By Madan Mohan
Saeed Ajmal bagged a well-deserved 10-wicket haul to knock over England in the first Test of the ongoing series in the Emirates. It was only the second time in his career that the off- spinner had taken 10 or more wickets in a match and the previous occasion was against a weak West Indies side.
Mohammed Hafeez completed the formalities with 15 unbeaten runs to wrap up a stunning three-day win over the No.1 Test team in the world. I am sure Indian fans would have struggled to resist a chuckle or two at that; it was quite a familiar sight.
It also evoked memories of the ‘90s. In the ‘80s, West Indies could not be beaten no matter what and had an invincible all round record. As the West Indies declined in the ‘90s and Australia took over the mantle, there was suddenly no one unstoppable, invincible team pulling away from the rest of the pack.
India enjoyed an enviable home record during this period, beating England and defeating South Africa and Australia 2-1. They fared miserably abroad, failing to win a series even in Zimbabwe. But at home, India’s spinners time and again cast a web of deceit over the traditionally pace-oriented countries. This was particularly evident when Mark Taylor’s fancied Australian side lost comprehensively in two successive Tests in Chennai and Kolkata. Like the pitch at Dubai for this encounter between England and Pakistan, those pitches took turn but were not under-prepared dustbowls. It was only in 2004 that Australia conquered what they had called their “Final Frontier”.
Strangely enough, it is Pakistan who seems to have adopted India’s favoured strategy at home. With opener Mohammed Hafeez performing bowling studies and the left-armer Abdul Rehman, Pakistan have a trio of spinners. Their spin attack accounted for 102 wickets in 2011. This is in spite of Pakistan having good pace bowling options in Umar Gul, Junaid Khan, Aizaz Cheema and Wahab Riaz. But the spin strategy has proved so effective that Pakistani skipper Misbah-ul Haq tossed the ball to Hafeez as early as the sixth over. For good measure, he picked up a wicket in his first over and England never got back on their feet thereafter.
So where does that leave England? Their display in the ODI series in India too had not inspired confidence. It was argued that ODIs have never been their strong suit and the pressure of run-rates would have forced them to attack spinners more than they should have. In reality, they have continued to be leaden-footed against spinners and relied too much on the maxim, “When in doubt, sweep”.
One would be hasty to write off England so early in the series. Their bowling attack did not allow Pakistan to race to a 200 – odd runs lead and they have the batting depth to mount a comeback. But Alastair Cook’s remark during the ODI series in India about there being a skills issue came to mind as I watched England capitulate – yet again! – to a subcontinent spin special (except that this was Dubai).
Do England have the tools to counter Ajmal’s guile in the next two matches and at least square the series? I am more than a bit sceptical, but maybe Mushtaq Ahmed’s presence in their coaching ensemble will provide the inputs they need to overcome their all too familiar weakness against spin.
Only a few months prior to this series, of course, India lost their No.1 ranking in spectacular fashion to England and have been lambs to slaughter abroad. Sri Lanka, too, ultimately lacked the weapons to challenge formidable South Africa at home. South Africa have the peculiar problem of flattering less at home than abroad. Perhaps, the cricketing world will have to look toAustralia once again for a team which can conquer all opponents in all conditions. Until then, we’ll have to tune in to that ‘90s show all over again.
(Madan Mohan is a 26 -year old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and till date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)