Australia will be visiting India for a four-Test series starting in Pune on 23 February with a spin-heavy bowling attack, a move that appears to go against the grain of the traditionally pace-strong team that is currently No.2 in the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings.
Experienced off-spinner Nathan Lyon will spearhead a spin quartet that includes uncapped leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson and two left-arm spinners—four-Test-old Steve O’Keefe and two-Test-old Ashton Agar, both of whom will rely heavily on the experience gained from the 2015 India visit with Australia A.
Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird are the three specialist fast bowlers in the 16-man squad for the series against top-ranked India, who have been unstoppable this season, routing New Zealand 3-0, England 4-0 and beating Bangladesh in the one-off Test that ended on Monday.
Batting-strong India have lost only two Test series at home in the last dozen years. Spin played a crucial role in England’s 2-1 win in 2012-13, while leg-spinner Shane Warne provided excellent support to a pace-strong Australia attack when they won the series in 2004 after a gap of 35 years.
“To succeed in India, you either need fast bowlers who are really quick through the air like the West Indies greats of old, or a good spin attack possessing variations,” says former India off-spinner Shivlal Yadav, who took 55 wickets against Australia in 13 Tests spread over four series.
“You don’t get bounce on Indian pitches…you will get the turn, but not the carry. A spinner will need to possess variations in flight and an adjustable width of spin to succeed in India,” adds the former national selector.
In his first two tours in 1998 and 2001, Warne had struggled to make an impression in India, being the kind of spinner who requires bounce in the pitch. Indians have also traditionally been wonderful players of spin.
The late Richie Benaud played a key role in Australia’s first two Test series victories in India, in 1956-57 and 1959-60, taking 52 wickets in eight Tests with his leg-spin.
Spin also had a big hand in Australia’s 3-1 series win on their five-Test visit in 1969-70.
“I felt we could win in India,” Ian Chappell wrote in ESPNCricinfo, referring to their third Test series win on Indian soil. “This was based on having a batting line-up that was adept at playing spin, in addition to a fine pace bowler in Graham McKenzie and an extremely good off-spinner in Ashley Mallet.”
Mallet took 28 wickets and McKenzie, 21 in five Tests while leg-spinner Jack Gleeson took 10 from three Tests.
Lyon, who has 228 wickets in 63 Tests, took 15 wickets during Australia’s 0-4 defeat in India on their previous visit in 2012-13, and Starc is the only other specialist bowler in the squad with Test experience in India.
The Steven Smith-led side was routed 0-3 in Sri Lanka on their tour to the subcontinent last year.
“They’ve got the fast bowling attack to exploit these conditions. The likes of Starc, Hazlewood and the rest will get the ball to reverse (swing),” former India captain Sourav Ganguly told India Today’s website.
“But once again the challenge for Australia will be spin. That’s the key in the subcontinent, you have to play spin well and bowl spin well.”
Jason Gillespie took 20 wickets, Glenn McGrath, 14 and Michael Kasprowicz, nine, with Warne keeping up the pressure to fashion Australia’s 2-1 win in 2004-05, their last Test series success on Indian soil. The leg-spinner played in the first three Tests of the four-match series (the visitors took an unassailable 2-0 lead in the third Test in Nagpur), bowling 140 overs at an economy rate of 3 for his 14 wickets.
“It will be difficult to beat India with pace alone on these slow wickets. If you go back to the 2004 Australia win, their pacers got wickets because they bowled a nagging length. The great Warne backed them up. The spinners will have to back their pacers,” says former India left-arm spinner Venkatapathy Raju, who played in eights Tests against Australia over three series.
“They will have to adjust quickly to the SG ball, which is different from the Kookaburra that they are used to, with the prominent seam and the width of the seam,” adds Raju.
Cricket Australia roped in England left-arm spinner Monty Panesar, who took 17 wickets in the 2012-13 Test series in India, to work with their spinners in Brisbane, and have hired former India cricketer Sridharan Sriram as consultant for the training camp in Dubai and for the series.
Ricky Ponting, who has travelled to India on six Test tours, expects this visit to be tough for Smith’s side. “As long as they can find a way to be competitive in the Test series, even if we don’t win, I don’t think it would be that big of a deal,” he was quoted as saying by Cricket Australia’s website.
Sanjay Rajan has written on sport for over two decades. He tweets at @SeamUp.