As the first Test of England’s tour of India nears its much-anticipated start on November 15, almost all the talk around the water coolers has been how the visitors will handle the spin on the rank turners that are usually prepared in the country. While India could play all three specialist spinners in their squad in Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh, England may go into the first Test with just one, Graeme Swann. The visitors will look to rely on all-rounder Samit Patel and part-timer Kevin Pietersen to chip in as spin support for Swann.
The Indian cricket board has already given sound indications that the Englishmen will be tested with copious spin during the series. Not a single specialist spinner was fielded in two out of three teams (India A and Mumbai) that played warm-up matches against the tourists. Only Haryana, which was involved in the third and final tour game, had leg-spinner Amit Mishra as captain on the flattest of tracks.
England’s vulnerability to spin was exposed during the warm-up matches as they lost nine of their 16 wickets to spin against Haryana. Mishra and off-spinner Jayant Yadav picked up four wickets apiece in the first innings. In the second innings, Mishra, who has 13 Test caps but missing from the squad for the first two Tests, did not bowl a single delivery. Earlier at the Brabourne Stadium, England lost six out of 10 wickets to India A part-timers Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina.
Spin has been India’s trump card ever since the 1960s when the famed spin quartet of leggie Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, offies Erapalli Prasanna and Srinivas Venkataraghavan, and left-armer Bishan Singh Bedi, wreaked havoc among touring teams. India’s dominance in the area is thoroughly reflected in the 2,311 wickets taken by 62 spinners of all variety in home Test matches, as against 1,126 wickets taken by the quicks.
Against England, in particular, the Indian spin department has taken a whopping 500 wickets. Thirty five spinners out of the 46 that India has fielded so far have contributed to this figure (including part-timers), with Chandrasekhar leading the tally with 64. He is followed by Anil Kumble (56), Bedi (50), Salim Durrani (36), Vinoo Mankad (34), Prasanna and Harbhajan Singh (29 each), Chandu Borde (25), Dilip Doshi and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan (23 each).
The art of (off)spin
While the pitches in India, which deteriorate faster than the roads during the monsoon, have historically supported a lot of turn, the art itself of spin bowling never ceases to amaze.
Going into the series, cricket fans around the world will be treated to the twists, the turns and the variations of two top-class off-spinners in Ashwin and Swann. Both are likely to be the trump cards of their respective teams, and their captains will sure be hoping they come good.
Other than being finger spinners, Ashwin and Swann are also similar in other areas. Both like to flight the ball and do so even in the face of an assault; they are attacking bowlers and always look to take wickets even if it means they’re hit for a few. And both possess enough variations to keep the batsmen guessing.
The first thing that comes to mind when you look at Ashwin is the feeling that someone has perhaps lifted him from an IT campus and placed him on the cricket field. Ashwin has that nerdy engineer look to him, and why wouldn’t there be? The 26-year-old has a B.Tech in Information Technology from Chennai’s SSN College of Engineering and is one of the many techies in the country, yours truly included, who is plying his trade in an industry more suited to his passion.
The tall Chennai lad has taken over the mantle of India’s premier spinner after the retirement of the legendary Kumble in 2008. He has done so after outperforming fellow offspinner Harbhajan, who has found his way back into the Test squad against England after a long hiatus.
In the longer format of the game, Ashwin is similar to Harbhajan in that he seems to want a wicket with every ball he bowls. But, unlike Bhajji, he does not start showing signs of impatience when the wicket doesn’t come. Instead, he will not look to contain the runs and will continue to bowl wicket-taking deliveries, even if he goes for a few; he will continue flighting the ball and sticking to his stock off-break delivery; he’ll sprinkle his overs with a few variations from his arsenal and eventually get his man. He gets a lot of bounce, something that he generates with his high-arm action and his six-feet-two frame, and relies on that more than the turn he gets off the pitch.
Ashwin has made clever use of the carrom ball too, which he picked up watching Sri Lanka’s Ajantha Mendis. He recently revealed that he’s also developed a “mystery ball”— a delivery that’s trending among spinners worldwide — and will use it in the England series. But he’s always said that he relies on his stock ball more even though his variations have yielded wickets for him in the past.
