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Australia in India 2012-13

'You have no idea what you're doing here'

Like other Australian spinners in India, Gavin Robertson finished his tour with a good idea of how to bowl there. Somehow the lessons keep getting lost

Daniel Brettig

March 1, 2013

Comments: 46 | Text size: A | A

Rahul Dravid is caught by Ian Healy off Gavin Robertson, 3rd Test, Bangalore, 3rd day, March 27, 1998
Rahul Dravid was one of Gavin Robertson's three wickets in the second innings of the Bangalore Test that Australia won on the 1998 tour © Getty Images
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Sitting towards the back of a Bangalore function room in March 1998, Gavin Robertson and Steve Waugh shared a glum, quiet dinner. Australia had been overtaken by India in the first Test, in Chennai, and then obliterated in the second, at the Eden Gardens. Robertson's offspin had been toyed with, while Waugh was coming to terms with his first Test-series loss in four years. Noticing the duo away from the gathered dignitaries, the august figure of Erapalli Prasanna ventured over to join the New South Welshmen. By way of a greeting he offered the words: "You have no idea what you're doing here."

Robertson's mere presence in India had been a shock to many. Touring Pakistan in 1994, then opposing Waugh for Australia A in the World Series Cup of the following home summer, Robertson had drifted so far from international reckoning that in the summer preceding the India Tests, he had played only a solitary Sheffield Shield game for the Blues. In it, however, he had taken seven wickets at Adelaide Oval, keeping his name from sliding completely. Shane Warne's desire to be paired with a spinner in the vein of the retired Tim May, and some prodding from Waugh and Mark Taylor subsequently, had Robertson trading his day job managing grocery shelves for a six-week journey through India.

"I was only training two or three days a week, which I almost find hilarious," Robertson recalls. "I wasn't that physically fit, I would eat whatever I had to at work to do long days, and play grade cricket on Saturday. The next thing I knew, I was playing Test cricket in 84% humidity and 44C. I think I lost 8kg on the trip."

Perhaps not surprisingly, given his preparation, Robertson struggled to find the right method, though he fought admirably in Chennai, taking wickets and making stubborn lower-order runs. Despite the team's pre-eminence as the world's top-rated side, there was a lack of knowledge and understanding about India, a country most had visited once or twice at most - this was Warne's baked beans tour, after all.

"It was a rollercoaster three Tests. We didn't really know what we were doing in the first Test, and my pace was wrong, even though I took five wickets. What happened to me the Indians did to both myself and Shane Warne. Every time you'd bowl a good ball they negated it and waited for that patience to go, and then they really went after you. If you had a moment where you bowled two or three bad balls in an over, then you all of a sudden went for 12 or 16 runs. That's where the pressure builds."

So when Prasanna made his challenge about Australia's ignorance of India, Robertson found himself nodding. Waugh was a little more feisty, remonstrating with the man often considered the best of all India's offspinners, and author of the immortal slow-bowling maxim "Line is optional, length is mandatory." Perhaps throwing in a four-letter word or two for emphasis, Waugh asked Prasanna, "Well, if you know so much, how about you tell us?" What followed would change Robertson's tour.

"Prasanna talked about how you've got to understand a batsman," Robertson says. "You want to try to lock the batsman on the crease with the amount of spin you've got on the ball and your pace and dip. You've got to combine that to make sure the batsman feels like if he leaves his crease to take a risk, it's going to drop on him and he'll lose the ball.

"So he'll search quickly to defend, and that will cause him to feel nervous about leaving his crease, and that'll start to get him locked on his crease. Then you'll get him jutting out at the ball and jabbing at it with his hands. Then he'll start trying to use his pad and his bat together to negate a good ball. Finally he said, 'All you have to do is get that right pace and create that feeling, and then you have to do it for 20 or 30 overs in a row, and you'll bowl them out.'"

