Should India have spin-friendly pitches at home?

There’s a paradox at play: India win on turning pitches, but their batsmen can’t play spin

R. Ashwin during the India-South Africa Test series in Mohali in November. Photo: Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times
R. Ashwin during the India-South Africa Test series in Mohali in November. Photo: Gurpreet Singh/Hindustan Times

“Somewhere in my head, I am already thinking about Kane Williamson, Mitchell Santner and Trent Boult,” Ravichandran Ashwin said with a smile, after being named Man of the Series on the recent West Indies tour.

With the fourth Test in Trinidad and Tobago washed out, his words weren’t all that surprising. Sitting at the Queen’s Park Oval with no play, the Indian players had already started thinking about the long home season ahead.

The team for that Trinidad Test had been selected keeping in mind their approach for the forthcoming challenge against New Zealand—the first Test of this series begins in Kanpur on Thursday. India played seven batsmen and four bowlers on the first day of the fourth Test against the West Indies, before the series washout, a different tactic from the more aggressive and common approach of playing five bowlers.

Skipper Virat Kohli then picked only one spinner. At home, however, he’s likely to go with two, taking some of the weight off Ashwin.

Given the form he is in (17 wickets in four Tests against the West Indies), Ashwin is looking forward to bowling at home. Including the trip to the Caribbean, he has been the man of the series in the last three Test series India have played—the other two being against Sri Lanka (21 wickets in three Tests) and South Africa (31 wickets in four), both in 2015. His stature today is a point of difference from the last long home season India had in 2012-13. The same teams, New Zealand, England and Australia, were here for 10 Tests. With Harbhajan Singh’s form fading quickly, Ashwin was just finding his feet as the leader of the spin attack.

The Nagpur Test against England (in 2012) became a marker. Test skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni deployed a five-bowler attack in an attempt to level the series, and four of them (Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Piyush Chawla and Pragyan Ojha) were spinners. India didn’t win that match on a slow turner, and since then only two of the four spinners have survived.

With Amit Mishra providing the leg-break option, besides Ashwin and Jadeja, the team’s spin component now looks settled. Their success, individually and collectively, in the last four-plus seasons has become a talking point. India once again appear to be a force in home conditions, with in-form spinners rejoicing at the thought of bowling on turning pitches.

The Mohali Test against South Africa last November is a case in point, as the trio shared 19 wickets to rout the Proteas within four days on a slow, turning wicket.

But as that home series progressed, the pitches got worse. The third Test in Nagpur ended within three days. It was a low-scoring series, with only two batsmen, Ajinkya Rahane (266 runs in six innings) and A.B. de Villiers (258 runs in seven), crossing the 250-mark in four Tests.

The Nagpur pitch came in for fierce criticism, compelling the International Cricket Council to launch an investigation to find out if it was suitable for play at all.

So will we see pitches that turn like that in the forthcoming series?

It didn’t make for compelling viewing last year, and it will not do to host a run of 13 Tests this season on similar tracks. And there is now yet another reason not to have such spin-friendly pitches at home: India’s batsmen handled spin just about as well as the South Africans did, which is to say, not well at all.

When Kohli talked about playing seven batsmen in Trinidad, it was in reference to the 2015 Galle Test, where his batsmen collapsed against Rangana Herath’s fierce spin on a fourth-day pitch.

The statistics stack up against the Indian batting line-up: Starting from Moeen Ali in England (19 wickets in five Tests in 2014) to Nathan Lyon in Australia (23 wickets in four Tests in 2014-15), from Herath in Sri Lanka (15 wickets in three Tests in 2015) to part-timer Roston Chase (eight wickets in three Tests on the recent tour to the West Indies), there’s nothing to deny this weakness against spin.

On landing in India on 13 September, New Zealand coach Mike Hesson talked about deploying three spinners in their playing eleven to counter the conditions. Perhaps his point of reference is the Nagpur clash in the 2016 World Twenty20, when the Kiwi spinners took 10 wickets to bowl India out for 79 in a 126-run chase.

New Zealand spinner Ish Sodhi (left). Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images
New Zealand spinner Ish Sodhi (left). Photo: Rob Jefferies/Getty Images

“We expect our three spinners—Mark Craig, Mitchell Santner and Ish Sodhi—to share the bulk of the bowling workload over the next few weeks. At the same time, we cannot discard our fast bowlers because in Indian conditions, there is always the element of reverse swing, and it is something we have been working on,” Williamson told reporters on arriving in Delhi. If India bank on their spinners at home to give them the edge, it seems the visiting teams have learnt to do so too.

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.

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