India's spinners fail to produce any magic
It might change character over the final two days, but so far the pitch hasn't helped the spinners, it hasn't helped the seamers, and the conditions weren't conducive for reverse swing. There was turn, but it was slow. What it required, then, was a spinner who could produce a bit of magic.
India's leading spinner Harbhajan Singh hasn't been in great form, though. It's often been said by his critics - and there are quite a few of them - that he needs spin-friendly tracks to be really effective, like he showed in the Calcutta Test against South Africa in February. The last time he bowled superbly and consistently through a series, though, was not at home. It came in New Zealand in 2009. He got the ball to drift, turn, and bounce. He deployed over spin, side spin, and top spin and looked at the top of his game.
A few months after that series, Daniel Vettori was asked to name the player he admired the most in the international scene. "I really enjoy watching Harbhajan Singh bowl. I think he's my favourite bowler to watch in world cricket. I admire his skills and his repertoire, and he's someone I always try to learn from whenever I see him bowl."
But it's clear from the last 12 months that all is currently not well in Harbhajan's world. Over that span, encompassing 10 Tests, he has averaged 42.47 at a strike rate of 86.1. In comparison, his career bowling average is 31.66 at a strike rate of 67.2. He rarely uses the doosra now; he perhaps didn't bowl a single one in the series against Australia. He prefers the topspinner now. It is most puzzling. It's tempting to use that to explain his decline, but even on that 2009 New Zealand tour he didn't bowl many doosras. His bowling has lacked drift and bounce. He has been injured in the recent months and missed a few Tests. That could be a factor. His fans have pointed out that he is still the best spinner India has and he will overcome this dip in form.
Throughout his career, Harbhajan has shown a tendency to push his deliveries on middle and leg on his bad days. That, though, hasn't happened a lot in recent games. The lines have been better, the speeds have been relatively fine, but the lengths have suffered. Without a loop and dip, they often do. The result is that 42.84 average. Luckily for India, this has coincided with the rise of Zaheer Khan, who has been awesome with the old ball when it reverses. It didn't today, and the New Zealanders marched along.
The other spinner, Pragyan Ojha, averages 41.60. He is rarely used as a strike bowler and it's clear that he doesn't think like one. He was quick to switch to over the stumps today - - perhaps because he was asked to by the team think tank. You could see why. There were rough patches outside leg stump and both McCullum and Ross Taylor like to sweep. Perhaps one would take the top edge? It didn't, and he struck almost immediately on returning to bowling around the stumps with a beauty to remove McCullum. It dipped and turned to leave the batsman stranded. That's the thing about Ojha that confounds. There were couple of deliveries today from the spinners that gripped, turned and bounced. All of them came from Ojha, though they seem to be exception rather than norm with him. His deliveries seem to land on a length and turn very slightly. It feels as if he doesn't give them a good rip. It perhaps is the stock bowler in him dominating. Most probably, that's his role.
Ojha's former Hyderabad bowling coach, Kanwaljit Singh, tells of a meeting with the bowler in what proved to be a turn-around game for him. "We [Kanwal and the captain VVS Laxman] told him, look you are our strike bowler. This is a wicket aiding spin and we are confident you can run through them. Show us you can." Ojha took 6 for 84 and moved up a grade. Is what we see from him now at the international level his best, or is there a gear he has not tried yet? India might want to use him as their containing bowler, but that doesn't mean he can't attack at all. It would be good to know whether there is another gear to him at this level for Murali Kartik, who is clearly the better bowler, is still going strong at the county and domestic circuit.
So far, the game has the look and feel of a draw. Even the usually ebullient Sreesanth didn't sound upbeat." It's very flat track as usual in Ahmedabad. I worked very hard because it is not an easy track to bowl on, very slow track. We have to work very hard. I don't think we could have done anything differently. Maybe we should have restricted a few more boundaries. It just happens - some days it clicks, some days it doesn't. You have got to be patient. We will keep on giving our best shot.
"Credit goes to their batsmen, they played well." Of course, Sreesanth being Sreesanth, he couldn't let it go at that. "I can't wait to see the next game. I really want to see how they play on a turner; I think they are going to struggle."