 
 
"It's about finding the right pace and line that locks the batsman on the crease. If you can do it for long periods of time, you win the pressure battle, you break them down, you get wickets" Gavin Robertson
 

Subtlety, discipline and consistency. These were not outlandish tactics, but they mirrored what Robertson had seen from his Indian counterparts, both in 1998 and on the tours to follow. Over the next few days before the third Test, in Bangalore, Robertson worked at this method, quickening his pace slightly and seeing useful results in the nets. By the time he came on to bowl again on the first morning of the match, his confidence was restored to a decent level. Flicking the ball from hand to hand, he thought of bowling a couple of tidy maidens before lunch then settling in for the afternoon.

Nathan Lyon is familiar with the sort of thing that happened next. Those two overs went for plenty, leaving Robertson's mind to race again. "I went to lunch with 0 for 31 off two and I thought, 'I'm in real trouble here,'" he says. "When I came back on after lunch Stephen [Steve Waugh] was at mid-off and I said 'I'm going to go for it here, I'm going to try to spin a bit harder and bowl a bit quicker.'

"I added two extra steps to my run-up, which I'd never done. I told myself to bowl like a medium-pace offspinner - you bowl with a quicker arm action and actually get more on the ball. I bowled to Tendulkar and he came forward, it gripped and it spun, went past him, nearly hit Ian Healy in the head and went for four byes.

"I just kept doing it. I went from 0 for 31 off two overs to 2 for 58 off 11.2 overs, and in the second innings I took 3 for 28 off 12 and we won the Test. Those were the lessons. It sounds quite simple, but it's having the experience and the patience to keep doing it. They're not worried about you unless you bowl really well."

Robertson's awakening to what was required to bowl spin effectively in India is a tale that is true for many Australian spin bowlers who have ventured to the subcontinent. Robertson describes it as cases of "failure, failure, then some success by the time you go home". Jason Krejza was all but a lost cause on the 2008 trip until he worked with Bishan Bedi in the Delhi nets, and subsequently harvested 12 wickets - albeit expensive ones - in Nagpur. Nathan Hauritz was never able to settle in 2010 as he entered the tour after injury and then had his bowling style changed, not by the locals but by Ricky Ponting, who desired his tweaker to "bowl more like Harbhajan Singh", whatever that meant. None were granted a second chance to tour India and use the knowledge gained on the earlier visit.

"You could almost have all those learnings on a whiteboard or some sort of document that relays 'This is the plan for this, we know what we've been up against before, knock it over,'" Robertson says. "That's what I thought we were supposed to be doing when we went two and half weeks early. We probably haven't learned from those past tours."

For now, Lyon is trying to work out how best to succeed in Hyderabad, having taken four wickets in Chennai but at an enormous cost. Robertson recalled Prasanna's advice, but also the example set by R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in Chennai.

"Have a look at the pace the Indian bowlers bowled at in the first Test," he says. "Just over, say, an hour or 15-over period, and watch how many times they're full and they're up outside off stump and spinning back. And then watch us and see how many times in that period we get short and get worked. How many times do we get scored off short balls, and how many times the other way?

"The Indians always bowl full with the right pace, the ball is dropping at sufficient pace and there's not enough time to get down the wicket to it. In Australia, Nathan Lyon can bowl on middle stump and a little bit short. Because the wickets are so quick here, it's so much harder for a batsman to punish it. Over there it's so slow, as soon as you bowl too short and on the wrong line, it just sits up like a cherry and it goes.

"It's about finding the right pace and line that locks the batsman on the crease. If you can do it for long periods of time, you win the pressure battle, you break them down, you get wickets."

Prasanna could not have said it better himself.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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Posted by ygkd on (March 4, 2013, 1:26 GMT)

A very thought-provoking piece. I have long maintained that locking a batsman to the crease is an essential skill for a spinner, but that it is not a tactic that can easily succeed without a quality gloveman. This is because it is the very real threat of being stumped or caught behind off a faint edge that helps lock the batsman in. To this end, Robertson had the assistance of Ian Healy behind the stumps, one of the best in the business. This is a lesson which has been rapidly forgotten and, for that reason, it is partly up to the selectors to back Nathan Lyon with a better gloveman if he is to ever put such advice to effect.

