December 20, 2007

India should have found place for a specialist third spinner

By H Natarajan

The Ashes as a contest has lost much relevance with passage of time. Today, it would not does not command the kind of interest that it did in the years bygone. If there is one cricketing nation that has done much damage, since the dawn of this century, to Australia’s reputation as the premier cricketing force in world cricket, it has to be India.

Steve Waugh dubbed Australia’s tour to India in 2001 as the “final frontier” and despite going one-up, lost the three-Test series. The Aussies were fortunate to escape, this time in their own backyard, in 2003-04. There is also an increasing needle between the two teams, the kind of which is usually seen in an Ashes contest. No wonder, Brett Lee likened India’s forthcoming tour to the thrills of an Ashes encounter.

The Indians are aware that they could face a backlash in Australia after their acrimonious series back home recently. They are also aware that the Aussies are notorious for mind games. But going by the public statements of some of the players like Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh, it’s apparent that the Indians are not only not perturbed but also willing to take on the Aussies in their own game.

Despite the brave noises made by India, one cannot escape the feeling that the selectors may have erred in laying emphasis on medium-pace than spin. If one looks back at history, it’s the spinners who have been a major force against Australia – at home or away. Be it Vinoo Mankad on the 1947-48 tour, EAS Prasanna on the 1967-68 tour, Bishan Singh Bedi and BS Chandrasekhar on the 1977-78 tour, Dilip Doshi and Shivlal Yadav in 1980-81, Yadav again and Ravi Shastri in 1985-86 tour.

Twice in the past India laid emphasis on the faster bowlers. In 1991-92 India’s attack was spearheaded by Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath, and in 1999-2000 it became three-pronged with Srinath, Ajit Agarkar and Venkatesh Prasad. Both tours were huge disappointments for India. In 1991-92, India lost the five-Test series 0-4, three of them crushing defeats. The 1999-2000 series was worse; India lost the first Test by 285 runs, the second by 180 runs and the third by an innings and 141 runs. If India came extremely close to winning the series on their last tour in 2003-04, it was because of spin - Kumble 24-wicket haul from three Tests.

Kumble and Harbhajan have been Australia’s principal tormentors. Harbhajan’s off-spin has yielded him a bumper harvest of 56 wickets from just eight Tests at just 24 plus with seven 5-for and three 10-for speaking volumes for his prowess while Kumble has been equally deadly with 88 wickets from 14 Tests with nine 5-for and two 10-for. Between the two of India’s greatest match-winners in recent years, Harbhajan and Kumble have a combined haul of 144 wickets from a total of 22 Tests. Brilliant by any reckoning.

Those stats were sufficient to pick a third spinner, especially considering the fact that two of the four Tests in the tour ahead would be played on spin-friendly tracks. Murali Kartik who came in from nowhere to make life miserable for the Aussies in the ODI series couple months back should have made the team. His six for 27 at Mumbai that brought about a sensational Australian collapse, was sheer magic. Where is the quality spin back-up should Harbhajan and Kumble get injured at the eleventh hour? One can rush a replacement in quick time to Sri Lanka or Bangladesh in case of an emergency, but Australia is far too away.

Considering the Australians have been traditionally fallible against off break, India could also have looked at Ramesh Powar as the third choice in the spin department. Powar comes across as a players from the bygone years, be it physical or pure skills. Unlike modern slow bowlers, he gives copious air to the ball and is willing to buy his wicket with variations in the air than off the wicket. Like Prasanna and Venkat in the past, Powar and Harbhajan could have played in the same XI.

That India are weakened in the new ball department makes it all the more worrisome. Let’s look at the effectiveness of India’s main bowlers against Australia: Zaheer Khan, the spearhead of India’s new ball attack, averages 42.77 per wicket, for his 18 wickets from eight Tests; Irfan Pathan averages a lavish 72.33 per wicket for his meager returns of six wickets from four Tests. RP Singh is yet to play against Australia, Ishant Sharma’s experience is restricted to two Tests and Pankaj Singh is yet to play Tests. The pick of the contemporary Indian fast bowlers is Ajit Agarkar. The Mumbaikar who is not exactly known for cost-effectiveness emerges the best in terms of parsimony and productivity: 30 wickets from nine Tests at 39.06. But Agarkar does not figure in the composition and the selectors cannot be faulted for that considering his recent form. The pressure will be huge on Zaheer and RP Singh considering Irfan is struggling to regain his lost skills and confidence and Ishant and Pankaj are wet behind the ears. The absence of the combative Sreesanth and Munaf will be felt.

A team needs to have quality attack to take 20 wickets. Australia has not lost a home Test series since 1992-93 and their juggernaut has rolled to 14 successive Test match victories. If India has to put it across such a formidable force, their best chance would be in batting first and flexing their famed batting muscle and then pinning their hopes on spin twins Kumble and Harbhajan to work their magic yet again.

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