wanted to disrupt Theekshana’s stump-to-stump line. Such a move could make the Sri Lankan mystery spinner to probe a more outside the off-stump line. There obviously lurked the danger of his slider slithering in to hit the pads. But those wondrous wrists of his could stave off the danger.

But Theekshana did not fall for the trap. He stuck to the off-and-middle stump line, and surprised Babar with an in-swinger, or rather a wobble-seamer as the ball floated and kept swinging into Babar. He was confused for a second but those supple wrists just about managed to flick the ball out of danger. Babar looked puzzled. He had not expected the prodigious inward swing. He is familiar with the drift the spinners produce but not the seamer like curl.

It was the first seed of doubt that Sri Lanka’s spinners sprinkled into the mind of Pakistan’s batsmen. As the match wore on, the doubts began to stew and sprout so much that they resembled non-subcontinental batsmen on a raging turner. Historically proficient players of spin, over the years they were blessed with some of the most ruthless destroyers of spin bowling such as Salim Malik and Inzamam-ul-Haq, they developed cold feet against the Sri Lankan triumvirate of Theekshana, Wanindu Hasaranga and Dhananjaya de Silva.

Sri Lanka’s Maheesh Theekshana celebrates the dismissal of Pakistan’s Hasan Ali during the T20 cricket match of Asia Cup between Pakistan and Sri Lanka, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Friday, Sept. 9, 2022. (AP Photo/Anjum Naveed)

The theme could recur, and it could even determine the outcome of the final. How well Pakistan’s batsmen not only handle the three but also how to plunder runs. For in the dress-rehearsal super-four game, the spinners not just took six wickets, but conceded only 60 runs in 12 overs, no fours and just two sixes. But Pakistan batters are not as inept players of spin as they made themselves look on Friday. They were prone to all the mistakes English and Australian batsmen would make in their first exposure to subcontinental spinners—play from the crease, stab with hard hands, not use their feet and look to sweep or slog-sweep.

Maybe, they were alarmed seeing Babar perish when he stepped out and tried to lift Hasaranga over his head. He assumed it was his leg-break but turned out to be a straighter one. The inward drift he procures, helped by that lovely pivot, sometimes creates an illusion that it’s his leg-break, as he does not produce as much drift with the wrong’un. But he was beaten first in the flight—Babar ended up swinging down the wrong line—and then with the turn, or the lack of it. Thereafter, the rest of the batsmen decided to play him from the crease, a self-destructive mistake. Iftikhar Ahmed tried to slog-sweep him, but Hasaranga had cleverly shortened his length and slowed up the pace to bowl him. Khushdil Shah did shimmy down the track but was squarely beaten in the flight, reached nowhere to the pitch of the ball and ended up miscuing the ball.

How Hasaranga varies his bounce

Hasaranga is one of the bowlers who creates the impression that the surface was terrible. One ball would keep low, another would bounce awkwardly, one would turn back sharply, another would hold the line, like a natural variation would. But all those tricks the pitch seemed to play originated from his trickery. For the one that pitches low, his release is low too, he does not tweak the ball much, rather slips the ball. He bends lower than he usually does, the front-knee almost scrapping the turf. For the one that bounces, the release points get higher, the knee doesn’t as much and he quickens up the action. These are besides the standard variation—the googly and leg-break—and other nuances like altering the speed and flight.

The most successful batters against him have all been those who use their feet and smother the spin. Rohit Sharma during his 72 for instance. Playing from the crease, or after the ball has pitched is utmost risky, as his variations are difficult from the hand. He uses a scramble seam for both the leg-break and the googly and grips the ball similarly (with the first, second and third finger). The hand position, too, is more or less the same—the wrong’un’s not higher than the legbreak.

Then, there is an entirely different bowler in Theekshana, with a quiver full of variations that he picks and chooses according to the match-situations. If with the new ball, he deploys the in-swinger and the off-breaks, when the balls gets old, he starts ripping in the carrom ball and the reverse carrom. Ifthikar had troubles distinguishing both, and tried to blindly sweep. There was none to dishevel his lengths with a paddle sweep or a reverse sweep. Perhaps, Pakistan batsmen need to summon those strokes.

Why didn’t Pakistan target the part-timer?

Most baffling was how they spared de Silva. A part-timer, he trades standard off-breaks, interchanges the speed, tosses some balls, flings in flat at other times. But he is not someone indecipherable or unfamiliar. Yet, they let him strike rhythm and could not even bargain a single boundary off his bowling. He piled on the dots, and amassed pressure at one end, dispensing the defensive spinner’s role with utmost sincerity. A similar treatment could yield a similar result for Pakistan.

Not that they are deficient in skills playing spin, but something held them back on Friday. Perhaps, it would not be the case for the final. Maybe, if Babar could connect one big shot off Hasaranga and set the tone, the picture and the outcome could be vastly different.

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