“I have always maintained that I’ve relied on my stock ball much higher than I have on the carrom ball,” Ashwin had told The Times of India during the New Zealand series in August this year. ”Yes, it (the carrom ball) has done the trick once or twice, I have got people out with it, but it’s not that I bowl that one every over.
“(The) carrom ball is not an attacking ball at all and is used as a defensive mechanism. I’ve played enough First-Class cricket to know what (a) stock ball is.”
After making his five-day debut against the West Indies at home, where he picked up 22 wickets in the three-Test series, Ashwin went to Australia ahead of Harbhajan and averaged 62.77 for his nine wickets in India’s 0-4 humiliation. He faced some criticism following that series, but took it in his stride and returned with 18 wickets in the two Test series versus New Zealand at home.
In the five Tests he’s played in India, Ashwin has yielded a whopping 40 wickets at an average of 18.50, including five innings of five wickets or more. He has also formed a formidable partnership with left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha; the duo has now taken 60 wickets between them in the four Tests they have played together.
Ashwin has shown a lot of maturity for a 26-year-old, eight-Test-old bowler and is certain to go down history as a quality act. The upcoming two home series against England and Australia will provide an acid Test to his abilities and he’ll be looking to come out on top with valuable experience.
Graeme Swann started his Test career at the age of 29, taking the wickets of Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid in his very first over at Chennai’s MA Chidambaram Stadium, during England’s 2008-09 tour of India. He has since added a further 190 wickets to the tally in 45 Tests to leave him one short of the legendary Jim Laker’s 193.
After a steady rise in the last four years, Swann now ranks as the No 3 spinner in the ICC Test rankings for bowlers, behind Pakistani duo of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman.
Swann was part of a disappointing trip to the Gulf recently when England got whitewashed 0-3 by Pakistan at Abu Dhabi. But his record in Asia will give him some confidence coming into the India series. Swann has 53 wickets in nine matches in Asia and has dismissed Gambhir five times. In fact, nine out of 12 batsmen who he has dismissed more than four times in his career are left-handers. Swann’s liking for the southpaws was evident again in the one tour match he played against India A, where he took the wickets of Yuvraj Singh and Irfan Pathan.
Swann is noted for being an attacking off-spinner, and like Ashwin, thrives on plenty of flight and bounce. He is also capable of changing his pace well to deceive batsmen. He does not bowl the doosra much because he says it hurts his hand. Instead, his variations include an efficient arm ball and a little flick he likes to call a ”flying saucer ball” that records close to 2000 revolutions per minute (rpm) and goes straight after bouncing. He’s got big hands and holds the ball cross-seamed way, wedged between the upper part of the index finger and lower part of the middle finger.
“The flight is more important that the spin in my opinion,” he told The Sun. “(If) the ball is going dead straight through the air, even if it’s a big spinner, the batsman can just line it up and play it easily. But if it’s moving or arcing through the air, you can’t set yourself up so well. So the harder you spin the ball, the more it will move in the air too.”
Swann acknowledges that people’s expectations back home of getting the best out of Indian pitches will be an added burden, as his team looks to win a Test on Indian soil for the first time since David Gower’s side did it back in 1985. But he will take confidence from his performance in Asia, which includes a ten-wicket haul against Sri Lanka earlier this year.
“As a spinner it stands to reason that when you go to the subcontinent people are going to look to you and how you bowl,” Swann was quoted as saying by the Independent, before England’s training camp in Dubai last month. ”But if we do turn up just expecting the spinner to win the series for us then we’re screwed.”
Swann returns to the Indian shores as England’s premier spinner, having taken over the mantle from Monty Panesar. Despite the fact that the English media is pegging this series as the return of Kevin Pietersen to the England Test team, Swann will have a big role to play in deciding his team’s fortunes. And he’ll be the first to acknowledge it.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and Editorial Consultant at Cricket Country. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog – The Mullygrubber)