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India’s ongoing, packed-to-the-brim home season has been dominated by all types of spin—off-spin, left-arm spin, leg-spin. Now, that rarest of rare slow-bowling variety, the Chinaman, could be unleashed as a surprise weapon on the Australians in the ongoing Test series. Indian spinners, bowling on pitches assisting turn and bounce, skid and spit, have hugely dominated battles so far this season. Even among the visiting teams, who have left our shores licking their wounds, it’s the slow bowlers who have snapped up most wickets. This is abundantly clear from the cold statistics of the nine Tests against New Zealand, England and Bangladesh played so far in the busiest home season in India’s history—13 Tests besides one-day internationals and Twenty20s.
Among Indian spinners, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have foxed the opponents, snaring a large majority of wickets. Out of a combined 173 wickets of the three opposing teams that fell, the Indian spinners captured 112—almost 65 per cent. The slow bowlers of New Zealand, England and Bangladesh captured a total of 66 of the 118 Indian wickets that fell. This, when there was no shrill cry of pitches being underprepared or curated to suit spinners. Visiting batsmen were just foundering guilelessly against the skills of off-spinner Ashwin, left-armer Jadeja and leg-spinner Amit Mishra. Ashwin, particularly, underlined his pre-eminence on Indian tracks, with 61 wickets in nine Tests against three opponents, while Jadeja proved an ideal foil to him, with 46 scalps in nine matches.
Now, to counter India’s strategy to prepare pitches to suit its strength (as every home side must), touring teams have realised that to succeed in the subcontinent they too would have to bank heavily on spinners, and prepare their batsmen for Indian twirlymen’s wiles. No wonder then, Australia has picked four specialist spinners and another to support them—they have only four pacers in their ranks—for the four-Test series. Experienced off-spinner Nathan Lyon, left-armers Ashton Agar and Steve O’Keefe, and uncapped-but-promising leggie Mitchell Swepson will get support from off-spinning all-rounder Glenn Maxwell. Among the quicks, Mitchell Starc is the most experienced, while Mitchell Marsh, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird complete the pace department.
Former India off-spinner E.A.S. Prasanna sees the Aussies losing the battle of minds even before the umpire calls out ‘play’. He says that’s the unfortunate aspect of most touring teams to India in the recent past. That they are looking at the names of the bowlers—Ashwin, Jadeja et al, and are psyched out even before they take to the field. “They have forgotten the basic art which they had earlier, that cricket is played between the bat and the ball, not between two players. For example, if I had to bowl against Gary Sobers, I would bowl against the batsman and not against the person Sobers. Or, if you ask Bishan Bedi to bowl against Kohli, he’ll bowl to the batsman,” he remarks.
So do the five Aussie spinners’ qualities rack up into something substantial? A quick look will reveal that barring Lyon (65 Tests, 228 wickets) they are desperately short of experience, though interestingly, the combined experience of the Aussies, at 72 Tests, is just one match more than that of Ashwin (45 Tests, 254 wickets) plus Jadeja (26 Tests, 117 wickets). The most experienced of the lot is 29-year-old Lyon, easily the best Aussie bowler with 15 wickets in his team’s 0-4 merciless drubbing in India in 2012-13. He was dropped for the second Test after getting a hammering from M.S. Dhoni in the first Test, only to stage a comeback in the third game. He is Australia’s most successful off-spinner ever, bowls with a quick, short action culminating in a tidy forward leap, and will again have to lead by example and mentor his juniors, particularly rookie Swepson.
Swepson, 23, who bowls with a Shane Warne-like action, has played only 14 first-class matches, and was a surprise choice for the gruelling tour. Chairman of selection committee Trevor Horns and his colleagues were apparently impressed by his wicket-taking ability. Perhaps, with the India tour on their minds, they groomed him for the Australia A team that played against the touring India A last year. He should make his Test debut in the coming days.
To make it tough for the Aussies, there is Kuldeep Yadav, who bowls his Chinaman deliveries, and is an unknown factor.
Next in line to Lyon in terms of experience is the Malaysia-born O’Keefe, who has played a grand total of four Tests and bagged 14 scalps. At 32, he is the oldest spinner in the squad and bowls with a traditional left-armer’s action. He would aim to exploit the rough created by right-handed Indian batsmen to add to his modest tally.
