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March 9, 2014

India should pick two spinners in away Tests

V Ramnarayan
For long India have neglected left-arm spin - despite Pragyan Ojha's reasonable success - and now R Ashwin, with his offspin, is also not an automatic selection  © AFP
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Not long ago, I expressed the hope in this very column that the best of Ravichandran Ashwin was yet to come, inciting howls of protest from readers who pointed out that the offspinner's successes came almost entirely on Indian wickets. My optimism regarding Ashwin's progress as a Test spinner was based on what I perceived as a conscious effort on his part to go back to the basics of genuine spin, line and length, with less of an emphasis on unfurling a new trick every other ball. Ashwin's wicket-taking ability has since declined noticeably, especially, as predicted by my critics, on foreign soil.

The Indian team management's response to this development has, however been ill-advised, to put it mildly. To go into a Test match with not a single specialist spinner in the playing XI, as India did in New Zealand, must rank among the most naïve cases in Test history of the overestimation of a team's bowling resources. To expect a trio of medium-pacers and a lone part-time spinner to take 20 wickets on a good batting track, even if it was endowed with some life in the mornings, was wishful thinking of considerable density.

Come to think of it, when did India last bowl an opposition side out twice in a Test match abroad? One Test victory in South Africa, and another in the West Indies, with India's seamers and spinners collaborating effectively in 2010 and 2011 were the last such happy conclusions.

India's most memorable campaigns from the time the team started travelling relatively well under Ganguly, Dravid and Anil Kumble have owed a great deal to the contribution of the spinners, mainly Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, even if the seamers, spearheaded by Zaheer Khan, played key roles in the rare Test match victories abroad in the eras after Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar, and Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad.

Not often during the same period have the pacemen run through the opposition even in conditions that favoured pace. The Indian express fast bowler is, of course, non-existent, and the handful capable of 140kph-plus speeds tend to slow down or disappear rapidly. Starting with Munaf Patel, a number of quick bowlers have flattered to deceive, with Mohammed Shami threatening to go the way of his seniors in the pace department. We hear of the great promise Ishwar Pandey holds, and Varun Aaron has shown he can bowl fast, but whatever happened to the strapping Umesh Yadav, known to have clocked 150kph? Is he no longer the selectors' favourite, or has he been beset by injuries?

Pace bowlers hunt in pairs, and here India struggles to field even one fast-medium bowler regularly in the XI. I believe they may be better off placing faith in spin, regularly playing two soinners in the XI, without being fooled by the chimera of bowling success based on a horses-for-courses theory of selection.

India do not seem to have a policy for spin. They have, for instance, neglected left-arm spin for decades now, with Pragyan Ojha in and out most of the time, despite his reasonably good run. India have rarely fielded an orthodox legspinner since Narendra Hirwani, now a member of the selection panel that can never make up its mind about the credentials of Amit Mishra. Ashwin is the only slow bowler to have been given a steady spell in Test cricket, and now he is no longer an automatic choice, at least overseas. I believe all three spinners should regularly be part of the tour party, and two of them ought to find a place in the Test XI, just the way all four spinners of India's fabled past used to be members of the 14 most of the time. It is hard to see Ravindra Jadeja in the role of specialist spinner except on Indian wickets, for all his utility to the team.

It is also time to look beyond senior cricket to try to spot spin bowling talent nationwide. A friend who coaches very young cricketers assures me that there is an abundance of spin talent in India, with a remarkable number of kids taking to wristspin. According to him, all that bubbling talent gets "coached out" as they grow up. The profusion of cricket academies, official and private, all over the country, somehow manages to extinguish the spark in these young bowlers by the time they enter adulthood. The world already knows that India can turn aspiring tearaways into trundlers in a couple of seasons, for there are so many examples of that, but we are just as good at doing the same to spinners. And when a rare talent defies the system and evolves into a top spinner, we can trust the selection committee to dump him. Remember Murali Kartik?

V Ramnarayan is an author, translator and teacher. He bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s

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Posted by NumberXI on (March 12, 2014, 4:35 GMT)

I think there is something wrong with the argument that India should play two spinners overseas, because there do not seem to be fast bowlers. India's cricket is littered with examples of quicks who were allowed to decay - Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, Praveen Kumar, VRV Singh, Munaf Patel, Unadkat, Mithun and, of course, Sreesanth - through sheer mismanagement. The answer to this decay is to have a plan to nurture the likes of Shami, Yadav, Aaron etc. Also, India's spin bowling stocks are depleted. Ashwin, unfortunately, remains an apology of a spinner, while the two best spinners - Mishra and Ojha - hardly ever get a look in. To his credit, Jadeja has improved, but he is hardly a front line spinner in the mould of a Kumble or Bhajji. Eventually, this is not about the paucity of spin bowling quality or fast bowlers - it is a more serious problem of the lack of bowling quality. That is what India needs to address.

Posted by JJJake on (March 11, 2014, 9:31 GMT)

pace or spin? India needs to pick the most attacking bowlers. the India bowlers/ captain shouldn't worry about run rates. Because they haven't taken 20 wickets in a tests aboard for years. Australia's bowlers have taken 20 wickets 7 times out of the past 8 tests.

Posted by   on (March 11, 2014, 8:56 GMT)

Completely disagree, No point in picking up spinners if they are not quality. There is not one single spinner in the country who can be labelled in the same category as one of the famous four or even Harbhajan Singh in his hey days. Picking pie throwers will only discourage pace bowlers. At least by picking pacers message is being sent. So sorry to read this article

Posted by Biso on (March 11, 2014, 6:54 GMT)

In fact I am amazed that Ashwin and Ojha are being backed by this blog for their abilities overseas. They are not even in the class of Harbhajan , Kumble , Saqlain or Swann. Forget Bedi and Prassana. World cricket has not seen any like them since ages. These finger spinners are only good for Indian conditions. Ashwin can play as a genuine all rounder in India and while abroad he might have to try opening batting in place of Murli Vijay. In case we are lucky to get a crumbling pitch he might get a few wickets with the kookabura. Off course he won't run through. Period. Mishra is a good leg spinner until the batsmen go after him. If he gets taken for runs he looks clueless. So long he is not being attacked he keeps the pressure on. In any case he surely looks like a wicket taker in any condition.

Posted by Biso on (March 11, 2014, 6:42 GMT)

Indian spinners look clueless with the kookabura ball. If only Ashwin was half the bowler overseas as he is on Indian conditions the team would have had a great balance. In South africa and NZ the team was playing with three bowlers ( pace ), period. The spinner was inconsequential and failed to even put any kind of pressure leading to the pace bowlers getting over bowled ,loosing steam and looking jaded. The only option India has overseas is going more quicker bowlers. Shami , Umesh and Aaron are must and Bhuvi only in English conditions. Finger Spinners have not been delivering. A genuine leg spinner is a better option. If you want to win, you need to keep your quick bowlers fresh. Dhoni is faced with the difficult choice of having an extra pure batsman since there are no fast bowling all rounders. We have to trust our pace bowlers and give them time to improve upon their line and length skills. That is a better bargain than backing slow bowlers masquerading as finger spinners.

Posted by heathrf1974 on (March 11, 2014, 5:39 GMT)

Indian spinners struggle overseas as well.

Posted by   on (March 11, 2014, 5:34 GMT)

Mr Ramnayaran,

I believe that India's fast bowlers, just like the wrist spinners are also coached out of bowling fast. Every time a fast bowler who was bowling anything above medium comes on stage the pundits, the tv anchors and the coaches state the same thing; he is bowling fast now he just have to maintain discipline and bowl in the channel. That is how you kill creative geniune fast bowler. The Australians tried the "bowl in the channel and wait for the batsmen to make mistake" strategy but it doesn't work in most of the places. It is time that Indians too start trusting their fast men and let them be.

Posted by RoshJ on (March 11, 2014, 5:13 GMT)

Sorry to say this, even if the whole of Indian team consist of spiners, India will never win a test series oustide Indian flat pitches...look what happened to India's so called "master of spin" Ashwin in SA and NZ..he was nothing better than a club cricketer!

Posted by stonk on (March 11, 2014, 4:14 GMT)

Go for any number of spinners, though India can never win a test match away from home. Their bland trumped up wickets can't be carried with them, even on a drop-in basis.

Posted by   on (March 11, 2014, 2:46 GMT)

Ashwin is the most talented indian cricketer. Period. His ability to bowl so many variations are actually a testament to his talent as a spinner. He needs better coaching preferably a spinner of lore like saqlain, bedi et al. His batting is so underrated its unbelievale. He has played a handful of overseas test matches and already has 50+ scores to his name. Would be even better if the tail sticks with him long enough. With how rohit sharma is performing, ashwin is a much better option. Play rahane at 5, Ash at 6, Jadeja at 7 and MSD at 8 for overseas. with all due respect MSD is a sitting duck on seaming tracks and jadeja does not quite seem comfortable on such tracks either. Recently he has been showing the hunger too. He needs his chances

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

V Ramnarayan
A Chennai-born offspinner who represented Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s, V Ramnarayan is an intermittent columnist / blogger on cricket and other subjects. He is a translator and author, with books on cricket and the arts to his credit, a teacher of language and style at a premier journalism school, and editor-in-chief of Sruti, a leading Indian monthly on the performing arts. His works include histories of Tamil Nadu cricket and the Madras Cricket Club, and biographies.

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