Australia spinning out of control
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