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Spinning out of control?

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India made a banging start to the test series, beating South Africa in Mohali by 108 runs in three days. The visitors, ranked the top team in cricket’s longest version, and by some margin the game’s most proficient on foreign fields, were expected to pose a serious threat. So the fact they were handed what appears to be a sizeable defeat on its face, would have been greeted with some degree of satisfaction by the fans.

If, however, we dig deeper and have a look below the surface, the lessons from this game may not be as flattering to India as it may seem. The touring batsmen did poorly against the hometown spinners, but India’s batsmen didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory either. In all, they managed, over two completed innings, only 401 runs. This total, under normal circumstances, would be considered unsatisfactory.

Since India won by some distance it may seem like I’m quibbling. I’m not.

In the first innings, after losing Shikhar Dhawan in the second over with nothing on the board, India recovered well to 63/1, before slumping to 201 all-out. The second innings collapse was even more dramatic, and 162/2 became 200 all-out in disturbingly short order.

The fact that South Africa managed 108 runs less allowed the hosts to win with some ease, but it should not serve as any consolation. It should, instead, leave their batsmen dissatisfied with their level of production in surroundings that should have been familiar.

Spin has long been a potent weapon in the subcontinent. So much so that in the 1960s and 1970s, India habitually employed a four-man spin attack. The might of the West Indies’ pace bowling in the 1980s allowed them to prosper wherever they went, but even they made sure to diversify their attack when they travelled to India.

Overwhelmingly, opponents have found it close to impossible to win in India. So elusive was victory there that Steve Waugh, who lead a side some considered the best of all time, labeled India “The Final Frontier.” He managed to eke out a 2-1 series win in 2004, but since then things have returned to normal, with the Australians humbled 4-0 the last time they visited in 2012-13.

 

At some point, batsmen touring India know their technique against the furiously turning ball is going to be tested. Touring teams are aware of this and prepare the best they can. They also so know that there will be an assembly of slow bowlers licking their lips, eager to pounce on visiting prey.

But there can be too much of a good thing. Too frequently nowadays, spinners are able to elicit significant deviation from the first day, and this, it is clear, is a state of affairs encouraged by team officials.

Giving the pitch report, Sunil Gavaskar admitted that the Mohali surface was dry in a way he had “never seen before.” Part-time off-spinner Dean Elgar, six wickets to his name in 17 tests, increased his take to 10 by capturing four first innings scalps. Asked for his assessment of the pitch by reporters at the end of play he replied, “I don’t think it’s a very good cricket wicket,” though, he added, it was nice to capture four wickets.

In 2012-13 England toured India and the script never turned out as planned. England, equipped with their own high-class spinners, one genius batsman in Kevin Pietersen, and another in Alastair Cook, as capable against the turning ball as any to ever set foot in that part of the world, led the tourists to a 2-1 victory.

England had just trounced India by 10 wickets at the Wankhede Stadium when I was fortunate enough to see batting great Rahul Dravid lay down the following piece of cricket wisdom on TV:

“What you do when the wicket starts turning as much as they do, you take out the skill factor almost. It becomes a lottery, a lot about luck and chance. I mean the third innings in which India batted, you know there were certain balls, Virender Sehwag for example getting out there was nothing you could do with that. So what that does is really negate their ability as better players of spin.”

The strategy that depends on luck is not a good one. The team that is confident in its ability to outperform the opposition in its own conditions need not go overboard in stacking the deck in their favour. Dravid went further:

“So from India’s point of view, if they back their skills on normal subcontinent wickets that start off with a little bit of slow spin and deteriorate as the game goes on. In a four-match series I’d back them to win. But if you make it a case of lottery and chance then anything can happen.”

South Africa didn’t win in Mohali, but they were certainly in with a chance. A little more luck, perhaps, or less reluctance by captain Hashim Amla to introduce legspinner Imran Tahir into the fray earlier and things might have been different. In the end, South Africa needed 218 runs to win, a total only the very brave would proffer as being out of the reach of a side that has Amla and AB de Villiers as members, irrespective of the circumstances.

Indian captain Virat Kohli is fond of mentioning, in mitigation, that hardly a word of protest is uttered when his side has to contend with “green tops” abroad. But one lesson he could learn from at least two such occasions is that those tactics don’t always work.

India unexpectedly got the better South Africa on a perilous Kingsmead track in December 2010, despite the hosts having probably the best pace attack in the game at the time, and certainly the best fast bowler of the modern era in Dale Steyn.

One could hardly tell, observers joked, the difference between the Lord’s square and the outfield on the morning of the July 2014 test. Yet Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma upstaged England’s more famous swing and seam bowlers to contrive a stirring victory; the only test India won on tour.

India could, of course, go on to sweep the series by playing on the kind of pitch we saw in Mohali. If they persist in encouraging their curators to manufacture turners, however, they should prepare for the occasion when such a plan will backfire.

 


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I am from Jamaica, currently live in USA. Have followed cricket for a long time. Took to writing ab...

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