New Delhi - Off-spinners could be in danger of becoming an endangered species as exponents fall by the wayside in the recent crackdown on illegal bowling actions by cricket's world governing body.
Ever since the International Cricket Council (ICC) accepted a recommendation by its cricket committee in June to punish bowlers with suspect actions, off-spinners have become the main target.
Of the seven bowlers hauled up since then, six were off-spinners: the Pakistani duo of Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez, Sri Lanka's Sachitra Senanayake, Kane Williamson of New Zealand, Zimbabwe's Prosper Utseya and Sohag Gazi of Bangladesh.
The seventh, Al-Amin Hossain of Bangladesh, who was cleared of any wrongdoing, was a fast bowler.
On Tuesday, the ICC allowed Senanayake and Williamson to resume bowling in international cricket, saying they had undergone remedial work and remodelled their actions which were now legitimate.
But the governing body warned that umpires were "still at liberty to report these bowlers in future if they believe the bowler is displaying a suspect action."
The crackdown has wrecked Pakistan's spin attack, even though they are hopeful that Ajmal, the top-ranked one-day bowler, will be allowed to play in next year's World Cup once he is re-tested.
There is also a question mark over the participation of second-ranked Sunil Narine of the West Indies in the sport's showpiece event that takes place in Australia and New Zealand from February 14.
Narine was withdrawn from a one-day series in India in October and has not been picked for the upcoming Tests in South Africa after being reported by umpires during the Champions League Twenty20 tournament in September.
Even though Narine is not barred from playing international cricket, it is plausible that a worried West Indies team management has wrapped him in cotton wool and asked him to rework his action.
That has left Ravichandran Ashwin of India, Nathan Lyon of Australia and England's James Tredwell as the only established off-spinners still plying their trade.
"Of course illegal actions must be punished, but one gets the feeling umpires look at off-spinners more closely than other bowlers," a former India player, who did not want to be named, told AFP.
"Off-spin is a great art. I hope young bowlers do not get scared of learning it."- 'Selective culling' -
A deformity in his bowling arm reprieved world bowling record holder Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka after he was called for chucking by Australian umpires in 1995.
The Sri Lankan went on to become the only bowler to claim 800 Test wickets, but other off-spinners like Ajmal have not been so lucky.
The crackdown has largely been welcomed in the cricket community, but some like Ramiz Raja, a former Pakistan captain and now a television commentator, are not entirely convinced.
Raja wants the ICC to quash whispers that Pakistan was not being unfairly targeted.
"First Ajmal and now Hafeez...Pakistan's World Cup build-up has been hit for a six," Raja told AFP.
"It is okay if you want to get rid of illegal actions but there should not be selective culling.
"The process should be open and explained properly so that fans can understand why some bowlers need to be signalled out."
Rules drawn up in November, 2004 state that an action is illegal when the bowler's elbow straightens over the stipulated 15-degree arc in his delivery stride.
The off-spinner's googly -- "the doosra" ("the other one") which turns from leg to off -- is believed to be targeted by umpires on the pretext that it is difficult to bowl one with a legal action.
ICC chief executive David Richardson, a former South African wicket-keeper, has already defended the move to target bowlers just before the World Cup.
"If we decide that there's something wrong with the game, why should we wait until after a World Cup?" Cricinfo quoted Richardson as saying in October. "I think we'd reached the straw that broke the camel's back.
"It's arguable that we should have taken this kind of action earlier. That we can take it on the chin.
"Even I could spin the ball when I threw it in the nets. I could not when I bowled with a straight arm. So why make it easier for most bowlers? The guys who get the wickets must be the best bowlers."