Left-arm's the charm
In the first Test against Bangladesh last month, Gareth Batty took four wickets, went for fewer runs an over than Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid, and England won. For the second Test, England dropped the veteran offspinner in favour of his Surrey team-mate, the left-arm orthodox spinner Zafar Ansari, who went round the park some and got only two wickets as England lost by a fair bit. Yet it was Ansari and not Batty who lined up against India in Rajkot earlier this month.
In England last summer, Batty took almost twice as many first-class wickets as Ansari. Of course, Ansari is 15 years younger with a long career ahead of him. As a left-armer, he offers variation to Moeen's offspin and Rashid's leggies. But could it be, though, that the England selectors always had Ansari pencilled in for the India Tests, with an eye on cricket history?
England have only ever won four Test series in India. Each time, a left-arm spinner has featured prominently. Monty Panesar in 2012-13, Phil Edmonds in 1984-85, Derek Underwood in 1976-77. Douglas Jardine took two left-arm spinners to India in 1933-44, Hedley Verity and James Langridge, who took 33 of England's 58 wickets. Never since has an England cricket team left for India without a slow left-armer in their touring party.
Batty might have spun the ball more than Ansari in Rajkot, and offered Alastair Cook more control. He might even have got more wickets. But he wouldn't have been able to send down the sort of delivery with which Ansari almost got Cheteshwar Pujara in the first innings. Bowling round the wicket to the right- hander, Ansari trotted in close to the umpire and the wicket before leaping out wide in the delivery stride to create an angle and firing one in towards off stump. As it landed, the ball straightened - not enough to take it away from the batsman but enough to alter the natural angle of the delivery, which without the straightening have gone on to leg stump.
Pujara, expecting a bit more turn than there was, played outside the line, was struck on the pad, and given out by umpire Chris Gaffaney. The decision was overturned using the DRS, as the ball was found to be bouncing over the stumps, but later in the innings Ansari dismissed nightwatchman Amit Mishra and Ajinkya Rahane with similar deliveries.
Geoff Miller, who toured with Underwood in 1976-77 and was an England selector at the time of Panesar's series in 2012-13, says that conditions in India suit left-arm spinners. "It will turn out there but not always straightaway and not every ball," he says. That inconsistency makes the ball that straightens slightly particularly deadly. "If the ball is not spinning, the left-arm-around angle gives the bowler a chance to beat batsmen on the inside as well as the outside."
Ravindra Jadeja has taken 67 wickets at 18.73 on home pitches. He doesn't spin the ball that much or that often, but he's always an lbw threat. Pakistan's Abdur Rehman caused England all sorts of problems on similar pitches, in Dubai in 2012-13. Fourteen of his 19 wickets in that series were either bowled or lbw.
Former England left-arm swing bowler John Lever, who made his Test debut on the 1976-77 tour, says that when the left-armer bowls wide of the stumps, the right-hand batsman finds it more difficult to line up the delivery. "The batsman has to decide, late, whether to play or leave," he says. "If it doesn't turn and you leave it, there's a problem."
Unlike with offspinners, the angle at which left-armers deliver the ball means that they don't actually have to bowl a doosra to cause the batsman an additional problem.
The sort of ball that Ansari got his wickets with in Rajkot, the sort Jadeja bowls and Rehman bowled, starts off looking like it's going to slide in with the arm. On landing, it straightens marginally or just holds its line. This presents right-hand batsmen with a confusing set of angles to deal with. Particularly a batsman who sets himself early against the ball's original trajectory, towards leg stump. Or who, like Pujara against Ansari, plays outside the line, expecting it to turn away from the bat. These are the sort of deliveries that Kevin Pietersen had problems with a few years ago.
Nine of Panesar's 17 wickets in 2012-13, were either bowled or lbw. So were ten of Verity's and Langridge's 33, but only three of Edmonds' and five of Underwood's 1976-77 tally. As Ansari showed when he had R Ashwin caught at cover on the final evening in Rajkot, as England chased an unlikely victory, left-armers can get wickets with flight and traditional spin too.
Even when left-arm spinners haven't won series in India for England, they've still been in the side, pressed into service for India duty. On England's second tour to India, in 1951-52, Malcolm Hilton, a left-armer from Lancashire, played two of his four Tests and took 11 wickets. In 1963-64, England picked Yorkshire's Don Wilson for the first time. A horse for the Indian course, Wilson played only one more Test, seven years later, against New Zealand. Ian Blackwell went to India in 2005-06.
Regulars Tony Lock, Norman Gifford, Phil Tufnell and Ashley Giles have also toured India with England.
Offspinner James Tredwell, who went to India in 2012-13 as back-up to Panesar and Graeme Swann, says that left-arm spinners have another advantage over other types of slow bowlers in that they tend to bowl the ball into the pitch a bit more, with a bit more pace. Peter Such, the former England offspinner and current ECB lead spin coach, says that this is an advantage on slower pitches, like those in India. "Underwood, Edmonds and Panesar could all get the ball through at a strong pace without losing the ability to spin the ball," he points out.
England's left-arm spinners in their winning series in India have been both economical and a wicket threat. In 2012-13, Panesar took 17 wickets as England came back from 1-0 down to take the next two Tests. In the final match, with England needing a draw to clinch the series, he bowled 52 overs for just 81 runs. Edmonds too was miserly in 1984-85. In the second Test, in Delhi, where England won to square the series, he sent down 88.2 overs for just 143 runs (while taking six wickets). During the series, he went, on average, at 2.11 an over. Underwood, too, kept the runs down when he wasn't taking wickets. His economy rate, 2.01, was the lowest of all England bowlers in 1976-77.
"Deadly would put the ball on the spot all the time, create pressure," says Lever, who bagged 26 wickets on that tour himself. "Underwood hated going for runs, you could see it in his body language, in his facial expressions. He was always trying to bowl dot balls. A dot ball is a good ball, he'd say. Last ball of every over had to be a dot ball."
Such observes that left-armers have another way of keeping the score down - bowling over the wicket into the rough outside the right-hander's leg stump. Giles did this to great effect in 2000-01, much to Sachin Tendulkar's annoyance.
Tredwell adds that left-armers can also cause trouble for left-hand batsmen later in the game, when rough starts appearing outside their off stump from right-arm seam bowlers following through on the pitch. "There aren't as many left-arm seamers, so offspinners spend more time bowling on the good part of the wicket," he says.
Not that this has mattered much down the years. In 49 Test matches spread over 13 tours and 84 years, only 14 left-hand batsmen (of whom only six are recognised batsmen) have played for India against England in India.
The preponderance of right-handers is borne out by figures from Indian domestic cricket. Of the top 20 all-time Ranji Trophy run-makers, only four are left-handers. Not hugely surprising, then, that ten of the top 20 bowlers are left-arm spinners. As Such says, "Spinners are more effective when their stock delivery turns away from the batsman."
The left-armer's magic didn't work every time for England. Tufnell struggled in 1992-93, as did all the other England bowlers. Panesar and Ian Blackwell took five wickets for 383 runs between them in 2005-06, and on the next tour, Panesar averaged over 50. Even Underwood struggled on the flat, lifeless pitches that India prepared in 1981-82. It's also worth pointing out that in all four series in which they were successful, England scored heavily enough for the sort of attritional approach favoured by their left-arm spinners to reap dividends.
Ansari is very much England's third spinner. His job is to keep things steady, in shorter spells, while Moeen, Rashid, and maybe, given the right conditions, the seamers, threaten India's batting line-up.
In some ways it will be harder for Ansari to do this than it was for his more illustrious predecessors. And not just because he is only starting out on his career and is as yet unproven at Test level, but because cricket isn't such an attritional game these days and batsmen are adept at finding ways of scoring off even the most miserly bowler.
The DRS might make lbws more likely but it also encourages batsmen to play with their bat rather than bat and pad. In the past, a stock ball from a left-arm-round like Ansari, angled into the pads, might have brought a tentative prod forward, the batsman unsure whether the ball will straighten or turn. These days, batsmen are more flexible, less patient.
If, though, Ansari can provide England with a solid third spinning option, and along the way snaffle out one or two Indian batsmen with the sort of awkward delivery that did for Mishra and Rahane and almost got Pujara in Rajkot, then Trevor Bayliss, Cook and Co, will be happy. And the legend of the left-arm English spinner in India will live on.