'The basic way of playing spin is to rotate the strike'
Going into the series between the two countries, there has been a lot of talk about how England will fare against spin in India. The last time England won a Test series in India was 28 years ago. The last time England won a Test series in the subcontinent was in 2001. Mike Gatting, who played that 1984-85 series, Graham Thorpe, who mastered spin in Sri Lanka and Pakistan at the turn of the century, and Murali Kartik, who has had extensive experience bowling on the county circuit, weigh in on the challenges England can expect.
Is playing spin really the biggest challenge for England in this series?
Graham Thorpe former England batsman Historically it would suggest that it is. There haven't been too many teams that have won in India. Isn't it something like three Test series [India] have lost after England won back in 1985? [three in 40 Test series at home] So logically if you look at that record, you have to be able to play spin well. And then you have to look at how you get Indian batsmen out. From a batsman's perspective, you have to be able to score runs to allow your bowlers a chance. It is a big thing. If you look at the amount of wickets to fall, the highest percentage would be against spin, more than likely.
How much has the manner of playing spin changed?
Mike Gatting former England batsman and captain Everybody plays spin differently because they have different strengths. I mean, taller people will play it differently to shorter people. But the one big thing they will have in common if they do well is, they will have a game plan that works for them. Not everybody can do [the same] things as others.
They bowled different lines in my day. In the 1960s, batsmen used the pads a lot. Then people started to sweep a bit, then people started using their feet, then people started using the reverse sweep, and now you have the DRS and most spinners now bowl outside off stump. Still, the basic skills of playing spin should not change: if you can knock the ball with the spin and hit it straight back down the ground, you have got a chance.
If you can pick length quickly, it will help you, whether you are forward or back.
Thorpe The introduction of the DRS has played a role in how you play spin. Players have to be very much aware that you have to play far more with the bat. Over the years even Asians were used to smothering the ball with the pad, but the DRS has altered that strategy.
Playing spin comes down to few things and it has taken players outside of Asia much longer time, naturally, to actually grasp the skills. You have to be able to read spin, pick spin and pick the length - these are the basics. Then you just need quite clinical footwork. You need to understand what is coming at you, and need the skill, the technique to back it up, and the mindset to be able to bat for a long period of time to be able to score your runs; you need to know when to take the risks and you need to know when to sit back in a game, especially against spin bowling.
Is the issue more technical than mental for England or the other way round?
Murali Kartik India and Surrey left-arm spinner It is more to do with the mind. When they come to the subcontinent, they think something is going to happen. Even before coming here, even before the first ball is bowled, everybody thinks the pitches are dry and it spins. Yes, wickets are different compared to England, but the batsmen approach the challenge differently, even if they are playing the same set of bowlers. You saw the way they played against Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra last year in England. They were very different.
Gatting It depends on the kind of form you are in. If the batsmen are playing well then it is technical, and if they are not then it could be both. This time all England batsmen have had a good practice time against spin, so they have all had good time at the crease. What they will get in the Tests is a question we cannot answer now, but I suspect the pitches will turn from the first day. But England must have a game plan which can be implemented easily. And if they do that, they will defeat the challenge.
We will have to wait for the first Test match to see what lessons have been learned after last year's defeat against Pakistan, what sort of mental strength they possess, and what sort of game plans they will be using against two very good spinners [R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha] in addition to Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh.
Thorpe If you look at domestic cricket in England, there is not an awful lot of spin bowling. Certainly not of the same quality that players experience at the highest level. When I was a player, I went on A tours to the subcontinent and I did experience that environment beforehand. But when you are back in the country, you really have to master the basic skills. The skill of picking length is very, very important and then you must have the footwork to follow that up.
They will relish the idea of the challenge, but when the moment starts to happen, you need to have the answers. If you want to be successful, you need to come up with big performances when they count. I always found that you had to be able to stay in the game in Asia. If you stayed in the game, then you could make the home side come under pressure.
[Against Pakistan in the UAE] they were caught a little bit cold going into that series. They had a big break before that series, and maybe they were not battle-hardened. They had good opportunities but they were not able to grab them against Pakistan when they had a small target to chase. So that becomes more of a mind thing, really. When you are trying to knock off a small target, you panic during the middle of the innings and eventually lose the game. It often comes to the simplicity of your footwork and a strong mind: knowing your own game plan, knowing exactly how you want to be able to play, knowing your risk areas and knowing how to tick over and rotate.
Are the England batsmen obsessed with playing the sweep to counter-attack spin?
