India v Australia, 3rd Test, Mohali, 4th day March 17, 2013

Australia spinning out of control

Nobody expected Australia's spinners to dominate this series, but their lack of wickets has been an inescapable problem
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As Steven Smith served up an assortment of pies and lollypops to India's batsmen, who cheerfully gorged themselves on the fourth day in Mohali, one question kept coming to mind. How has it come to this? How is it that in a team with two specialist spinners, Michael Clarke needs to turn to a man whose legbreaks are of the kind often seen in the lower grades of club cricket? Watching Smith bowl is like watching Jerry Springer: you know things are going to get ugly, yet you can't look away.

That is not an attack on Smith, for he is in this team primarily as a batsman. No more should be expected of him with the ball than any other part-timer. Smith found himself in that unfortunate situation only because Xavier Doherty and Nathan Lyon have been so ineffective. Among the long hops and full tosses, Smith did send down the odd ripper, like the ball that caught the inside edge of Sachin Tendulkar's bat and was caught at short leg. But that was his only breakthrough. He finished with 1 for 63 off 10 overs. Doherty and Lyon took 1 for 211 between them.

It was always clear that spin would play an enormous role in this series for Australia, both the ability of their batsmen to play it, and the effectiveness of their own slow bowlers on helpful pitches. Nobody expected the Australian spinners to dominate India's wristy, fleet-footed batsmen. After all, even Shane Warne's career figures in India were unflattering. But the extent to which Lyon and Doherty have struggled has been an inescapable problem throughout this series, and one of the reasons they face a potential 3-0 deficit.

Overall, this was actually quite a good day for Australia in the field. They picked up all ten of India's wickets for the addition of 216 to the overnight total. And, yes, Lyon started it off by having Shikhar Dhawan caught in close. But otherwise, Australia only really looked dangerous once the second new ball was taken, and immediately started swinging. Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle were suddenly a handful as Starc hooped the ball in to the right-handers, and Siddle nibbled it around.

But there has never been any doubt about the strength and depth of Australia's pace bowling. In England for the Ashes, any combination of Starc, Siddle, James Pattinson, Jackson Bird, Ryan Harris, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus should be effective. But what of the spin stocks? Steve O'Keefe was unlucky not to be on this tour, Ashton Agar is developing well, and Fawad Ahmed is worth monitoring but remains ineligible, while Michael Beer and Jon Holland are injured. Who knows if any of them would have done better in India.

The fact is, there isn't that much domestic form to go on. The seam-friendly pitches prepared for Sheffield Shield matches mean that more often than not spinners are hardly required at domestic level. No wonder Smith's legspin has lapsed; New South Wales have O'Keefe, and two spinners are rarely needed. Young spinners like Agar, Cameron Boyce, James Muirhead and Adam Zampa require greater opportunities at Shield level. Cricket Australia is addressing the issue of pitches but it won't be an overnight process. The top 14 Shield wicket takers this season were fast bowlers.

What is certain is that statistically, Lyon and Doherty have so far fared worse than any other Australian spinners ever to tour India. It is true that Warne and other quality slow bowlers have struggled to adjust to the conditions and proficiency of the batsmen they have faced. But as of day four in Mohali, Doherty's average of 72.66 and Lyon's average of 73.60 were the poorest of any Australian spinners in Tests in India, part-timers excluded. At times they have managed to keep things tight, as they did during periods on day four. That is admirable and necessary. But at other times they have let the score blow out drastically. And the wickets just haven't come.

Much of that is down to the seemingly in-built abilities of India's batsmen. M Vijay appeared to know what Lyon was going to bowl before Lyon himself had decided, such was the ease with which he advanced and dispatched him. After stumps, Vijay referred to his methods against Lyon as "percentage cricket". In layman terms, hit the ball spinning in to you. It was the same ploy that Dhawan used against Doherty. Of course, it's easy to play the percentages when you're sure of what's coming, and predictability has been one of the sins of Australia's spinners.

It is hard to see Doherty playing Test cricket again after this series. He shouldn't have been picked in the first place. When the squad was selected, O'Keefe had just taken eight wickets in a Sheffield Shield match, but the selectors were more interested in Doherty's ODI efforts. That was as perverse as making Usain Bolt run the 5000 metres based on his sprinting form. It also went against the Argus Report's philosophy that players must earn their positions based on performances at the lower levels. Doherty had two Shield wickets for the season when picked; O'Keefe had 17.

The greater long-term issue surrounds Lyon, who has shown himself to be a capable Test bowler over the past 18 months. Perhaps he entered the series with a clouded mind, for the coach Mickey Arthur and national selector John Inverarity insisted he receive some tuition from Ashley Mallett before arriving in India. Mallett was successful in India, and the idea was sound in theory, but Lyon is the type of straightforward character who can be confused by too many voices.

He prefers to work with his own set of trusted advisors, notably the South Australia coach Darren Berry, his spin coach Craig Howard, and the Centre of Excellence mentor John Davison. On tour with Australia, the fielding coach Steve Rixon doubles as spin mentor. Rixon is an experienced coach, but was a wicketkeeper, not a spin bowler, and the arrangement seems fundamentally flawed. Perhaps the time is coming that Cricket Australia needs to consider employing a travelling spin coach.

Of course, the spin problem won't be anywhere near as significant on other tours. The other teams from the subcontinent are good against slow bowling, but not as masterful as India. Australia are due to play Pakistan in the UAE next year, but Pakistan's batsmen can be apt to lose patience against what they perceive as lesser spin bowling. And in England for the Ashes, Australia's fast men will do most of the work.

The question is who will be Australia's preferred spinner to help them. It won't be Doherty. It won't be Glenn Maxwell, who should be viewed only as a batting allrounder. Lyon will remain a strong chance, provided his confidence isn't shot to pieces by this Indian tour - and there's still the Delhi Test to go. O'Keefe, Beer, Holland, Agar - they will all come into contention. But whoever it is, they won't be doing their job if Clarke has to call on Smith to bowl.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ygkd on March 19, 2013, 8:30 GMT

    @Beertjie is right to mention keeping's part in the spin equation. We need our promising teen keepers playing two-day games alongside a slip cordon. And we definitely need them up at the stumps learning how to handle spinners. How many times does one have to see a well-thought-of junior keeper in a 20/20 or 40/40 representative match who's a good 2 yards further back than he should be? That's all the time that pace is on, often squatting awkwardly on his own, sans slips. That in itself doesn't auger well for what may happen when the spinners eventually get a go. Only, often there really aren't any spinners anyway, so the field will be spread & runs-per-over will be king. We need to encourage youth keepers who take wickets, especially stumpings, the real if-you-move-an-inch-I've-got-you ones, because that's what spinners need to build pressure on batting line-ups who've grown up on spinning tracks. Come to think of it, we don't just need spinners & keepers - we need spinning tracks too.

  • Beertjie on March 18, 2013, 22:03 GMT

    Agree entirely @Behind_the_bowlers_arm on (March 17, 2013, 18:45 GMT) Can't help but think MC had a role in it. Hope it happens @wix99! Taking Agar now will ruin the youngster. One important point not mentioned at all is wicketkeeping. Someone like Agar who gives it a rip will need someone better than Wade standing up to him. How effective would Fawad Ahmed be if he doesn't have an excelllent keeper? OK Hartley won't ever make the team now, but Paine deserves a shot. But no, Wade bats well and suddenly the NSP want him for his batting alone. But he'll be the death of the first good spinner we field - just ask Nathan Lyon who isn't very good!

  • Tumbarumbar on March 18, 2013, 12:01 GMT

    @handyandy, We are reliving the World Series Cricket days in terms of team selections. You may recall that Alan Border was cunningly made 12th man for his 4th test (at the SCG) after making 40 not out and 60 not out in his 2nd test (which was also at the SCG). Incredibly Australia were hammered. I think he was rotated out, probably responsible player injury management.

  • Fast_Track_Bully on March 18, 2013, 11:14 GMT

    It is 3-0! Congrats team India. Wah! Even hardcore Indian fans never dreamed it!

  • dummy4fb on March 18, 2013, 10:53 GMT

    Nathan Lyon has suffered in the same way Panesar did. Too many voices, too many people saying he needed X number of variations, did for Panesar and it took a sustained period of playing county cricket to get his mojo back, which he certainly showed when he toured India. Lyon is no different. He's had everyone telling him to do more, to be more, and he's had very little time to actually try this out in domestic cricket. Add in being dumped for Doherty and you are not going to have a recipe for good bowling.

    I'd go for the following. 1) Bring back Hauritz. He offers control and you know what he will do. 2) Eradicate Doherty from the Test side. 3) Drop Lyon, get him together with Agar, and tell that that they will not play for Australia in any format for the next two years and that their focus should be on Shield cricket and developing their bowling for the Test team. Get them bowling as much as possible in the first class game rather than any ridiculous limited overs game.

  • handyandy on March 18, 2013, 9:15 GMT

    I am trying to think of a worse twin spin attack that has played for Australia.In fact I am trying to think of a worse team that has ever played for Australia.

    You might have to go all the way back the World Series Cricket days when the senior team defected on mass ... but even then Australia managed to put together a competent second 11.

  • ooper_cut on March 18, 2013, 9:14 GMT

    It is the same as what happens to India when we travel to Australia. There are talks of home pitches not being fast and the batsmen not able to play on bouncy wickets whereas the Aussie batsmen play fast bowling better. BUT one exception though India always had decent fast bowlers to fall back on. I remember in the 1991 tour, Kapil Dev & Prabhakar used to consistently break the back of the Oz top order only for the other bowlers to give them some space.

  • dummy4fb on March 18, 2013, 9:12 GMT

    Starc should be sent as nightwatchman yesterday instead of LYON.

  • reddawn1975 on March 18, 2013, 9:09 GMT

    Well i think Cricket Australia needs a good look at itself its time for the current selectors go they lacking good judgement in picking quality players for the Australian Team with the spinners situation i think its quite clear Steve O'Keefe and young Agar should be in the Squad of players not lyon or Doherty. Phil H is basically just not good enough at this level he cant handle the pressure. I think both the Marsh brothers now langer has them in line are far to good not to be in this side they are guns and Mitch Johnson should have played game 1 in India his form in Australia was great and vicious.