Ojha's subtle route to success
If you had given MS Dhoni six months in a laboratory with all the sophisticated scientists and equipment at his disposal and asked him to come up with a man-made bowler for Test matches in the subcontinent, he would have come out with long, wild hair and Pragyan Ojha walking behind him. Ojha is a Dhoni kind of bowler.
Ojha doesn't bowl mystery balls, he doesn't give batsmen nightmares, he belongs to one of the least threatening species, but he gives Dhoni what he loves: control. Dhoni has the patience of a hawk. He likes nothing better than a bowler who can bowl on the same spot all day. That lets him set a field and build pressure. He can then wait for the batsman to make a mistake. He didn't have any such stock fast bowler in Australia and England, and the difference was conspicuous.
All this makes Ojha sound like some hard-working mule who turns up and keeps pitching on an imaginary kerchief all day long. He is not. Yes, Ojha is a good control bowler on tracks good for batting. Yes, he may not make it turn the other way, he may not announce new deliveries, but Ojha does more than just land it on a length just outside off, especially when the pitch is helping him.
Ojha's arm ball to trap batsmen who are unfamiliar with spin is well appreciated, but two of the more under-rated aspects of his bowling are his use of the crease and different trajectories. As Shane Warne will tell you, landing it in the same area is only half the job; it's when you make it take different routes to that same destination that the batsman is deceived. His pitch map shows a circle with a small radius on a length just outside off, but the beehive has a much bigger representation, with varied bounce and turn. With the pitch getting slower, he might need to do more in the second innings, but this was good enough for the first dig.
Against England on the third day, he used the angle from wide of the stumps to delightful impact. He let the pitch's natural variation confuse the batsmen, bowling from wide of the stumps and drawing different degrees of turn. Every now and then he slipped in the arm ball. The England batsmen contributed to their own demise, but Ojha had to work hard for those wickets: this was not a pitch with balls exploding out of the rough and popping up for easy bat-pad catches.
Ojha's dismissal of Kevin Pietersen would have delighted all old-fashioned left-arm spinners. Ojha should have had Pietersen caught and stumped in his first and second overs of the day, but gradually Pietersen started to settle down and reaching the pitch of the balls. Ojha didn't lose his patience in that 13-over unbroken spell. In the over that he eventually got the wicket, Ojha shortened Pietersen's stride with one that didn't turn. The inside edge on that occasion saved Pietersen, but the doubt created was enough for him to not push all the way forward to the next ball that turned enough to beat the edge.
The reward for that persistence was doubled one ball later when Ian Bell tried to work him off his rhythm with a charge down the wicket. Ojha didn't change where the ball would pitch, and the surface did the rest. That spell of 13-5-26-2 provided Dhoni and India all they wanted. There were no loose balls to provide the batsmen the release, there were no wide balls that you could leave alone and switch off for a while, and there was no monotony the batsmen could get used to.
Ojha still won't give batsmen nightmares. He still won't be the first-choice spinner, although that's an arrangement that might need revisiting. On a less helpful pitch and against less helpful batsmen, Ojha might not have completed his fourth five-wicket haul - in 16 Tests - but even on a flat track he wouldn't have gone at more than three an over. His career economy rate of 2.75 before this match says as much. And he doesn't do it by firing balls into the pads or wide outside off, he does it through his control and subtle changes. For the moment, in the subcontinent, it is good enough for Dhoni.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo