England shrug off new Ashwin mystery ball
It was anticipated before England's tour of India that they would face a great deal of spin bowling but, with the warm-up games completed, they have faced more spin off the pitch than on it.
Having been consigned to non-spinning pitches and deliberately deprived of the chance to face quality spin bowling in the three matches ahead of the Test series, England will have opened their newspapers in Ahmedabad on Monday morning and found that R Ashwin, one of the Indian spinners they will face in the Tests, has claimed to possess a new "mystery" delivery. "I have been working on this ball for some time now," Ashwin told the Times of India. "I might use it in this series."
There is nothing new in such claims. For years Shane Warne used to play on the insecurities of England batsmen by talking of his new deliveries ahead of Ashes series. Saeed Ajmal, ahead of England's series against Pakistan in the UAE, made similar claims. On each occasion, there was little evidence of such a delivery though confused batsmen sometimes interpreted natural variation as something more deliberate.
But this time England have dismissed the claims. Richard Halsall, the England assistant coach, reacted with both amusement and cynicism to Ashwin's claims and suggested the side had heard it all before.
"I was very fortunate to spend a few years with Mushtaq Ahmed at Sussex," Halsall, who was formerly fielding coach at Sussex, said. "And Mushy would have a 'mystery ball' every week. He'd show it to the opposition in the nets and, as we would wander off he would say 'that's just my leg-break'. If Ashwin has got a mystery ball, that's fantastic for him. It may move cricket on. But I'm sure our batsmen will watch him carefully and deal with each ball as it comes."
While England may be cynical about the existence of any new delivery, their ability to play those deliveries in Ashwin's already extensive repertoire remain unproven. Their troubles against Pakistan have largely been explained with the explanation that Ajmal is a bowler of rare skill and variation. While that is true, it ignores the fact that they were troubled almost as much by Abdur Rehman, and in Sri Lanka by Rangana Herath; both of whom are largely conventional left-arm spinners.
Halsall admitted England found it "quite odd" and "frustrating" that they had faced so little spin in the warm-up matches, but suggested they compensated by practising against good quality spinners in the nets.
"We've managed to get enough high-pressure, quality practice into the batsmen off the field so that they feel ready for the first Test," he said. "It's not a concern, but it has been quite odd that we haven't faced the spin out in the middle, especially when there have been spinners playing. But we've been fortunate to have some exceptional net bowlers. Over here, you do get some exceptional players not in the games."
Halsall was behind the stumps when Stuart Broad and Steven Finn bowled in practise on Sunday and was impressed by what he saw. But a decision on their participation will not be made until Tuesday at the earliest with both needing to prove their match fitness with a prolonged bowl in practise.
"Steven and Stuart both looked fairly hostile," Halsall said. "They both bowled very well. It's fantastic to see where Steven is. We didn't think he'd be at this stage so soon. That's great, and Stuart is coming along exactly as we thought he would.
"We'll monitor them over the next two days. Then we'll know a little bit more. But we're happy with where they are at the moment."
It underlines Halsall's growing stature within the England camp that he has been given a more public role with the squad for the first time. Originally appointed as fielding coach, he has already stood in for team director, Andy Flower, on occasional days and must be considered a contender as his successor sometime in the future. But Halsall may require a spell as director of cricket at a county before taking control of the national side.
It may also be relevant that Ashley Giles is presently with the squad. Warwickshire's director of cricket, who is also an England selector, may be a more suitable candidate to stand in for an entire series if Flower is to be rested. With ODI series coming up against India and New Zealand, it is possible Flower will be urged to take some time off ahead of a year that will include back-to-back Ashes series.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo