Pragyan Ojha: India’s perfect spin-bowling weapon — endurance laced with economy

Pragyan Ojha © Getty Images

Pragyan Ojha, born September 5, 1986, has already carved quite a niche for himself with his metronomic accuracy and subtle variations of trajectory. Arunabha Sengupta looks at his methods and then his numbers as he celebrates his 27th birthday.

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It is perhaps early days yet. Both plaudits and prophecies can backfire to make one look silly.

True, he has raced to a hundred Test wickets but has not really proved himself on foreign soil. He has not yet taken wickets in lands where pitches do not make the ball break in such perplexing degrees. In his four years, he has not yet played a Test away from the sub-continent. When he did set foot in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, he did not quite set the tracks on fire.

However, Pragyan Ojha, who turns 27 today, has already carved quite a niche for himself even among the splendours of Indian spin.

Yes, it is the code of the current-day cricket enthusiast to look askance at success on home grounds. Yet, the exploits of Ojha in his less than four years of Test cricket have been impressive enough to make him a vital cog in the Indian bowling machinery. A look at the numerical analysis that follows in this article will perhaps come as a pleasant surprise when equated it with his unspectacular, rather metronomic methods.

For Ojha is not a spin wizard. As a left-arm spinner, neither is he a magician in the lines of Bishan Singh Bedi, nor does he ooze talent like the young Maninder Singh. In an era that has made it fashionable to have at least a couple of mysterious weapons in the spinner’s arsenal, he sticks steadfastly to the mundane. There is no devious carom-ball, no doosra bowled with the sleeves meticulously pulled up well beyond the elbow. Nor does he purchase turn that can be often categorised as enormous.

Ojha sticks to the very fundamental tenets of spin bowling — line, length and accuracy; and in that he excels. His wickets are earned after prodigious investment of patience. He can bowl all day, with his pitch-map a small dense blob beyond the good-length spot on or outside the off-stump, with just the odd spot short of length. And even the short ball is mostly bowled on the correct line. It is scant wonder then that since his debut Ojha has been among the top five most economic spinners of the world. The game has changed. The average economy rate of the spinners has gone up from 2.22 in the 1960s to 2.94 in the current decade, making direct comparisons meaningless. Yet, Ojha’s 2.68, which comes down to 2.59 in India, measures favourably with some of the tweakers of the great Indian spin-days of 1960s and 1970s.

Pragyan Ojha: India’s perfect spin-bowling weapon — endurance laced with economy

With relentless accuracy, Pragyan Ojha (above) is God’s gift to captain MS Dhoni on home tracks © Getty Images

But, Ojha’s accuracy does not come at the expense of guile. He does not bowl flat, push it through or fire it down the leg-side. His modus operandi is indeed to pitch the ball on a particular spot all day. Yet, the deliveries are sent down with subtle variations. There is plenty of loop and flight, temptation which comes with the constraints of clockwork precision. The balls often land in the same spot after having traversed many a different trajectories. Hence the bounce is often deceptive. In contrast to the blob of a pitch-map, his beehives generally cover a wide expanse.

Apart from the variations of flight, he also possesses a decent arm-ball, good enough to quickly snap up batsmen not experienced in handling quality spin. Other than that, his methods remain simple and quietly devious. He bowls mostly from wide of the crease, with his left arm a tad too far from his ear than the purists would recommend. It gives the batsmen an illusion of drift, and then the Indian wickets do the rest in helping him to counter the inward angle with outward turn.

The perfect weapon

With relentless accuracy, he is God’s gift to captain MS Dhoni on the home tracks. The skipper relies on him to keep it tight and probing the whole day, without leaking runs through experimentation. From behind the stumps Dhoni can marshal his field perfectly while Ojha is on, moving the men closer, choking the batsmen. Ojha’s bowling and Dhoni’s tactics thoroughly complement each other. Dhoni doesn’t mind waiting for wickets with limitless patience, but hates giving runs away. Ojha is his perfect weapon with endurance laced with economy.

The unvarying line and length means that Ojha is also dependable on flat batting wickets. Even in thoroughly unhelpful conditions he is seldom collared. That perhaps sets him apart from his able partner Ravichandran Ashwin, who thrives when the wicket helps to transform his balls into diabolical threat. However, he is often prone to try too much on unresponsive tracks, and likely to run out of ideas and bowl all over the place. Ojha, on the other hand, is prepared to work hard and wait the batsmen out, and win the battles with minute variations.

