India's bowling not a new problem
The defeat at the Wankhede Stadium last week was arguably India's worst in Test cricket. Not in terms of margin, but in how almost everything was stacked in their favour: the pitch, the toss, the combination, the runs. The illusion they have tried to create through countless interviews that they were done in on "green tops" and they were still world-beaters at home has come crashing down. If ever there was a match set up for the bowlers to win, it was this, with 327 on board on a square turner. And as it has been happening over the last 18 months, India's bowlers came up short again; in the case of their lead spinner's length, literally so.
Starting July 21 last year, India have been the worst bowling unit of all Test sides bar Bangladesh. At least statistically so. Not only have they averaged 40.39 with the ball, better only than Bangladesh, they have give away more runs per over than any Test side over that period. And whisper it, for most of this period India have bowled on "green tops". With the bat, their average - 30.80 - is better than that of Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. Needless to say, they have lost more Tests than any other side over the period.
There is no denying that India's batting hasn't been ideal over this period, but it has neither been as bad as the bowling nor as crucial to this slump. If Test cricket were a spin bowler, batting would be its line and bowling its length. The former optional, the latter mandatory. Pakistan are a glaring example. Even during their most turbulent period, with non-existent batting and wicketkeeping, they have still managed to survive as a Test side purely through their bowling. In 2010 alone, they won two Tests in England, as many as India have in 26 years.
However, the main focus of most of the debates around India's defeats, even in Mumbai, has been around the batting. Even when India were No 1, the bowling hung by a thread. A brittle, not-always-fit, but highly skilful thread. The captain's statement that this thread was the Sachin Tendulkar of bowling was spot on. Ever since Zaheer Khan has gone into what seems like a terminal slump, all others have been brutally exposed. In the two to three years since Anil Kumble's retirement, Zaheer carried the bowling on his own. He brought the control the unit badly needed; when he was injured, India would look lost in the field.
Zaheer is not the same any more. He has not even been there for six of those 15 Tests. With other bowlers, you never know what you will get. In Mumbai, for example, when Kevin Pietersen felt comfortable enough to boss the bowlers, chances are even the best would have suffered, but it was the easy period of easy singles that let him feel comfortable. That's where Indian spinners failed on two counts.
On a pitch that was calling for them to exploit the turn, they didn't put in enough effort to spin the ball. Spin here is not just the sideways turn, but action on the ball, which gets you drift and dip. They didn't do it on purpose, it's their techniques. They don't put enough shoulder or hip behind the delivery, they have hardly any follow-through. R Ashwin, especially, ends up relying too much on his variations. In so doing, he bowls a release ball almost every over, which is the bowling unit's second shortcoming. MS Dhoni has copped a fair deal of criticism for his defensive fields over this period, but his bowlers haven't done him any favours with their inconsistency.
The desperate part, though, is that there are no replacements in sight, except for a hospital ward full of tried-and-tested bowlers missing the Ranji Trophy. Which is why somebody like Harbhajan Singh can walk right back into the squad without having done anything at the domestic level to earn a comeback, although when he did make that comeback he bowled better than Ashwin and got only half the overs. Outside the squad, only Pankaj Singh and Jalaj Saxena have both the wickets and the fitness. Neither of them seems to enjoy the faith of the selectors and the team management.
After Wankhede, Dhoni made what seems like a fair point on paper when asked about the direness of the situation. "I think we have got replacements," he said. "It's not like we don't have replacements. But you don't chop and change players on the basis of one or two Tests. We have to give them a fair run." Apart from the fair run, they also need a huge improvement, especially in their discipline.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo