More spinners is not the solution
By stumps on the third day in Chennai, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc and Moises Henriques had collectively taken 1 for 184. Only James Pattinson had defied the slow surface and posed a serious threat. Was a four-man pace attack a mistake? Surely on a dusty pitch like this two spinners were required? Yes, if they were two proven, world-class spinners. Like, say, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar. But Nathan Lyon and Xavier Doherty? Or Lyon and Glenn Maxwell?
Lyon, the best slow bowler in Australia, left the ground with 3 for 182 on Sunday, an analysis that made Jason Krejza look miserly. Why should a lesser spinner have fared any better? The pitch offered turn but it did not do the work for the bowler. R Ashwin used challenging lengths and subtle variations to collect his seven wickets, but Harbhajan Singh had almost no impact. Collectively, Australia's pace unit averaged 54.60 per wicket in this innings. Lyon and the part-time spinners averaged 75.33.
The truth is that all of those numbers were skewed, and skewered, by MS Dhoni in the final session. For much of the day Australia were actually quite serviceable. Their first hour was sharp and precise, as the fast men built pressure with dot balls, and Lyon pounced with a ripping offbreak that bowled Sachin Tendulkar. They let Virat Kohli get away, but a few balls after tea the score was 372 for 7, and the game remained even.
And then they were Dhonied. Pace or spin, strike weapon or part-timer, everyone suffered at the hands of India's captain. But he hurt Lyon the most, taking him for 91 of his 206 runs at a strike-rate of 124.65. Dhoni put Lyon off his game. If he tossed the ball up, Dhoni drove him down the ground. If he went quicker and flatter, Dhoni worked the ball easily through gaps. Having another spinner would not have changed anything.
As the session wore on and Dhoni attacked Lyon, while effortlessly milking the fast men at will, Michael Clarke was left wondering what more he could do? He tried fielders in close, he tried them deep. His men came over the wicket, they came around. Frustratingly for Clarke, they missed several half-chances. There was a sharp return chance to Clarke, a six that Henriques might have reeled in had he found a better position on the boundary. A crisp flick that Cowan couldn't grasp at short leg. All tough, but all opportunities.
With each one, shoulders slumped a little more. And a slow over-rate meant an extra half hour in the field. That was one effect of the team selection that can be declared with certainty. After stumps, Kohli said he felt the inclusion of four fast men had played into India's hands.
"All of us were a bit surprised by that decision," Kohli said. "They had Xavier in the team as well, so we really thought he was going to play this game. We were really surprised to see three seamers ... which was a good thing for us on that wicket. We just decided to take advantage of that, because knowing these conditions you can only have those quick bowling spells. Those bursts, for like three or four overs, not more than that."
But India should know the value of playing to your strengths. At the WACA last January Australia chose four fast men on a quick, bouncy pitch. So did India. They ignored their forte, spin, and hoped the conditions would work for their seamers. Australia's bowlers were quick enough to exploit the pitch; India's were not. They lost within three days. By picking two spinners in Chennai, Australia would have been similarly ignoring their strength and relying on the pitch.
Historically that has not been a successful tactic for Australia. The Shane Warne-Gavin Robertson combination helped them win one Test in 1998, but they still lost two. The Brad Hogg-Peter McIntyre partnership in 1996 failed. As did the Warne-Colin Miller pairing in Chennai in 2001. And the Cameron White-Jason Krejza union in Nagpur in 2008.
The only Australia squad to win a Test series in India in the past 40 years, Adam Gilchrist's 2004 outfit, used only one spinner in each match. In that series, 63% of Australia's wickets came from the fast men. Another pace-oriented team, South Africa, have drawn their past two tours of India, and 79% of their wickets came from the quick bowlers. A drawn series this time would be enough for Clarke's men to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
That is not to say that their selections will guarantee success. Not if India keep batting the way Dhoni, Kohli and Tendulkar did in this innings. And not if Australia continue to miss their half-chances. There are plenty of things Australia would like to change about the first three days in Chennai. But the balance of the attack should not be one of them.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here