Striking a balance

Overreliance on spinning pitches at home can spell disaster for India on overseas tours


South Africa’s AB de Villiers (right) during the fourth day of the fourth Test cricket match between India and South Africa at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in New Delhi on 6 December, 2015. Photo: AFP
South Africa’s AB de Villiers (right) during the fourth day of the fourth Test cricket match between India and South Africa at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in New Delhi on 6 December, 2015. Photo: AFP

In beating South Africa, the top-ranked Test side in the world, India has also won the first Test series played at home after Sachin Tendulkar retired in 2013. Since that emotional afternoon at the Wankhede Stadium, when the little master bid adieu, India has been on the road playing Test series in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, England, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in addition to the ICC World Cup earlier this year. Their Test record during the odyssey was a mediocre 3 wins, 8 losses and 6 draws.

Despite rain washing away play on four of the five days in Bengaluru, India romped home in under three days at Mohali and Nagpur, and also won the final Test at Delhi to take the series by a 3-0 margin. There has been a lot of chatter about the playing surfaces at Mohali and Nagpur aiding India’s spinners, which is borne by the fact that Ravichandra Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra have shared 61 of the 70 South African dismissals.

The pitches used in the series have come under severe criticism with sharp turn from the very first morning of the Tests. The cracked surfaces have made batting an arduous task, and the batting line-up of both teams boasting of big stars like AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli, Hashim Amla and Ajinkya Rahane, have been more focused on survival rather than run-getting. In the series decider at Nagpur, India’s Murali Vijay top scored with 40.

Should India be skewing “home advantage” so much? Isn’t it unfair to South Africa that their fast bowlers—their strike force—and their batsmen be muted from the word go? Has India gone too far in stacking up the benefits of playing at home that Tests are finishing within three days with batting turned into a lottery?

The answers to the questions depend on who is being asked. Kohli and Indian Team director Ravi Shastri have pooh-poohed these claims. In their view, no one pulls up seaming wickets where Indian sides get bundled out and batsmen are blamed for their faulty technique, so why such outrage when visiting teams come a cropper on Indian turning tracks? Fair point.

Winning Tests is supposed to be hard, especially away from home. As easy as this series win looks on paper, the fact remains that the Indian batting line up was put under a lot of pressure as well by the South African spinners, and that the Indian spin trio was that much better than their South African counterparts.

There is no such thing as an ideal Test wicket. The pitch is the same for both sides, and the one that has the tools to make the most of it, edges the other out. When Australia floundered to 60 all out at Trent Bridge earlier this year, England batsmen showed the patience that was needed on that surface and cobbled together a strong enough reply that sealed the Ashes for them. Even as South Africa were bundled out for 79 in their first dig at Nagpur, their batsmen were given a lesson on succeeding on these turners by their own, Amla and Faf du Plessis, who managed to survive for 45 overs. Such challenging surfaces require the batsmen to dig in and play patiently with utmost concentration. Those 45 overs made for as gripping a Test match viewing as any in the last few years: top quality spinners posing questions to the batsmen every single delivery, and the batsmen rising up to that challenge.

Kohli and Shastri, coming together at the end of the M.S. Dhoni era, and being entrusted with rebuilding the Indian Test side, have been preaching “aggression” and “positive cricket”. They are more than willing to risk a loss in the pursuit of winning matches. They haven’t shied away from picking an additional bowling option in place of a batsman and have now won back-to-back Test series, although one could argue that on turning tracks they don’t really need more than the three spinners they have used.

Though India was well within its rights to dish out the pitches they did to South Africa, there is a lesson to be learned from the Indian Test performances at home in the 1990s, which went along similar lines.

It was a very simple strategy that the coach-captain combo of Ajit Wadekar and Mohammed Azharuddin employed. Returning home after a disheartening tour to South Africa where India were outbowled and outbatted and generally outplayed by comfortable margins, the duo decided to play to the home side’s strengths and more significantly, to the visitors’ obvious weakness: spin. Along with Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan, and later with Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble would run circles around the touring sides, until the great Australian side of 2004. The spinners were so good that the pace bowlers almost had no role to play except for the occasional good showing by Javagal Srinath against South Africa in 1994 in Ahmedabad. For all the success the Indian team enjoyed at home, there was a price to pay.

I interviewed Srinath recently and he cast his thoughts on those home victories and expanded on its impact on India’s ability to win away from home in conditions that did not aid the spinners. “We paid some penalty there, I suppose. We won all the matches here [in India], but when we went abroad, our batsmen couldn’t adjust and our bowling wasn’t that effective. The spinners struggled...and the fast bowlers couldn’t hit the right line and length,” he said. “We struggled quite a bit. But the confidence of winning at home was so big that we would return from a bad tour and we were extremely good the next week, which covered up everything.”

In the mid 1990s, Srinath had finally moved out of the giant shadow of Kapil Dev, and was leading India’s pace attack. He was ably supported by his Karnataka teammate Venkatesh Prasad, but it wasn’t until Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra appeared that India had a viable third and fourth seamers when they traveled abroad, and this would severely limit India’s ability to win in places like South Africa and England. “[The] England tour [in 1996] was an eye opener for me because I realised that if we do not have 3-4 good fast bowlers, we would not be able to make a difference to the team. We might bowl one odd good spell, but if you really want to keep pegging away and picking up wickets and win a match, you need four good fast bowlers. I always felt the dearth of the third and fourth bowlers.”

There were many pacers used by India in the 1990s to back up Srinath and Prasad, but these bowlers never really had the chance to play Tests at home because of the spinner-driven philosophy that India was so smitten by. Not only India deprived of overseas wins due to a lack of fast bowling options, but also, Srinath and Prasad lost their effectiveness after being overused by their captains. Srinath would succumb to injury during the 1996-97 tour to South Africa as Tendulkar (the skipper) turned to him every time he needed a wicket or stem the flow of runs. Srinath longingly looked back to that time and ponders over the possibilities: “But honestly, we should have developed a third bowler, or at least we should have identified who could be the third and fourth fast bowlers. It would have been a different story altogether.”

These days, with Ashwin leading India to wins at home, the pacers–Ishant Sharma, Varun Aaron and Umesh Yadav–have almost no role but for the odd overs here and there. These bowlers have the basic tools to be successful in the Test arena, but without regularly playing Tests on pitches that will allow them to be successful, they will be caught out when India tours places like New Zealand, South Africa and England.

Winning at home on pitches that aid spinners is fine, and is important as well, but if Kohli–and India–have ambitions of becoming a great team, they have to equip themselves with bowlers who can help India win anywhere in the world. And for that, India needs to have depth and experience in their fast bowling stock. If they continue to play on surfaces that makes fast bowlers redundant, they will have no one to blame but themselves when they lose out on opportunities to register history-defining wins abroad. No talk of aggression and positivity is ever really a substitute for a set of good fast bowlers.

Subash Jayaraman is an Engineer by training and a cricket writer & podcaster by choice. He hosts a popular cricket podcast Couch Talk on thecricketcouch.com and tweets as @thecricketcouch.

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