In last week’s column, I highlighted how spinners in IPL are driving innovation. Krunal Pandya’s release points are getting lower. Ravi Bishnoi is changing his run up. Yuzvendra Chahal is looking for an advantage in the air. I had also said Washington Sundar does none of the above. No turn, no flight, not much pace variation. And yet, he’s the most economical bowler this IPL (minimum 3 matches), going at an incredible 4.90 runs per over.
How does he do it? It’s a question that seems harder to solve, the more I think about it. How does a spinner with neither turn nor guile, escape three Powerplay overs against the best team in the league with no boundaries scored, as Washington did against MI? How does a spinner, who is so consistent as to be predictable, continue to succeed in a format where variation is considered to be valuable?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way. Washington is accurate, which means a captain can set fields for him reliably, thus increasing his utility in Powerplay. He’s fast, which means he doesn’t flight the ball much, and so batters can’t step out to him comfortably. And he targets the stumps, always looking to cramp the batters for room. Sachin Tendulkar observed he watches the batters’ feet, and adjusts length quickly if they step out. And these factors make him a very handy bowler. But Washington has been more than handy.
Without Hawkeye data to back it up, here’s my educated guess as to why: I think what helps him get ahead is his height. I’ve seen Washington in real life, he stands 5cm above my 180cm frame. Out of all the top 10 IPL spinners, only R Ashwin is taller (if heights available on Google are to be believed), and only Axar Patel crosses 180 cm (six feet). Now everyone agrees that being tall is good for sport (ok, everyone except Poonam Yadav), but what difference does it make exactly? For a bowler: Release point and trajectory. The average wrist spinner isn’t very tall, and then they bowl with round arm actions, lowering their release point. Even tall finger spinners, like Patel, bowl slightly round arm, especially while bowling from the edge of the crease.
Washington’s height is accentuated by a very high-arm action. Which means his release point is a fair bit higher than the average Indian spinner. That also means his trajectory is sharper. And to understand the impact trajectory and release point can make, I suggest you search YouTube for ‘Jennie Finch Albert Pujols’, and enjoy one of my favourite sporting stories. Finch is a former USA softball pitcher, and Pujols a 10-time Major League Baseball All-Star. But facing Finch’s underarm pitches, from a closer distance so as to replicate the speed of a baseball pitch, Pujols could not even lay bat to ball. Finch’s underarm release point, and the resulting rising trajectory was so foreign to Pujols that his baseball instincts could not process where the ball was likely to be in time to hit it.
When batters take stance to face spin, their brains are using every ball of spin played in their lives as reference. But very few of those balls would have been delivered from Washington’s release point, and his trajectory. This is why left-arm seamers, or bowlers with freak actions like Bumrah, have an advantage over traditional-action right-arm pacers. I looked at Washington’s pitch maps, courtesy analytics company Cricket 21, and they say he keeps hitting a length that is too short to loft but too full to cut. He can do it from multiple angles, over and round the wicket. He’s at the stumps, so the batters know they can’t swing and miss. Washington also bowls at around 100kmph, giving the batters less reaction time. They’re setting up to play slow spin, sometimes even using distinct trigger movements, and they’re getting bowling close to medium pace from a rarely seen height. It’s a split-second advantage, but then that’s all you need. It’s an advantage another 185cm tall bowler, a certain Anil Kumble, used so well over the years.
The advantage Washington’s height gives him is more incremental than Finch’s pitches against Pujols, but I’m sure you’ve all heard of how important the 1-percenters are. Buttressed by his resilience and his hard work, Washington has become a reliable bet, aided by slower pitches and larger grounds. He may not be wearing a Purple cap, but he’s doing something more valuable: Giving a lot of fans in Bengaluru reasons to think, without actually saying the words, ‘Ee Sala Cup Namde’.