India have rarely been good against quality spin as face-off with Australia shows
India’s come-from-behind 75-run victory at Bengaluru was memorable. Controversy over the DRS fracas involving Steve Smith has overwhelmed a top-class performance in the past few days, which is unfortunate, for the contest between the two teams has been riveting.
Hopefully, the fire will be doused soon and attention focused on the remaining two Tests. While India will not lose their No.1 International Cricket Council ranking even if they lose the series, Virat Kohli would obviously want to finish this season on a glorious note.
The psychological advantage has been regained by India, but it would be presumptuous to write off the Aussies. They’ve fought superbly and I reckon they’ll come back harder in the next Test.
That said, India’s batting collapses in three successive innings against spin bowlers have had cricket aficionados scratching their heads and tugging their beards in disbelief and not a little anguish. Shouldn’t Indian batsmen be adept at playing slow bowlers, especially in home conditions?
In the first Test at Pune, India were bowled out for 105 and 107. Even allowing for the substandard quality of the pitch, these were paltry scores for a batting line-up that had been in red-hot form this season, and had run up mammoth scores.
In the first innings at Bengaluru, where the pitch was helpful for slow bowlers but not as devilish as in Pune, India managed only 189 batting first. So what has been going wrong?
A quick incursion into history and some data mining would suggest that the premise of India’s invincibility at home against spin is perhaps misplaced. Records indicate that Indian batsmen are not necessarily masters against slow bowling at home. In fact, their vulnerability has been shown up often enough in the past half-century or so.
My earliest memory of following a full series at home goes back to 1966-67, when the West Indies played three Tests here under Garfield Sobers, then arguably the strongest side in the world. The big threat then was from Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, the dreaded pace duo.
But while Hall and Griffith grabbed most of the attention, the highest wicket-taker for the West Indies was off-spinner Lance Gibbs with 18 wickets, supported ably by leg-spinner David Holford and Sobers when he bowled left-arm spin.
Similarly, in 1969, Australian pace spearhead Graham McKenzie was perceived as the biggest challenge for India’s batsmen. But while McKenzie and Alan Connolly were effective, the most successful bowler was Ashley Mallett, with 29 wickets.
It’s a pattern that recurs in several series thereafter too. In 1976-77, England beat India 3-1 with left-arm spinner Derek Underwood playing a key role, picking up a bagful of wickets against an accomplished batting line-up that included Sunil Gavaskar and Gundappa Viswanath.
But this was, at least, a strong Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team. More surprising were England’s triumphs as underdogs in 1984-85 (through off-spinner Pat Pocock and left-arm spinner Phil Edmonds), and in 2012-13 with Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar.
In 2013, England stunned the cricket world, recovering from a 0-1 deficit to clinch a hard-fought contest. Till that time, and in most of the past three seasons too, India had looked virtually unbeatable on turning tracks.
The tactic of doctored, under-prepared pitches works only if the opposition does not have bowlers/batsmen of ability, or if the visiting team is easily “psyched” out by playing in the subcontinent, as South Africa were, for instance, in 2015.
On the other hand, Kevin Pietersen turned the 2013 series around with one superlative, blistering, counterattacking innings against the Indian spinners at Mumbai. That gave his team the self-confidence and Swann and Panesar the ambition to turn the tables on India.
What this highlights is that merely having spinning tracks is not a guarantee of success for India—whether it’s batsmen or bowlers. In familiar home conditions too, the players have to play extremely well to succeed.
Sachin Tendulkar proved this against Australia in 1998, thwarting Shane Warne with utter brilliance; in 2001, Rahul Dravid and V.V. S. Laxman put up that memorable partnership at Eden Gardens. This allowed Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju, Harbhajan Singh, etc., to turn the screws.
If the opposition has depth and experience in spin bowling (neither Lyon nor O’Keefe are rookies), and batsmen are willing to counter India’s slow bowlers with grit, patience, technique and imagination, things level out.
Or can even boomerang!
Ayaz Memon is a senior writer who writes on sports and other matters.