Indian View March 10, 2005

The legspinners' graveyard

What is it with Indian batsmen and legspinners

Richie Benaud is a familiar and reassuring figure in India, with microphone in hand. With the ball, though, he was deadly © Getty Images

What is it with Indian batsmen and legspinners? Let me start with a little story Mohinder Amarnath told me years ago. Abdul Qadir, the man to whom the world tends to do an injustice when hailing Shane Warne as the saviour of legspin bowling, never got any joy bowling to Indians. He had a googly far deadlier and far more deceptive than that of Warne, but the Indians rarely had trouble spotting it. Amarnath and Sunil Gavaskar took particular delight in announcing it to the world. "Every time he would bowl a googly," Amarnath said, "one of us would shout 'googles' before hitting it away. Qadir felt quite bad about it and said to us, 'It's bad enough you can read it, but can you please stop shouting it out aloud?'"

Qadir's figures against India are appalling, and to a large extent they marred his career average which, at 32.80, isn't an accurate description of his ability. In 16 Tests against India, he managed only 27 wickets at 51.51, and in 1986-87 he was so out of his depth that Javed Miandad managed to persuade Imran Khan, who was a huge admirer of Qadir, to drop him for the last Test at Bangalore in favour of Iqbal Qasim, the left-arm orthodox spinner. It was a series-deciding move. Qasim took nine wickets in the match, including the decisive one of Gavaskar for 96 on the last day. Later, in 1989, Qadir was made to suffer at the hands of Sachin Tendulkar, then only a 16-year-old in his debut series. Tendulkar accepted a challenge from Qadir in an exhibition match by striking him for four sixes in an over. Qadir took only six wickets from four Tests in that series, and it was the beginning of his end.

Shane Warne's travails against India are fairly well documented. He averages nearly double his career figure against India, and almost every time he has played against them, he has come up against a couple of batsmen who have taken a great fancy to his wares. The last series was Warne's best against India; it fetched him 14 wickets, including his first five-for against them. But it was an Australian legspinner who was the last one to make an impact on Indians, and what an impact he made.

In two series in India, in 1956-57 and 1959-60, Richie Benaud literally spun Australia to wins by taking 52 wickets in eight Tests at 18.38. In the four matches that Australia won, his tally was an amazing 35 at 11.37, with a strike rate of 37.6 balls per wicket. The first time he bowled to the Indians, at Madras in 1956-57, he took 7 for 72, bowling not extravagantly, but steady and straight. And in 1959-60 he bowled Australia to a series victory by striking decisive blows in the Madras Test.

But ever since, legspinners have had only embarrassment against Indian batsmen, which might seem a bit perplexing considering that spinners of all other hues have had their moments of glory against India. Muttiah Muralitharan has won Sri Lanka a couple of Tests, and in the recent past tied Indian batsmen in knots in one-day matches. In 1999, Saqlain Mushtaq took 24 wickets in three Tests, including two ten-fors in successive matches at Chennai and Delhi.

It's early days yet, but Danish Kaneria looks the part even against India © Getty Images

Murali is a legend, and Saqlain at his peak was a master of his craft. But spinners of much lesser pedigree have won Tests against India. Phil Edmonds and Pat Pocock did it at Delhi in 1984-85; Greg Mathews and Ray Bright bowled Australia to a memorable tie at Madras in 1986-87, and even Nicky Boje, who has struggled to hold his place in the South African side, turned in a decisive five-wicket haul at Bangalore to help South Africa to a series win in 1999-2000. No wonder Allan Border, who led Australia in India in that 1986-87 series and is now an Australian selector, was insistent that Australia pick a finger-spinner for their tour to India earlier this season.

So what is it with Indian batsmen and legspinners? One, most of them are pretty good at reading the ball from the hand, which is the best way to blunt a legspinner's primary weapon: deception. Two, most of them play well with their wrists and take maximum advantage of any lapses in length, which wrist-spinners are more susceptible to than finger-spinners. And, as Qadir and Warne found out, there were always plenty of batsman willing to jump down the wicket every time the ball was thrown up in the air.

It's too early to say it, but Danish Kaneria, even though he hasn't much to show in this Test so far apart from missed chances, looks like a legspinner with the wherewithal to hold his own against Indians. He bowls a length and at a pace that's not easy to collar. He has control, variations, and a temperament that can absorb setbacks. Rahul Dravid played him the best, never failing to read his googlies, but he kept Virender Sehwag honest, fooled him with a couple of googlies, easily the best seen since Qadir, and should have had him three times. He got Sachin Tendulkar, too, but Rudi Koertzen failed to see a thick inside-edge. But he hasn't allowed his misfortune to break him. He might not go home from this tour a winner, but nor is it likely that he will carry the scars Indians have inflicted on some of his more illustrious predecessors.

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Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo in India and of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.