August 22, 2008

Spin kills

Never before Mendis has a spinner dominated Indian batsmen so comprehensively and collectively

The ball of the 21st century: Dravid squared up and stunned, his off stump disturbed, was more significant than Gatting's dismissal by Warne © AFP

I had followed India's Test fortunes for 45 years, and never once in that time had I seen the Indian batsmen devastated by a slow bowler through a whole series. Just before the Indian tour of Sri Lanka began, India were beaten by Sri Lanka in the final of the Asia Cup. Mahendra Singh Dhoni confessed that his batsmen couldn't read Ajantha Mendis at all. I was intrigued by the prospect of Tendulkar and Co. - who hadn't taken part in the ODI tournament - playing this latter-day John Gleeson over a Test rubber, but not especially worried because of India's record against spin bowlers.

They had played some good ones. The first Test series I followed was the MCC's tour of 1963-64, and England's main strike-bowler was that fine offspinner, Fred Titmus, who took 27 wickets in five Tests. Every one of those Tests, though, was drawn. In the last Test in Kanpur, India followed on, thanks to a marathon spell of fine slow bowling by Titmus, whose bowling analysis in the first innings read: 60-37-73-6. But he made no headway in the second innings, managing one wicket in 34 overs as India saved the match comfortably.

This set the tone for India's encounters with opposing spinners: the good ones like Titmus, Lance Gibbs, Derek Underwood, Ashley Mallett, Abdul Qadir, Saqlain Mushtaq, Shane Warne and Muthiah Muralitharan got wickets, but not consistently enough to instill fear. Underwood claimed one five-wicket haul in 20 matches. Warne, the greatest legspinner in the history of the game, averaged some 47 runs per wicket against India, and like Underwood managed five wickets in an innings once.

There was something purposeful about the way in which Indian batsmen set about spinners. I remember Tendulkar going after Warne in a first-class game in Mumbai in 1998-99, when the legspinner arrived, riding the crest of his reputation as the greatest spinner in the world. Tendulkar hit a double century, and Warne went for more than 100 for no wickets. Then Navjot Singh Sidhu decided Warne had to go in the Test series, and we were treated to the rare spectacle of convergence in cricket: a spinner walking up to the stumps to bowl and a batsman running down the wicket to hit him. VVS Laxman and Tendulkar, in the 2000-01 home series, nearly ended Warne's career; by the time India won the last Test in Chennai, Warne was reduced to bowling bouncers.

Murali has a better record against India than Warne: 88 wickets at a little over 30 runs per wicket, and more significantly he has bagged six five-fors. I remember a sensational spell of bowling by Murali at the Feroz Shah Kotla, where he went round the wicket, and for half an hour had the Indians groping as his doosras spat off the pitch and jagged away and his offspinners straightened. But for all his genius, Murali was never feared by Indian batsmen in the way that men like Fred Trueman, Wes Hall, Alan Donald and Glenn McGrath were.

Till the helmet arrived, most Indian batsmen were so vulnerable to quick bowling, that spinners, regardless of quality, were seen as light relief. After the helmet, they improved against the fast men, but retained the traditional view of opposing spinners as extras, men who made up the numbers. Occasionally, when the stars were strangely aligned, India lost a Test to spinners, as in Bangalore when Tauseef Ahmed and Iqbal Qasim caught India on a breaking pitch in 1986-87, but it was a happening rare enough to be remembered and brooded over.

Indians were excellent players of spin because the quality of spin bowling in domestic cricket was exceptional. In that Kanpur Test against England in 1963-64, India played three legspinners and two left-arm orthodox slow bowlers: BS Chandrasekhar, Baloo Gupte, Chandu Borde, Salim Durani and Bapu Nadkarni. The bowling was opened by the fearsome tearaway, ML Jaisimha, along with Durani. The proliferation of first-rate spinners meant that any successful batsman in domestic cricket played slow bowling very, very well.

Till the helmet arrived, most Indian batsmen were so vulnerable to quick bowling, that spinners, regardless of quality, were seen as light relief. After the helmet, they improved against the fast men, but retained the traditional view of opposing spinners as extras
This basically meant that even the average Indian batsman read turn from the bowler's hand, not off the pitch, and used his feet to get to the pitch of the ball to minimise spin. Gundappa Viswanath, Sunil Gavaskar, Mohinder Amarnath, Mohammad Azharuddin, Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Laxman, Rahul Dravid, all played slow bowlers in this way. Even Indian batsmen of the second rank, like Ravi Shastri and Sidhu, treated decent spin bowlers with nimble-footed contempt.

So the Asia Cup defeat didn't worry me because the Fabulous Four - Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly, arguably the best players of spin bowling in the world over long and distinguished careers, hadn't figured in that team. I wasn't complacent, but it was reasonable to believe that they would figure Mendis out. The last freak spinner they had played, Paul Adams, hadn't puzzled them for a minute. While Mendis was clearly the better bowler, given his limited-overs performance and Bishan Bedi's testimonial, how dangerous could a Test debutant be, given the collective experience of the best batting line-up?

Very dangerous. It was Dravid's dismissal in the first Test that set the alarms off. Nobody in the world plays later off the back foot than Dravid did. The sight of him, crease-bound, stabbing down on Mendis down a middle-stump line, missing by a mile and the ball taking the off bail was a more significant moment in the history of Test cricket than the much-celebrated ball, which Warne ripped across Mike Gatting to bowl him. For two reasons: Dravid is by some distance the better batsman, and offspinners aren't meant to bowl fast legbreaks.

Everyone has a theory about how Mendis engineered this unprecedented, spin-prompted collapse. So do I. Before going there, though, it's useful to remember that he didn't do it alone. If he took 26 wickets, Murali took 21 and the Sri Lankan seamers chipped in whenever they were needed. Still, after allowing for these supporting roles, what Mendis did was extraordinary. In the six Test innings played in the series, he dismissed Laxman five times, Dravid four times, Gambhir three times and Tendulkar once.

The consensus seems to be that they couldn't read his mystery ball, but the real problem seemed to be that even when they did read it (and by the end of the series it looked as if Laxman and Dravid had begun to recognise the knuckle-ball from the hand, in that they could distinguish it from his offspinner and his googly), they couldn't tell if the ball was going to zip straight through or turn away. Since the knuckle-ball pitched in line, if the batsman played down the wrong line he was either lbw or bowled. It must have been a bit like playing Chandrasekhar, not knowing if the googly was going to turn or shoot through like a topspinner.

Sultans of Spin: Mendis and Murali are two of the few spinners who have done well against India © AFP

The problem was aggravated by the fact that it was hard to go down the wicket to Mendis because his knuckle-ball was faster and shorter in length than his normal delivery; there wasn't the time to get to the pitch. Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly and Dravid were slower and less confident than they had been in their prime, so they stretched down the pitch in defence, but this didn't work as it might have done once, because the review system being tried out in this series meant that the big stride forward no longer received the benefit of the doubt.

Why did Sehwag succeed when the others failed? His technique has always been fundamentally different from that of the others. His footwork is minimal, he plays alongside the ball without committing himself to a line till the last moment and he played Mendis off the pitch. It worked for him because his hand-eye coordination is exceptional, and his instinct is to attack: Mendis never got an opportunity to set him up as he did with the more defensive Dravid or Laxman.

So is Mendis a comet or a star? The latter, I think, because unlike with other mystery men, a batsman could teach himself to recognise the grip of his knuckle-ball without ever being sure that he could read its turn. Given his accuracy, temperament and variety (we shouldn't forget that he bowls a mean offbreak and a decent googly) his debut signals someone special. Unluckily, it also announces the end of something special. Thirty years ago, in a landmark three-Test series, Zaheer Abbas, helped by Javed Miandad, caned India's great spin trio into retirement. Ajantha Mendis, I suspect, has just rung the curtain down on another great foursome.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi. This article was first published in the Kolkata Telegraph