Posted by   on (March 4, 2013, 1:03 GMT)

@cork123 : quite correct! Even in the article it is not mentioned that Steve Waugh's the captain. However, he was taking the mantle from the legendary Mark Taylor.

Also, don't understand why Aussies give up on their spin options so quickly. This guy got 12 wickets in 3 matches against India, 1 against Pak, and never played again.. Serious issue there.. Hope same doesn't happen to Nathan Lyon..

Posted by Swingit on (March 4, 2013, 0:13 GMT)

So why did line and length make absolutely no difference to the great Brian Lara. He just hammered everything good length or not, good line or not. Just ask Danish Kaneria and Murali. With the ball spitting like a cobra on subcontinental dust bowls and batsmen going down like dominoes Lara just kept piling on the misery for Murali in SL same thing in Pak for Kaniera. I would like to know what the heck was his secret.

Posted by The_Red_Cherry on (March 3, 2013, 21:31 GMT)

Marvelous piece. The intricacies of spin bowling are yet to be understood fully. Anil Kumble defied almost every tenet of the coaching manual. And while he bowled in the higher 90's kmph range he actually spoke about having to bowl slower in Australia in the 2003-2004 tour where he enjoyed a terrific run. Ajmal does not flight the ball much but still manages to get that dip. At the same time I'm reminded of the New Zealand off-spinner Paul Wiseman who did flight the ball in Indian tracks but was unable to extract anything from the pitch. Sunil Joshi was another bowler who had the classical loop of a left armer but was unsuccessful even at home. I guess it is more about understanding the dynamics of your deliveries and playing with the mind of the batsman that determines your success as a spinner.

Posted by   on (March 2, 2013, 23:47 GMT)

How fantastic to wake up to nothing interesting in the mainstream news then to read cricket literature like this. Cricket is alive and kicking thanks to explorations of good writing and knowledge... and of course cricket.

Posted by Alexk400 on (March 2, 2013, 22:42 GMT)

Bottom line is aussies did not have cook or pieterson caliber players except clarke. The same indian spinners made impotent by cook and pieterson

Posted by   on (March 2, 2013, 13:07 GMT)

Well whatever lessons Lyon learned in the first test are not going to be so useful since they have dropped him for Doherty. Lesson not learned.

Posted by bluefunk on (March 2, 2013, 11:15 GMT)

This just goes to show the Poms definitely made a good call in choosing Mushie as spin coach. Might go so far as to say this effectively won them the India tour this time.

Posted by cork123 on (March 2, 2013, 8:56 GMT)

Good one, but I believe it was Mark Taylor who was leading the side in that serires not Steve Waugh. Waugh captained the ODI leg of the tour!

Posted by PFEL on (March 2, 2013, 6:42 GMT)

@Meety, not sure where you watched Colin Miller bowling but he very rarely went above 80-85kph with quicker balls

Posted by YogifromNY on (March 2, 2013, 4:02 GMT)

Dravid_Gravitas - you have nailed it, mate. It would be great if the BCCI, for example, contracted with Wasim Akram to provide fast bowling tips for Indian hopefuls over some period of time. Ditto with the Aussie board getting Prasanna or Bedi over to Australia to impart coaching on spin bowling to their blokes. And what Shane Warne? Is he so busy earning big bucks that he cannot spend some time coaching the Australian spin bowlers? Or doesn't CA want him? Cross-border coaching from proven greats could boost the game's standards considerably. As would the preparation of bowler-friendly pitches. I am sick of seeing batsmen pile on runs while bowlers toil long and hard for little reward.

Posted by ActionJacksonMan on (March 2, 2013, 2:31 GMT)

I think it's very important that Lyon tosses the ball up, gives it plenty of loop and flight, and aims to impart as much spin as possible. Too often, it seems as though he is just mindlessly rushing through his overs as quickly as he can, without any real sort of overall plan or strategy for actually dismissing the batsmen.

