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