Left-arm spinner Agar, 23, is the third cog in the spin wheel. He is over six-feet tall, and bowls with a high and smooth action, but lacks experience at the highest level. Maxwell, the 28-year-old off-spinning, big-hitting all-rounder, will be supporting the frontline slow bowlers. He has the advantage of having toured the last time with the team and has represented Kings XI Punjab in the IPL; he is thus familiar with Indian conditions.
However, Australian cricket journalist Ben Horne says, “Australia will try and show faith in their fast bowlers on this tour at all costs—hoping that reverse swing can be their gateway to victory. Australia has versatility in its spin bowling stocks, but there is no getting away from the fact that Starc and Hazlewood are their two biggest weapons, regardless of conditions.”
Indeed, is cramming the team with spinners the right track in India? “I would think that it would be a battle between spinners, and the series is likely to be decided on how the spinners fare. The team whose spinners bowl will better will win the series. And the Indian spinners are far ahead of the Australians,” says former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh. “It’s clear that the Aussies are relying on spinners, but the question is, can they also bat well against our spinners? Indian batsmen play spinners particularly well on turning tracks,” says Narendra Hirwani, whose record of 16 wickets on Test debut is still unbeaten. “Spinners will again dominate. But the one thing happening on Indian pitches is that our medium pacers are also taking wickets. That’s why our combination is effective.” Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya are the pacers in the squad announced for the first two Tests in Pune and Bangalore.
Prasanna predicts that front-foot leg-before-wicket decisions, which Indian bowlers have been winning, will again be a “tremendous advantage”. “They will struggle because their cricket is totally different from our cricket, their approach to the game—bouncy wickets and field placements etc. In the subcontinent, they will have to play like us and that they are not used to. I don’t think they’ll be as successful as Indian spinners,” says Prasanna. To make it more difficult for Australia, the selectors have picked Uttar Pradesh’s Kuldeep Yadav for the first two Tests, known for his Chinaman—a delivery by a left-arm spinner which breaks from off to leg to a right-handed batsman. “I am very impressed with Kuldeep. I’ve been coaching him for a while, and we talk a lot about the mental aspect of cricket. He could be a surprise weapon. When people practise less against a particular type of bowler, the chances of such bowlers taking wickets increases,” says Hirwani. Will the pitches in Pune, Bangalore, Ranchi and Dharamsala be all spinner-friendly? “Since our strength is spin, we should prepare pitches that suit us. And I don’t mean akhara (mud pits). If we go to Australia, they prepare green-tops,” adds Hirwani.
Of the nine Tests played this season before the Australia series, Kohli has won eight, taking his overall undefeated tally as captain to 19—and India’s unbeaten home run to 20 matches. Conversely, Australia has not won a Test series here for more than 12 years, their last hurrah coming in 2004. And they have not won a Test in the subcontinent since 2011. These point towards India’s distinct home advantage, and the host team’s current form combine to make Australia’s task difficult. That Smith’s team has won the last four Tests, all at home, may not count for much. With these factors in its favour, experts feel India will again have the upper hand.
Worried by these issues, and to help batsmen polish their skills against spinners, the Australians practised in simulated situations at the ICC Academy in Dubai for 13 days before landing in India. Ahead of their Dubai trip, a couple of players had prepared at the National Cricket Centre in Brisbane on pitches that replicated the typical Indian surfaces they are likely to counter. Former England left-arm spinner Monty Panesar, now playing in Australia, oversaw the short stint in Brisbane. Australia had also hired former India ODI left-arm spinner Sridharan Sriram to provide invaluable inputs throughout the Tests series in India.
“Australia’s main strength is pace bowling, but even in that department there’s only Mitchell Starc. They have picked five spinners because they know what kind of pitches they are going to get. And on those kind of pitches, spinners will have to play a big role, like the important one played by Panesar and Graeme Swann when England won the series in India in 2012-13,” points out Maninder.
India is No. 1 on the ICC Test rankings and Australia is not too much behind on the table. That will be another motivation for Australia to perform out of their skin. Whatever the outcome, the next few weeks hold the promise for a battle of pure cricket, before the whole bandwagon heads towards the IPL carnival.