Posted by pat_one_back on (March 2, 2013, 1:25 GMT)

@Gansdini, I don't think the advice is contradictory, getting the ball up for some flight whilst taking some pace off is a variation that can draw the error, provided you've built the pressure required seed doubt in coming out to it. More so than on on grass pitches it seems days1-3 you really have to get a batsmen to give his wicket up, that should translate to more patience, subtle variation on a tight stock delivery, leave a batsmen wondering where low risk runs can come from and when you think he's ready to try something rash, give him another 3 overs of the same, a 'wicket ball' can too easily be the pressure relieving boundary and must be used extremely sparingly.

Posted by pr3m on (March 2, 2013, 0:38 GMT)

Yeah, Ashwin isn't a major prospect of not bowling short either. He's pretty bad at his lengths as well, but he just kept it a bit fuller in this match I guess.

Posted by crickeymate on (March 1, 2013, 22:26 GMT)

Australian spinners are not good enough to play in india against players who have been brought up to play spin.They leak too many runs and let the pressure off that the fast bowlers are striving for. Four quicks can keep the pressure on so that india does not get away so fast as was the case with Dhoni. 3 runs per over is much better than nearly 5. Pattinson proved that it can be done! Pressure=wickets.

Posted by landl47 on (March 1, 2013, 21:59 GMT)

Warne said (and I think Prasanna is saying the same thing) that a bowler has to find the speed that works best for him to enable him to bowl a length that will have the batsman uncertain as to whether to come forward or not. The chief problem for bowlers in India is bowling short; it's never a great idea at the best of times (except the odd surprise bouncer from the quicks), but for slow bowlers in India it's the kiss of death. 'Short' also has another meaning in India, it's about 3 yards closer to the batsmen than in Australia.

However, spinners get most of the wickets in India (all 20 of Australia's in the first test) so Lyon and Doherty had better get it right. If they're in the side, that is. If they aren't, forget about winning.

Posted by   on (March 1, 2013, 20:43 GMT)

Well written article. In Indian wickets, the key for spinners is to be patient, bowl lengths inviting batsman to drive and not to try out too many variations. Ashwin tried too many variations against England and he was not a force. Atleast in the Ist test at Chennai, he was more consistent relying on his off spinners and that's why he was amongst the wickets. It's also important not to leak too many runs at the other end.

Posted by Texmex on (March 1, 2013, 18:39 GMT)

Haha, check teh article by Harsha. It talks about Ashwin frequently bowling below 80 and Lyon frequently bowling above 90 and not getting the dip etc.. Well all this advice can be quite confusing

Posted by Texmex on (March 1, 2013, 18:26 GMT)

If bowling full and fast is all that takes why didnt Ashwin and Co fail against England? Why havent they learnt anything from Prasanna and others? Sounds like it will be worthwhile for BCCI to invest in a spinners academy before these guys get too old....

Posted by NairUSA on (March 1, 2013, 16:03 GMT)

Well, this australian bowler has the right attitude. Learn to be a Roman in Rome and you will be rewarded. Bowling in India is not rocket science and I am sure australian spinners will learn the trick sooner or later.

I hope someone can help the Indian medium pace bowlers the same way to bowl effectively on australian or english tracks so that they can play a major role for India when they tour.

Let the improved contest begin in Hyderabad!

Posted by Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas on (March 1, 2013, 15:53 GMT)

Nice lessons from a Legendary Off-spinner. Hope Lyon learns something from Robertson/Prasanna. I really don't understand this. Why don't Aussies employ one of our past legendary spinners so that Aussie spinners can learn the tricks of the trade? Not only that, even their batsmen will benefit if their spinners are making it tough for the batsmen in domestics. Something is not right about cricket. I see no co-operation between boards. Only at times we see a Legend like a Bedi explaining it to young visitors or a Legendary Wasim explaining it to Johnson and Lee or a Starc. Why can't all these Legends and boards work together and make life bitter-sweet for all of us? That would be memorable, exciting and gripping irrespective of who wins.