Looking beyond the shores

Does that make the now matured Ojha a sure bet on wickets abroad? He is definitely older and wiser than the luckless 23-year-old who bowled long futile spells in Sri Lanka. Only time and Ojha himself can answer that. There are probably arguments that his wide of the crease angle needs to change on the unhelpful surfaces away from India, where the pitch won’t spice up his deliveries and turn them away that much. While he has been working on his pivot, he still seems to use more shoulder and less of his body in his final stride. And given the stellar rise of Ravindra Jadeja along with the additional value he might bring as a batsman, Ojha may not even feature in the plans as the preferred spinner abroad.

Pragyan Ojha: India’s perfect spin-bowling weapon — endurance laced with economy

Pragyan Ojha (left) is no mug with the bat. Here, he is seen celebrating India’s narrow one-wicket win over Australia at Mohali with VVS Laxman © Getty Images

Yet, given his tenacity, and the willingness to work hard, he does make one optimistic. Even when he first captured attention in 2006-07 the attitude was unmistakable. While scalping a large number of wickets for Hyderabad, while bowling India A to wins abroad over Zimbabwe and Kenya A, and then while skittling a strong South Africa A side at Feroz Shah Kotla for another big victory, Ojha’s self-confessed method always was to spread an imaginary handkerchief on the pitch and keep bowling on it.

And he is not averse to learning new tricks. Dropped from the team after a poor 2010-11 season, Ojha travelled all the way to Surrey. He started with 13.5-7-19-2 and 19-8-29-2 against Leicestershire before producing a miraculous 16.3-8-8-6 in the second innings against Northamptonshire. He finished the season with 10 wickets against Derbyshire. His county stint of four matches produced 24 wickets at 12.95, helping Surrey advance to Division One. His success in England definitely augurs well for India’s immediate future that is cluttered with overseas tours around the world.

Ojha the batsman

Ojha is not really a mug with the bat either, even though he continues to be employed as the No 11 and averages less than 10 in Tests. He has the ability to stick around with a more capable batsman and eke out important partnerships. He demonstrated this in 2010 at Mohali when he partnered VVS Laxman to one of India’s most memorable wins over Australia. Chasing 216, India had recovered from 124 for 8 to 205 for 9, thanks to a vital 81-run partnership between Laxman and Ishant Sharma, when last man Ojha walked out. He did provide a few tense moments.  In the heat of the moment, he lost all the patience associated with his bowling and rather needlessly charged down the wicket in a desperate attempt at self-destruction, almost costing India the match and inducing even a man of Laxman’s temperament  to mouth a couple of expletives. With six to win, he was  struck in line only for the umpire to turn down the appeal. However, he survived till the end and got the remaining runs through an overthrow and a couple of scampered leg-byes, sparking unforgettable scenes of ecstasy.

A statistical look

One does have reasons to look optimistically at the future of this young left-arm spinner, but it is while looking back at his accomplishments in the mere four years of Test cricket that one is pleasantly surprised by his numerous achievements.

Ojha is already the fifth-highest wicket taker among the left-arm spinners produced by India, and leads this field in terms of strike-rate. His average too is next only to Bishan Bedi and Dilip Doshi among those who have taken as many wickets. It is quite revealing to find him ahead of the great Vinoo Mankad in both average and strike-rate at this stage of his career.

Indian left-arm spinners

Left-arm spinner T W Ave S/R
BS Bedi 67 266 28.71 80.3
MH Mankad 44 162 32.32 90.6
RJ Shastri 80 151 40.96 104.3
DR Doshi 33 114 30.71 81.7
PP Ojha 22 102 31.78 70.9
SLV Raju 28 93 30.72 81.7
Maninder Singh 35 88 37.36 93.3
RG Nadkarni 41 88 29.07 104.1
SA Durani 29 75 35.42 85.9

Ojha is also one of the only five Indian spinners to have reached 100 wickets within 22 Tests. This undoubtedly places him in very exalted company — the others being Erapalli Prasanna, Anil Kumble, Subhash Gupte and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar.

Indian spinners with 100 wickets after 22 Tests

Spinner T W Ave S/R
EAS Prasanna 22 113 27.05 66.8
Anil Kumble 22 108 24.35 63.3
PP Ojha 22 102 31.78 70.9
SP Gupte 22 101 25.58 70.8
BS Chandrasekhar 22 100 27.36 67.9

Ojha is also one of the only five Indian spinners to have reached 100 wickets before turning 27. In this group too he enjoys the best strike-rate. Among spinners around the world he ranks 18th in this category, with Derek Underwood’s 104 wickets at 19.96 being the cheapest haul.

