Think Test cricket in the sub-continent and the word 'spin' comes to mind. There are not many teams in history that have won in India, and even less have done so without the aid of spinners.
Australia did that in 2004-05, a depleted Indian team going down on a green track at Nagpur and surrendering the series. South Africa have had the odd victory, at Ahmedabad when Dale Steyn let it rip on their last tour here in 2009-10. They also won in 2000, a full series, but Nicky Boje had seven wickets in there and Hansie Cronje took six.
Pakistan have won in India too, in 1999, but that was a bowling attack led by Saqlain Mushtaq. You have to go all the way back to the 1980s for an all-out pace attack to have fashionably triumphed in India, not just winning a solitary Test here and there.
That was the West Indies under Clive Lloyd, thirsting for revenge after their humiliation at Lord's in the summer of 1983. That winter, Malcolm Marshall (33), Michael Holding (30), Andy Roberts (5), Wayne Daniel (14) and Winston Davis (14), took 96 wickets among themselves in six Tests. India were spanked and captain Kapil Dev was sacked.
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The point is not to judge Mahendra Singh Dhoni's credentials after the embarrassing 10-wicket defeat in Mumbai. Time for that reckoning will surely come in the near future. This moment though is about what changed the game in England’s favour.
Yes, Kevin Pietersen played a fantastic innings - a gem that should be treasured in Test cricket’s eternal museum. The damning factor in India’s downfall however was the failure of its spin trio to read the wicket proper - something Monty Panesar did with aplomb.
Let us get something very clear. Graeme Swann did not bowl as well as Panesar did. He didn’t even bowl as well as he did in Ahmedabad and that is a compliment. Sure he picked up eight wickets in the Test. But the pitch was very conducive to spin bowling, especially for an off-spinner who likes bounce.
On a wicket that was devoid of any help, he was magnificent in leading England’s charge all alone in the first Test. In Mumbai, the Indian batsmen, rattled by Panesar’s nagging line and length, were easy meat.
Swann, however, did out-bowl the two Indian off-spinners and finished ahead of Pragyan Ojha as well. The thing is that their individual comparisons are with one spinner here, who took 11 wickets in the match, and that is where they all fall short. Especially the Indians, who were listless on a wicket that was tailor-made for them!.
In any sport, you can have favourable conditions, usually under the garb of home advantage. But that is where theory ends and practicality comes into play. Going into the game and on winning the toss, India held an advantage. Even so, it needed to be driven home, particularly by their spinners. It just didn’t happen. In fact, let one rephrase that. The trio of Ravichandran Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Ojha didn’t make it happen.
Alastair Cook was spot on in the post-match conference when he said that "spinners should not need to be told about how to bowl. They should be able to read the pitch and assess for themselves." This is not gully-cricket that the two teams are involved in. This is the highest level of the game and for three spinners bowling in tandem, to not be able to work out the pitch is a recipe for disaster. Coaches, bowling or otherwise, can only do so much. The players have to put their hands up, it is their job to do, their burden to bear. That is what they are picked for, ahead of many others.
The main problem with Indian spinners was bounce, or too much of it after the dead pitch at Ahmedabad. Sometimes, adjusting in such a short turn-around becomes difficult. On that premise, Ashwin can be forgiven just a tad, for there were spells when he looked very dangerous but without any luck.
Ojha nearly redeemed himself with that five-wicket haul, even though he was expensive. It is here that you have to question Harbhajan Singh’s role in the side, now seeing as three spinners couldn’t achieve what two wouldn’t have either. No, it isn’t about finding an easy target to pin the blame on.
It is, in fact, about asking what his huge experience brings to the table. Surely, with 408 wickets in his kitty, he has bowled on enough pitches to understand what is needed after a certain period of time to assume control. That is what great bowlers do, precisely what Shane Warne or Anil Kumble did. They read wickets and adjust their length, speed, spin, etc. It is now apparent that Bhajji has been unable to bridge the gap between good and great, and it reflected in Mumbai when he ended up as the worst spinner among five on display.
In deep contrast was the other turbaned guy to play the match. Panesar was lethal primarily because of the length he bowled. Coming in at an angle, it didn’t allow the batsman to get onto the back-foot, always probing and pulling them into playing a shot.
That nagging length then put his pace off the wicket into focus, which the Indian batsmen had no answer for, as the ball took quick turn off the track.
But here’s the thing. Swann did not bowl at the same pace, neither did the three other spinners, try as they may, experimenting throughout with different speeds. England’s extra spinner (brought into the attack at the expense of Tim Bresnan) stood apart, in all probability, because of his natural pace.
That it has not worked many times earlier in India is an indirect pointer, and that it caused much havoc among the famed batting ranks is direct evidence. It may or may not work again, at Kolkata or Nagpur, but Monty Panesar won’t be complaining.
© Cricket World 2012
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