There is a sense of satisfaction in witnessing a good challenge, the sort that “underdogs” England put up in the opening Test in Rajkot that ended on Sunday in a draw. Even the most ardent Indian cricket supporter, used to the domination of home spinners in recent years, must have thought: “Game on, finally.”
England’s first-innings 537 was the first 500-plus score by a visiting side since their own 523 in the third Test on their previous tour in 2012, which they won 2-1.
India subsequently won 12 of their 13 home Tests—with one drawn only because of rain—asserting their domination over the West Indies, Australia and New Zealand on turning tracks to reclaim the world No.1 Test ranking.
But the home side’s uninspiring bowling performance, especially on a good wicket over the first two days at Rajkot, has raised the question of whether this spin-oriented Indian attack can perform significantly on pitches that do not provide turn.
For England, ranked No.4 and coming off a shock Test defeat to Bangladesh only days earlier, the trio of Joe Root, Moeen Ali and Ben Stokes notched up their maiden centuries on Indian soil to help the side post their third-highest total in this country.
India responded with 488 and 172-6 and only just managed to save the game. Skipper Alastair Cook’s second-innings ton had helped England declare at 260-3 to set the hosts a target of 310 on the final day—a dominant start for the visitors in the five-Test series that appears far from a predicted Indian whitewash.
Such has been Indian spin domination on turning home pitches that the previous Test century by a visiting batsman was 13 matches ago, dating back 44 months to February 2013. Australian skipper Michael Clarke scored 130 in the opening Test of the four-match series in Chennai.
During the same period, 15 centuries were recorded by Indians.
It is only natural that every team looks to dominate at home, given its familiarity with the conditions and with pitches tailor-made to its strengths. India are no different.
But such viciously turning tracks were laid out for South Africa and New Zealand that India’s most successful Test captain, Sourav Ganguly, himself called for sporting pitches. He said the team should consistently play on “good” pitches at home to develop into a competitive, all-conditions bowling side—especially the spinners—to make an impact overseas.
“I firmly believe they (India) will continue to be unbeatable at home. But if you want to be a good bowling unit overseas, where your spinners come into play and win you Test matches, (Ravichandran) Ashwin and (Ravindra) Jadeja will have to learn bowling on good first-day, second-day pitches, where there is no turn, where you have got to bowl the right line and right length. And on Day 4, Day 5, the game will change very quickly in these conditions,” Ganguly told ESPNcricinfo last week.
As it turned out, on a good Day 1 pitch at Rajkot, England raced to 311-4, with the world’s top-ranked bowler, Ashwin, toiling through one-third of the 93 overs bowled through the day for returns of 2 for 108. Another 139 runs in 30 overs in the opening session on Day 2 established England’s dominance over the bowlers even as Saurashtra’s maiden Test pitch began to gradually throw up dust. Five dropped catches off seamers only made matters worse.
Only last month, off-spinner Ashwin took 27 wickets for his seventh player of the series award during the 3-0 rout of New Zealand. He became the quickest to reach 220 Test wickets—in 39 matches—and there is talk of the 30-year-old reaching 300 wickets by the end of this home season.
As the team’s prime bowling weapon, Ashwin’s success, much like India’s in recent times, has been predominantly at home—153 wickets in 22 home Tests, against 67 in 17 away matches prior to the England series. Out of the 67 away wickets, 17 came in the West Indies this season.
In Rajkot, Ashwin went for 167 runs in 46 overs for two wickets, leg-spinner Amit Mishra 98 runs from 22.3 overs scalping one and Jadeja was slightly better at 3-86 from 30 in England’s first innings.
“Underprepared pitches at home over the past few years have made our bowlers diffident on a good pitch like the one we saw in Rajkot,” former India left-arm spinner Maninder Singh says.
“It is the mindset, even for someone like Ashwin, who is actually a bowler capable of getting wickets on any kind of wicket. Turning pitches at home is clearly going to have an adverse impact when playing overseas in the long run,” Singh adds.
Ashwin and Co. fared slightly better in the second innings but appeared nowhere close to the threatening unit they were in the preceding series.
“In fact, the English spinners bowled better than the Indians in Rajkot, and that’s because they are used to bowling on good pitches,” says Singh, who played in 35 Tests and 59 One Day Internationals (ODIs) between 1982 and 1993.
India will play another four Tests against England—including the second Test that starts today—followed by four against Australia and one against Bangladesh in the remainder of the packed home season. They would do well to learn from the lessons handed in Rajkot.