India v England, 2nd Test, Mumbai, 3rd day November 25, 2012

Advantage squandered

India's spinners were outbowled on their own patch as MS Dhoni's demand for a turning wicket backfired

Bounce? Check. Turn? Check. Toss won? Check. Three spinners? Check. Good first-innings total? Check. Quality spin bowling? Conspicuous in its absence.

MS Dhoni will, or at least should, live and die by the spin sword, but he and India will wonder if the basket they put all their eggs in is reliable enough. Even before the series started, while good for general cricket, it was considered a gamble to play on square turners because the young India spinners came with reputations that were built through wickets against West Indies and New Zealand. So far, only one of them has added to it.

If India can't manage a miracle on day four - and it will need Gautam Gambhir to continue playing his blinder for another session - they will have done the equivalent of South Africa losing a Test after winning the toss on a green top in Johannesburg. Wait, that has been done before, so that's not the end of the world. These things happen in cricket, but what will irk India is how the England spinners made the pitch look much more menacing than India's did. And that should not be happening. Truth be told, the pitch was menacing.

Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen played really well but when you saw the ball snarl at the India batsmen later in the day, you knew they should not have been allowed to make it look that easy. Scoring runs against India spinners is okay, scoring what looked like easy runs is not. One of the reasons, Gambhir said, was that Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar found the right pace to bowl on a pitch where you didn't necessarily need to beat batsmen in the flight. The sharp turn from the surface did a lot for you.

However, when they sit down and introspect, India will know that alone was not the story. Firstly, it doesn't say much about their cricketing sense if their two offspinners bowl 63.3 overs between them without discovering the right pace. Secondly, pace was not the only issue with R Ashwin and Harbhajan Singh. Swann and Panesar clearly put more action on the ball, giving it the best chance to spin.

Ashwin, on the other hand, kept bowling about one short ball an over and hardly ever bowled a decent string of deliveries in one spot to get the batsmen driving. It was his ninth over of the day when Ashwin finally bowled six consecutive deliveries that brought the batsman forward. The last of those six balls was slightly short of driving length, creating space between bat and the pitch of the ball, and Ashwin finally got a wicket, his second in his last 85.2 overs, including the one of a switch-hitting Swann in Ahmedabad. The relief on Ashwin's face was obvious as he finally took a wicket, but the virtue was soon forgotten.

With the new ball against the new batsman, Jonny Bairstow, Ashwin was back to trying too many things, bowling carom balls and into the pads. Dhoni's fields didn't help. Perhaps he wasn't left a choice. For almost the entire first session, India had fields for poor bowling with as many as four or five men on the boundary, giving England easy singles. The dominating Pietersen kept finding boundaries with even those spread-out fields.

The problem was, Harbhajan wasn't much better either, more disappointingly because this was his kind of pitch, with turn and bounce for the bat-pads to pop up. It took him 20 overs to bowl his first maiden, despite starting decently. For some reason, he didn't enjoy the captain's confidence. He was brought on in the 25th over after the other two spinners had opened the innings without any success. He bowled 21 overs, Ashwin 42.3.

"If you are playing three quality spinners, one of them is bound to be underbowled," Gambhir said. "You can't look at the scoreboard and bowl them all for an equal number of overs. If you look at it, all three bowled well. It was just that one partnership took the game away.

"I didn't say their spinners bowled better than us. I just said they bowled at the right speed. It's not that our spinners didn't bowl well. If you take out that partnership, none of their batsmen contributed in a big way. That showed our spinners bowled pretty well as well. Important on this wicket is to bowl at the right speed. Maybe they got the idea of bowling at the right speed. That is what Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar did."

Pragyan Ojha, though, stuck to it, and even though he didn't bowl as fast as Panesar he was accurate, building pressure through dots. That's what he does. You won't see him running through five-fors for 30-40 runs, but he was spirited in the face of the onslaught from Pietersen. Right now, though, India need more than spirit. More like miracles. If they can't conjure one up - and odds will be against them - it will be an emasculating defeat for them. They have thrown what they thought was their best at England, and yet it is on the verge of being proven not good enough.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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