India v South Africa, 2nd Test, Kolkata February 13, 2010

India grapple with bowling conundrum

N Hunter

What is India's best bowling attack for Kolkata? Is it the existing two-seamer and two-spinner combination or does it make sense to field three fast bowlers with Harbhajan Singh as the lone spinner and Virender Sehwag as a sidekick. The Indian think-tank has less than 24 hours to sort out that puzzle before the final Test begins.

The question has cropped up only because the South Africans, among the best players of spin in India, successfully tackled the pair of Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra in Nagpur through a mixture of sheer application and some luck. It continues the trend of Indian spinners struggling for consistency, which was on evidence in the Sri Lanka series late last year as well.

In the past the thumb rule was to field at least two spinners because the pitches would invariably start turning sharply from the third day. But on surfaces which have refused to break and have been slow and low (Motera and Green Park during the Sri Lanka series are good examples), the Indians spinners have failed to find a rhythm, adding pressure on the fast bowlers. The pitches cannot be as spin-unfriendly as they are made out to be especially considering Paul Harris' effectiveness against some of the best players of spin in Nagpur.

In the three-Test series against Sri Lanka, Harbhajan managed 13 wickets at an average of 41. India won that series more because of their batting might and some incisive fast bowling spells. Otherwise more questions would have been asked of India's best spinner, whose form has been a concern for a while now.

You can't blame his slow-bowling partners, Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha, since neither of them has been given the long rope. Mishra failed to make an impact with his leg breaks against Sri Lanka in Ahmedabad, picking only one wicket, but came back with an impressive seven-wicket match haul in the first Test in Bangladesh. Harbhajan returned for the next Test but only picked two wickets in the game, in which Mishra was dropped for the left-arm spin of Ojha. Even in the Sri Lanka series, Ojha was preferred over Mishra during the victories in the final two Tests, in which Ojha claimed nine victims.

With the spinners unconvincing, a better ploy at Eden Gardens could be to play three fast bowlers. It might look like a desperate measure, but with MS Dhoni emphasising that India prefers the four-bowler theory, it is the only way to play their four best bowlers. Dhoni, too, agrees to an extent. "We have always been comfortable with four bowlers because it has worked for us. If you have an allrounder in the side that makes it very easy but we don't have that option."

Importantly, India's fast bowlers have featured prominently in most of the recent Test wins. Less than three months ago, Sreesanth produced an amazing spell of fast bowling against Sri Lanka at Kanpur in what was India's 100th Test victory. Then, as now, Sreesanth was coming out of a break, but found his rhythm and swing without much sweat. Also, South Africa have been Sreesanth's favourite opposition: his 22 wickets against them are his highest against a single team, with the famous 8 for 99 at the Wanderers remaining his career-best performance.

His presence could lighten the burden on Zaheer Khan and even Ishant Sharma, who has been under pressure over the past year. But the team management has retained confidence in Ishant, who has faded a bit in the recent past after his much-heralded arrival during the tour of Australia in 2007-08.

A crucial factor that might support the quicks could be the conditions especially in the final session when the breeze wafting in from the Hooghly on the West side of the ground can help swing bowlers a lot. The trio of Zaheer, Ishant and Sreesanth has the capability of swerving the ball about and could prove a handful on their day.

"There is a bit of grass on the wicket so I think the seamers will get a bit of help," Dhoni said after the final training session. He also acknowledged the afternoon breeze could play a role, especially with the stands on the West side being reconstructed. "There is no stand on one side of the ground so you can see a bit of breeze going across the field so there will be a bit of help for the seamers."

But Dhoni remained non-committal on the number of seamers of spinners he would like to field, leaving that decision for Sunday morning. Perhaps he could heed the thoughts expressed by John Wright, former India coach. "You have to play a spinner but you don't play a spinner for a spinner's sake, he has to be among your four best bowlers. Who are your first bowlers? That is a question you need to ask."

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rahul on February 14, 2010, 4:37 GMT

    It is a simple theory..can harbhajan, mishra and ojha outbowl Zaheer, Ishant and Sreesanth. I guess nope. Since the pitch is not remecent of kanpur dusbowl, indians should play its best 4 bowlers. As per my indvidual thinking harbhajan doesnt merit a place in the best 4 at the moment.

  • Bobby on February 14, 2010, 3:27 GMT

    Problem with India (apart from being over rated and overpaid) is that lack of bench strength. This is precisely the reason Australia is still the best side in world by a wide margin. Brett Lee gets injured then Doug Bollinger shows up from no where with superb performances. India is literally depending on VVS Laxman as he will deliver some miracle. This is also very unfair to poor Laxman. India needs to drop Harbhajan Singh and Ishant Sharma. Harbhajan Singh has not recovered since Shahid Afridi hit him 5 Sixes in an over in 2006 while Ishant Sharma will be best advised to play some domestic cricket. Ojha and Sreesanth should both be in team. It's a shame that no quality spinners are showing up for India however what is more concerning is that no quality batsman seem to be around to replace Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar who are in twilight of their careers. Yuvraj, Raina and Rohit and co have miserably failed. IPL has ruined Indian cricket and have spectacularly back fired!