Indian spinners with 100 wickets before turning 27

Spinner T W Ave Str Rate
Harbhajan Singh 57 238 29.86 63.7
A Kumble 40 168 29.18 72.0
RJ Shastri 65 139 38.75 102.3
BS Bedi 32 121 28.19 87.1
PP Ojha 22 102 31.78 70.9

One can of course argue that Ojha has not been tested abroad and ranks high in these lists because of the helpful home wickets he has bowled on. So let us take a look at how good he is in India when compared with spinners over the years.

Among the 17 tweakers who have claimed more than 50 wickets at home — and many of the names are legendary — Ojha ranks eighth in terms of wickets and sixth in terms of strike-rate. His average at home is also a healthy 28.90. He may have attained all his success on Indian wickets, but it his performance on the home grounds has been commendable.
Indian Spinners at Home

Spinner T W Ave S/R
A Kumble 63 350 24.88 59.4
Harbhajan Singh 55 265 28.76 64.1
BS Chandrasekhar 32 142 27.69 64.6
BS Bedi 30 137 23.99 75.8
MH Mankad 23 103 26.53 75.4
EAS Prasanna 22 95 26.94 70.4
S Venkataraghavan 32 94 30.64 88.0
PP Ojha 18 90 28.90 66.9
SP Gupte 21 84 30.34 76.7
R Ashwin 13 83 24.81 53.3
DR Doshi 21 77 25.38 73.3
NS Yadav 28 77 34.10 76.3
RJ Shastri 38 73 38.93 102.3
SLV Raju 16 71 24.00 62.5
Maninder Singh 18 62 30.61 78.5
SA Durani 21 55 34.47 85.5
RG Nadkarni 25 53 27.86 105.1

Since starting his career, Ojha has also been among the top five spinners in terms of economy rate. Daniel Vettori leads the list but he is not in the same league as a wicket-taker. Along with Rangana Herath, Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, Ojha manages to be stingy yet successful. Interestingly, Ajmal is the only off-break bowler among the five. The other four are orthodox left-arm spinners.

The most economical spinners since start of Ojha’s career.

Spinner T W Ave Eco
DL Vettori (NZ) 18 57 39.22 2.41
Abdur Rehman (Pak) 16 70 28.00 2.54
Saeed Ajmal (Pak) 24 120 27.21 2.63
PP Ojha (India) 22 102 31.78 2.68
HMRKB Herath (SL) 28 138 26.78 2.70

Finally, Ojha and Ashwin have combined into one of the most potent spin bowling combinations in the game. In the 11 Tests they have played together, the duo have claimed 125 wickets at 26.42, capturing one wicket every 59 balls.

That makes them the second-best spin twin of the day after Abdur Rehman and Ajmal, who have captured 132 wickets in 13 Tests at 23.64 apiece with a strike rate of 56.

Again, one may argue that all the 11 Tests have been played in India. However, even when we consider celebrated spinning partners in Indian conditions, Ojha and Ashwin measure favourably against greatest of names.

Among the off-spinner-left-arm spinner combinations in Tests in India, they have a comparable average and the best strike-rate when pitted against two such pairs in Indian cricket, similar in style and immortal in fame — Mankad and Ghulam Ahmed, and Bedi and Prasanna.

And if we compare their home performance against the celebrated partnership of Kumble and Harbhajan, we find that the current pair has played lot less matches, but till now score better in terms of both average and strike rate.

Indian spin twins at home

Spinner combination Home Tests together W Ave S/R
Anil Kumble/ Harbhajan Singh 34 356 27.23 62.63
BS Bedi/ BS Chandrasekhar 20 191 25.08 66.72
BS Bedi/ EAS Prasanna 20 185 25.05 71.15
Pragyan Ojha/ Ravichandran Ashwin 11 125 26.42 59.35
Vinoo Mankad/ Ghulam Ahmed 20 104 23.00 64.03
Vinoo Mankad/ Subhash Gupte 12 94 28.55 77.88

One would like to believe that Ojha is advancing towards the best years of a spinner’s career, and the peak will continue for several seasons. The start, as we can see, speaks of untold promise. His collaboration with Ashwin has already launched in flying colours and may zoom beyond the loftiest limits.

As he turns 27, our best wishes are with him on his journey to secure a deserved place among pantheon of Indian spinning greats. And largely unnoticed in his methodical, quiet and unassuming way, he has already progressed a considerable way towards this goal.

In Photos: Cricketing career of Pragyan Ojha

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)