Posted by Gandini on (March 1, 2013, 14:47 GMT)

Gavin Robertson's advice about bowling a bit faster is contrary to Ashley Mallet's exhortations to bowl a bit slower to get the ball above the batsman's eye line. But speed is only part of the answer - as Prasanna said, length and no loose balls are the key factors.

Btw I think all bowlers at least start the ball above the batsman's eye line unless they bowl roundarm like Malinga.

Posted by Hardy1 on (March 1, 2013, 14:23 GMT)

Wasn't Lyon bowling quite a bit faster than Ashwin as it was anyway though? It was the length that was one of the main problems

Posted by   on (March 1, 2013, 14:17 GMT)

Very good article. If you change the pace often with accuracy and of course with patience, you will certainly get more wickets, no doubt.

Posted by JohnnyRook on (March 1, 2013, 14:17 GMT)

@KURUWITA. It is wise to give some respect to the opponent. It is not just the nice thing to do but also profitable thing to do. Australians do learn and learn it quick. As of now their second spinner is nowhere close to be as good as their third fast bowler. So I think they are better off with this combo. If their second spinner was a little better or third seamer was a little worse it may have made sense but it is not the case. Best eleven is the best strategy more often than not. No point playing a spinner just to add up numbers.

Posted by Top-Spinner on (March 1, 2013, 14:16 GMT)

Good analysis. It just shows how the great players like Prasanna and Bedi could have contributed in the development of spin bowling. It is still not too late but BCCI probably has other brilliant plans.

Posted by gsingh7 on (March 1, 2013, 13:44 GMT)

good article but it wont help aus. either u have talent for spin or not .monty had it in him due to inf=dian genes in him. fortunately aus is weak in spin both batting and bowling. even warne was thrashed by decent indian batsmen. warne got most wickets in aus but outside he was another spinner.clarke is really shaky infront of spinners and got 3 lives in 1st test , hope his luck runs out. with ojha due to return in 4 prong spin attack, chances are bleak for weak aus batting.

Posted by andrew-schulz on (March 1, 2013, 13:20 GMT)

I've always thought Ponting handled Hauritz really badly . That 2010 tour was the end of Hauritz as a Test cricketer, but his performance was a hell of a lot better than Lyon's (so far).

Posted by Beertjie on (March 1, 2013, 12:53 GMT)

Priceless piece! @HowdyRowdy on (March 1, 2013, 11:25 GMT) Let's hope we will do better than Maxwell on Australia's next tour of India. Hoping for great things in a few years from Holland, Agar and Zampa.

Posted by venkatesh018 on (March 1, 2013, 12:46 GMT)

Fascinating piece. But all the advice to spinners will not work with MSD. Only genuine pace can get him and the rest of Indian batters.

Posted by BnH1985Fan on (March 1, 2013, 12:39 GMT)

Good article. I think it also has to do with 'culture' within domestic cricket. Non-Asian teams have always emphasized pace bowlers. The mighty WI was mighty because of their pace bowling. I can't think of any 'great' spinners from WI, SA, and Oz (except, of course, Warne). England's recent success in India can largely be attributed to their surprise weapon Monty. And Monty might have surprised himself with his success. Thinking long term, to compete in Asia, non-Asian countries will have to work on developing spin bowlers. But when you idolize Steyn, McGrath, Siddle and company, it is hard to want to be a twirler. And Asian teams are not complaining about this at all .. it gives them a true home turf advantage!

Posted by   on (March 1, 2013, 11:57 GMT)

Agreed. lovely piece. Makes you realise how little you (as in me) know about bowling spin in India.

Posted by   on (March 1, 2013, 11:56 GMT)

I woud like to see the indian team after Sachin and Zaheer .........its interesting to see Indian team in Aus.