  • Dummy4 on February 14, 2010, 1:41 GMT

    Like many other comments here, I too think India should go with 3 seamers and 2 spinners (Mishra & Ojha according to me). Badri would be unfortunate to miss out in my team for this test.

  • Vivek on February 14, 2010, 1:15 GMT

    Let us play 3 fast bowlers and one spinner. Hope they will keep the grass on the pitch as it is... As Ishant has been playing in Eden for a while for Kolkata Knight Riders, we can expect a better performance from him here.. and as Sreesanth is bowling well in the nets its not fair to drop him too... If Sehwag and Sachin can help the main spinner then we have a pretty good bowling attack.. For the batting if Gambhir can play in the middle order then that would be a better strategy ... Laxman will have two experienced players in the middle order in Dhoni and Gambhir and Gambhir can counter Harris better than any other batsman as he is the left hander....

  • Dinesh on February 14, 2010, 0:54 GMT

    Wasnt Irfan Pathan a better choice over Saha for prev test considering is his sort of all rounder? Not sure why he is getting overlooked even when india needs a 5th bowler and 7th Batsman.

  • Dummy4 on February 14, 2010, 0:21 GMT

    Well - here is the problem !! Instead of applying their faculties to create the best team mix, given the current circumstances, selectors have chosen the easier path of throwing in replacements based on conventional logic. Has anyone given a thought of including someone like Irfan Pathan in the line-up, he is in great form, has been a major contributer to Indian test victories, and is a big asset as an extra batsmen when the chips are down. Why was he not considered as a part of the mix ? With him batting at number seven , India could have gone into the second test match with FIVE decent bowlers (Zaheer, Sreesanth, Bhajji & Ojha being the other four) and have had a good chance at 20 SA wickets, which need to be taken if INDIA has to win a match. Selectors insipid response to the situation is alarming, given that so much is at stake in the next test. Whoof, remind me of old days when selection blunders would cost India vital games.

  • Dummy4 on February 13, 2010, 23:42 GMT

    Bhajji should stay - in whose hands would you rather trust the #1 ranking? Ojha, Misra or Bhajji? Bhajji has experience, and he did pick up Kallis and Duminy in Nagpur - and not on slog shots either. Then he scored almost 50 runs in the game. Mishra got turn out of the rough but couldn't convert it into a single wicket, not because of bad luck, but because he didn't vary his flight, pace and line. He then scored 0 off 12 balls, both innings combined.

    4 specialist bowlers can do it for India - 3 quicks + 1 spinner.

    My team: Sehwag, Gambhir, SRT, Laxman, Badri, Dhoni, Raina, Zaheer, Bhajji, Sreeshant, Ishant (7 batsmen, 7 bowlers - 4 specialist, 3 part-time, maybe even 4 part-time).

    This team includes the 4 best bowlers. From this team, if you take out either Badri or Raina and insert a spinner, I'm not sure the value addition is significant, but the loss of a batsman could hurt if all 4 innings are played - and that's been the case at Eden Gardens in the recent past.

  • ramesh on February 13, 2010, 21:40 GMT

    I think it is correct to say India lost to three men Amla, Kallis and steyn rather than South Africa. Mishra beat the batsmen countless times than Harris 3 wickets. Match would have seen a different end even if India scored 100 more runs in total with the wicket. Look at the Harris wickets - Dhoni - ball bounced to his chest, Vijay - (may be a better ploy from harris of all his wicket), lost his patience and throws his wicket and unlucky Sachin as well. Mishra and Ojha would have dome 10 times better if they got that luck. Do South Africa prepare a rank turner pitch when India tour South Africa later? Definitely no, So why to prepare a pitch with grass so called sporting pitch? Prepare the rank turner pitch. Play 5 bowlers with 3 spinners. It should turn from Day 1 sorry from Ball 1. People say, India cannot play on a seaming pitch. But what is the wrong in playing to home side's strength. Unless Australia changes Perth to a rank turner, why to worry about preparing the seaming pitch?

  • Daxesh on February 13, 2010, 21:08 GMT

    I think best option is 6 bat + 5 bow - Sehvag and Vijay should open because gambhir can add more value/exp in middle order. then sachin, laxman and dhoni. zahir, bhaji, sre, ishant, oza. If they want to go with 7 batsman then drop bhaji and keep oza, instead of bardi include raina so he can be utilized for fifth bowlers. apart from zahir/sreanth no fast bowler is performing. then why they are not selecting irfan. in bowling dept he is the same as ishant, by adding irfan atleast u will get some batting strength. now this is time in which selector should says bhaji go prove yr self in domestic. since last 2 years he has not perform as a match winner.

  • Rajesh on February 13, 2010, 20:22 GMT

    On current form Harbhajan has got to go........ And India should pick four other bowlers who they deem will be useful irrespective of whether they are quick bowlers or spinners. As for batting Laxman coming in place of Saha should be the only change. This may not win India the game but this is the best combination they can field.

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