India should pick two spinners in away Tests
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