Posted by vatsap on (March 1, 2013, 11:39 GMT)

Gav Robertson and Ian Healy killed one day of what would have been wonderful batting from the Indian master on a Sunday in Chepauk, 98. They batted on and on, till close to tea, before Sidhu provided some fireworks. Amazing support act from Robertson, thought he averaged better than Warne in that series.

Posted by HowdyRowdy on (March 1, 2013, 11:25 GMT)

Really enjoyed this article - thank you Gavin Robertson for such informative comments.

Going back to an earlier era, my boyhood hero Ashley Mallett was critical to Australia's 1969 series win in India, taking 28 wickets at 19.1.

Consistent with Robertson's advice, Mallett bowled at a brisk pace for an offie and was hard to get to by leaving the crease. He also stressed getting as much spin as possible, to increase the degree of uncertainty for the batsmen.

It seems that bowling at a brisk pace, getting plenty of work on the ball and patience are required for spinners to succeed in India. I reckon that Glenn Maxwell has the potential to combine these attributes, but is a bit unpolished at this stage. Australia's next tour of India might be his time to step up with the ball.

Posted by Meety on (March 1, 2013, 11:25 GMT)

@Deepanjan Datta - thanks, I'll return the compliment by saying thanks for reminding me about the VVS masterclass in Sydney. He slaughtered us that day & I think he was on track to break the oldest record in Test history - Bannermans 160 odd in a 240 total in the fist test of all - the highest % of runs.

Posted by shaolinfist on (March 1, 2013, 11:02 GMT)

Valid points. To me the lesson that Prasanna gave Gavin Robertson sounds a bit similar to what Mushtaq Ahmed taught Monty Panesar in England's recent tour to India. Albeit the grapevine was that Mushtaq made Monty change his grip for the subcontinent as well.

But even Indian teams that tour Australia can be criticised based on the same logic as well. In each tour over the last decade they have made the same mistakes to start off with. It is almost as if there is no repository of lessons learnt, but the funniest thing is, that it was mostly the same players touring again and again, barring a few exceptions!

In Melbourne 2011,as usual the Indian bowlers got carried away with the bounce and pace on the first day and didn't bowl tight enough. Further the whole world knew that you have to pitch up to Ponting but Indians were still bowling short to him. Also, they didnt stand outside the crease to negate the swing like Tendulkar did in Cape Town.

Posted by rahuldravidrockzzz on (March 1, 2013, 10:47 GMT)

ohhhh i loved d fighting spirit of dis man....robertson.....

Posted by Gozunder on (March 1, 2013, 10:45 GMT)

@Varun Kommalapati I reckon you're talking about Colin 'Funky' Miller mate. Robbo was as decent as can be, never experimented with his hair or his bowling, and didn't play much for the Aussies after the '98 tour.

Posted by LALITHKURUWITA on (March 1, 2013, 10:06 GMT)

Poms learnt a lesson from first test and included 2 spinners from the 2nd test .Australians never learns or no faith in any of their spinners. I home the test willend in the 3rd day.

Posted by   on (March 1, 2013, 10:01 GMT)

This is a very good article by gavin robertson - i remember him more so for his peculiar hair colors and him bowling with goggles on - which was a peculiar thing those days - i think spinners who have succeeded in india are those who have exceptional control of flight , very good economy and can turn both ways - a combination of the three would be deadly like saqlain did and i think if we get to play tests - ajmal would freak us out too - the english spinners bowled beautifully - which was visibly evident and also the batsmen were not experienced enough as the stalwarts of the past were - there is less in form of tutorials and videos of the spin quartet for us younger generation to both rave about and to learn

Posted by ooper_cut on (March 1, 2013, 9:38 GMT)

Good point about no spinner returning back to India to pick up from where he left in the previous series. I don't think Aussies are very keen to mentor a spinner, even Warnie did not do any major damages even though he came here more than 2 times.

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Daniel BrettigClose
Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.

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