December 11, 2015

Are India's current spin trio the best of the lot?

Ashwin, Jadeja and Mishra are certainly very talented, but they will trump their esteemed predecessors only when they do well overseas

R Ashwin bowls with patience, and uses variations in pace to great effect © BCCI

When did Indian spin last dominate a visiting batting side so completely? The kind of success R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Amit Mishra have enjoyed against the touring South Africans can easily mislead young fans into believing this is the best spin combination in India's Test history.

India have won matches at home on rank turners in the past too, but comprehensive routs such as this one have been rare (if we do not count some poor batting displays by West Indies in recent years on Indian pitches).

India whitewashed England 3-0 in the 1992-93 series, when Mohammad Azharuddin and Graham Gooch were the captains. Still, England were bowled out for less than 200 only once in those six innings.

Not when Anil Kumble was at his devastating best, with the likes of Rajesh Chauhan and Venkatapathy Raju or Harbhajan Singh supporting him, did India crush the opposition in quite the same manner as they did this time around. Nor during the peak of the quartet era. In fact, India either won series by narrow margins or lost them during that period, when Indian spin was widely believed to be king.

How do we explain this phenomenon? Are India's spinners today unplayable in favourable conditions? Are they actually superior to the great spinners of the past, as some have suggested? I find it hard to answer these questions in the affirmative, though Ashwin, largely, and his partners, Jadeja and Mishra (when he makes it to the XI), are vastly improved bowlers, bowling with greater consistency and accuracy than in the past.

Ashwin, the leader of the pack, continues to be creatively aggressive, with an impressive legbreak added to his arsenal, but he has also learnt the virtue of patience. He bowls a much more productive outside-the-off-stump line, slows down or hastens his pace as the situation or wicket demands, and has the uncanny knack of taking wickets.

Left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi took 114 wickets at 30.71 in 33 Tests between 1979 and 1983 © PA Photos

Critics have described him as a bowler with the potential to be a modern Indian great. He is probably already one, given his sterling bowling record so far, not to mention his elegant batting, which is more than useful, but old-timers like me will still vote for EAS Prasanna as the greatest Indian offspinner.

Quite apart from the wonderful attributes of his bowling, which have been widely written about, he had a superior record abroad, especially in Australia. And surely, he would have taken many more than the 189 Test wickets he took had he played more than the mere 49 matches he did play. Not to mention all the lbw decisions he would have benefited from in today's cricket, which is characterised by umpiring that is much more positive in this regard than in his time.

Jadeja has surprised critics and supporters alike with his superlative performances in the recent series. He has, in favourable conditions, been well nigh unplayable, quite as devastating as the best left-arm spinners India have produced. His menacing ring of fielders around the bat was reminiscent of the attacking fields England's Derek Underwood set on wickets that assisted his accurate, fastish left-arm spin, not very different from Jadeja's style of bowling. Underwood was certainly a great bowler of his era, but he too tended to be relatively harmless on good batting tracks.

India's Rajinder Goel never played Test cricket, thanks to his career coinciding with Bishan Bedi's, but he was perhaps the one left-arm spinner who was way more destructive than Jadeja on rank turners.

Dilip Doshi is another left-arm spinner who would have revelled in similar conditions, while Bapu Nadkarni with his metronomic accuracy would have been quite successful too. Jadeja has shown great potential, but, yet to prove himself on perfect batting strips, is not yet quite in the same class as these past masters. True, he has added some variety to his bowling of late, but he will have to impart spin in a more parabolic arc than he does now to succeed on good tracks.

As for the third spinner in the Indian scheme of things, Mishra has been unlucky to miss out on the action not only in two of the four recent Test matches, but also altogether on the last Australian tour. Among the three spinners, he is probably the best attacking option in good batting conditions, at the height of his powers, but he has not received sufficient opportunities to develop into a worthy successor to Anil Kumble. As far as orthodox legspinners go, he is easily the best Indian bowler in decades, superior - with his quicker pace off the wicket, immaculate control and impressive bag of tricks - to Nari Hirwani.

Hopefully the selectors will persist with these three spinners long enough for them to settle down into a potent combined force, and play at least two of them in the XI not only at home but as often as possible on tours abroad. When they start winning Test matches overseas for India, as did their seniors Kumble, Doshi, Chandrasekhar, Venkataraghavan, Prasanna and Bedi did before them, even the diehard traditionalists among us will agree that they are as good as the old guard.

V Ramnarayan bowled offspin for Hyderabad and South Zone in the 1970s. His latest book is Third Man, Recollections from a Life in Cricket

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