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."