Kartik Yes, they are. They do not mind losing their wicket to a bowler sweeping, and it is fine with them being caught in the deep or being trapped lbw trying to play that stroke. There are not many batsmen who are willing to use the crease. They do not want to run down the track and look silly getting stumped, but they do not mind sweeping. That seems to be the popular mindset there.
Thorpe If you know how to play it well, then play it. The skill to play a sweep is how well you actually set yourself up. You need to know what pitch to play it on: if the pitch is skidding, it is much harder to sweep. But if the pitch is really turning, I actually found it far easier to sweep. You need to be able to smother spin if you are going to sweep. I will encourage people to learn the sweep shot, because you may need to play it. But I will also encourage people to understand good footwork: forward and back, deep in the crease.
Gatting I used to sweep a bit, but I also used to use my feet. I used to like coming down the wicket. I felt that combination was as good as any because the length people had to bowl - if they bowled length and I swept and then they pitched it up a bit further, and I would push it for one or four runs. And if the bowler dropped it short and wide, you can cut it for one or four. What you are doing is giving the bowler no time to settle down. It is using the shots that you are happy playing to put the bowler off his length. It is not about smashing or sweeping him out of the ground.
The fielders generally tend to stay a lot deeper in India. So if you can just get it into the gap, you can get a single. And that might force them to get a little bit closer and then you could hit it through the field.
Are the current English batsmen either overly defensive or aggressive, unlike the Indian batsmen, who are good at rotating the strike?
Kartik The Indians are probably the best players of spin in the subcontinent. They know how to manoeuvre the spinners. By that, I do not mean just getting singles - they also allow the spinner to show all his wares before they begin to counter or attack him.
Jonathan Trott waits for the spinner to do that too. Ian Bell uses his feet, KP is very different, and [Alastair] Cook actually grinds you down. So it is not that England do not have the kind of batsmen who have the skills, but it also depends on what kind of mindset they come out with. If they come out with the mindset like New Zealand did, where they saw the ball spinning from outside off stump and grew increasingly defensive, then England stand in danger of not conquering the slow bowlers.
Gatting The basic way of playing spin is to rotate the strike. That way you make the opposition captain alter his field plans. When you play in India on slow pitches or on pitches that turn, you have got to be a bit more patient and you have got to attack in the right areas. It does not mean you have to always hit out of the ground or a four. If you use your feet to get to the pitch of the ball to smother the spin and hit it to long-off or long-on, then it is good. The important thing is to keep the scoreboard ticking. If you can get four runs an over by playing sensibly, you are taking no risks at all. That, to me, is one of the important things England have not done, and is something the Indians do much better: they just knock the ball wide of mid-on or through square leg, or just run it past short third man and get a single.
How do you approach the challenge of playing spin?
Gatting You have to be positive, but that does not mean hitting the spinner out of the ground or slogging. Being positive is knocking the bowler off his length, coming up and down the pitch and leaving the bowler not many options. You have to show positive intent and you do not want to be stuck back in the crease all day long. If you watch the Indian batsmen, all of them use their feet. They pick up the length very quickly. They get used to playing on slower pitches with low bounce, and that is why they use big, heavy bats with lots of weight in the bottom.
I was lucky to play three tours of India and three tours of Pakistan, and had my fair share of playing on turning pitches against some fairly decent spin bowling. A lot of our guys do not see that. When I started playing county cricket, there were two spinners in nearly each side. You do not see our best spinner, Graeme Swann, playing regularly in county cricket. You are always facing young, inexperienced spinners, who are easy to play. The lack of opportunity to play good quality spinners is one of England's failings.
You need to watch the hand closely enough to read which way it spins. A lot of batsmen I see play the spinner off the pitch, and that is not very positive. If you can see when it comes out of the hand, the way it is rotating then you have a chance to hit the right shot instead of waiting for the ball to pitch and then react.
Thorpe People talk a lot about the forward-press but it is about how you press and where you press. It can't be a plant, it must be quite light, and the front foot must be able to move again once you have read the flight and the length of the ball. You must never get stuck with your front leg.
I now look at 21- and 22-year-olds. Take the example of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, who spent a whole winter last year in the subcontinent. Both of them understand the method which is required. I did not develop properly myself playing spin until I was 26 or 27: that is when I knew properly how to use my feet.
Our performance programme squads toured India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh last year. So we are looking at trying to get our players experience in that environment. [England players need to be] encouraged in the winter to go and play in the subcontinent countries, and to even play club cricket, because the game is very different when you line up against spinners. That is one of the reasons it is more of a struggle. But the current England squad have been to Asia before and will have learned some lessons playing last year against Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo