January 18, 2013

Rotate against spin

In India, Australia's batsmen must counter slow bowling by trying to get to the non-striker's end every other ball

Australia's batsmen must employ a policy of rotating the strike to succeed against the Indian spin bowlers in the upcoming series.

The most frustrating aspect of bowling slow is having the batsman get off strike, and not being able to work on one player for the best part of a full over at a time. Strike rotation eventually frustrates the bowler and he ends up bowling more than the usual number of loose deliveries. I know I would rather have gone for one four an over than three singles.

The main Indian spinners will most certainly be R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, but the attack might also include the long-forgotten Harbhajan Singh, who has taken 408 wickets from his 99 Tests to date and has a history of getting under the skin of the Australians. If Harbhajan's Test career is resurrected in this series, it will give the Indians two offspinners with whom to combat the glut of Australia's left-handers. Ashwin and Harbhajan will enjoy the prospect of spinning the ball away from left-handers such as David Warner, Ed Cowan, Phillip Hughes, Usman Khawaja, Mitchell Johnson and Matthew Wade, all of whom appear more comfortable with the ball coming on to the bat from fast bowlers.

A spin-bowling threesome will evoke memories of the 1969 Indians under the Nawab of Pataudi. They had Erapalli Prasanna, easily the best offie I've seen, left-armer Bishan Bedi, and the useful if flattish offspin of S Venkataraghavan.

Prasanna was an exponent of the Indian rope trick: he had the ball on a string, and when you were lured forward, he pulled the string and led you to your doom. Or he forced you back, or trapped you on the crease. He was a magician. Bedi glided to the wicket as if waltzing across a stage and extracted wickets like a good surgeon plucks a crook appendix from a patient under anaesthesia. The two were fabulous bowling in tandem.

To defeat this pair in particular, Bill Lawry's 1969 Australians had to rotate the strike. Lawry, Ian Chappell, Doug Walters and Ian Redpath were the best at doing just that. The Indians, in contrast, seemed more at home playing a waiting game, looking for boundaries when the opportunity arose.

The Australians on this tour must keep the scoreboard ticking over with lots of singles. India may well prepare veritable spinning minefields and back their spinners to do better more often than Australia will with their offspinner, Nathan Lyon, and left-armer, Michael Beer.

Such a policy might backfire on India, given Lyon is improving all the time and Beer is an Ashley Giles type: not a big spinner of the ball, but tight, clever and extremely accurate. When operating Down Under, Beer might see himself as a bowler to shore up an end in partnership with the pacemen. However, he's better than that and needs to be thinking about not how many overs to get through but how many wickets he can bag in an innings.

Lyon and Beer, and most likely Glenn Maxwell - an emerging Victorian allrounder offie with lots to offer but with a long way to go - as back-up might turn the tables on their Indian counterparts the way Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar did recently.

Of equal concern is the Australian batting. Messrs Warner, Cowan, Hughes, Khawaja, Johnson and Wade are all terrific players against the medium and fast bowlers. Apart from Cowan, all of them like to belt the hell out of the bowling, but it is when they have to make the pace against quality slow stuff that they strike trouble.

They will need to be patient and knock the ball into the gaps, more often than not foregoing the temptation of playing risky shots for boundaries and taking singles instead. It has long been stated that the best way to learn how to play spin is from the non-striker's end, by taking singles to get out of the firing line.

Warner really struggled against Ashwin in Australia last summer, and he doesn't fare well when he has to make the pace. His two exciting Test centuries, in Hobart and Perth, were against teams that did not have specialist spinners. He is, though, working diligently on rotating the strike against slow bowling, which is the key to breaking a spinner's rhythm.

Cowan has looked to Matthew Hayden to utilise the sweep in his quest to conquer spin bowling. He tried it in the Sydney Test against Sri Lanka and looked totally at sea trying to sweep Rangana Herath.

Prasanna had the ball on a string, and when you were lured forward, he pulled the string and led you to your doom, or forced you back, or trapped you on the crease

Hayden was a stand-and-deliver thumper. When he started out, he sometimes appeared to be in a state of sheer inertia against spin, so he decided after 13 Tests and just over 500 runs at an average of 24 to bring out his tree trunk of a bat and employ the slog-sweep in the subcontinent. He ended up scoring an incredible 549 runs in three Tests of the 2000-01 series in India.

Hayden, like big Clive Lloyd, could top-edge a six at a big ground. Cowan is not a huge man, and is not a natural sweeper. We saw that in Sydney, against Herath. Cowan would be best advised to work singles and look for the odd bad ball to hit for a boundary against the Indian slow men. Rotating the strike and using his horizontal shots - the pull and the cut - are his strengths, which should work for him.

Hughes appears comfortable in the crucial No. 3 role, but he looked vulnerable on the spinning SCG track against Sri Lanka, even struggling against part-time offie Tillakaratne Dilshan.

Wade, as beautiful a striker of the ball as Warner, likes to work the pace. Against Herath he wasn't so assured, and twice this summer he has been clean-bowled after misreading the length of a ball from a spinner. On both occasions the shots looked ordinary, because he hit all across the line.

Last summer against Swann, Khawaja looked out of his depth, finally falling to a top-edged sweep. However, there has been a bit of water under the bridge since and Khawaja has improved.

While Australia's left-handers will do best to work singles and rotate the strike, they have in Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin - who will come into strong contention for the wicketkeeping job, given his consistently good glovework and his batting, especially his batting against quality spin bowling - two men who will take on the Indians and dominate the spin threat.

Clarke will, as usual, have a pivotal role. According to Herath, Clarke is "easily the best player of spin bowling I have bowled against, even better than any of the Indians. He uses his feet brilliantly and picks up the length straight away."

Herath troubled the Australians with his subtle changes of pace, worrying all the batsmen other than Clarke, and making Shane Watson look decidedly at sea in Melbourne.

Batting on Indian tracks will be a huge challenge for the Australians, but if they can succeed, they will build great confidence for the coming twin Ashes battles. This trip to the subcontinent looms as the toughest test for an Australian team in a very long time.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

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