Back in the days when batting sides dawdled along at two runs an over or less, Indian fast bowlers were a rare species, a ten-minute opening act whose only function was to take the shine off the ball before a trio of spinners went to work on the quickly softening ball. Those days are long gone, and while those run-rates certainly aren't missed, certain aspects of Indian cricket still appear to be stuck in a time warp. Sacrosanct tradition or fetish, playing at least two slow bowlers is one of them. Those that question it are considered heretics, and it's conveniently forgotten that India hasn't unearthed a Harbhajan Singh, leave alone an Ajantha Mendis, in over a decade.
Anil Kumble and Harbhajan may have 907 wickets between them, but following the Sri Lanka series where they were comprehensively outbowled by Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan, these four Tests will almost certainly mark the end of an era. In the 54 Tests where they have shared spin duties, Kumble and Harbhajan have taken 499 wickets, an astonishing 354 of them on home soil. But age [Kumble] and stagnation [Harbhajan] has meant that the end of the yellow brick road is in sight, with Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla tussling to be the legspinner of choice.
It's never easy for spinners to bowl first on a slow and low pitch, but as Sri Lanka's twin terrors showed, a little ingenuity can go a long way. Australia were playing a drastically remodelled middle order, with one debutant [Cameron White] and another playing his first Test in three years [Shane Watson]. Brad Haddin too has only three Tests to his name. It was the sort of line-up that Kumble would have scythed down in his prime, but if not for sterling spells from Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan, it's likely Michael Hussey's sensational rearguard action would have taken Australia beyond 500, and out of sight.
The figures were damning enough. Kumble and Harbhajan bowled 84 overs, for combined figures of 1 for 232, the worst effort for India's spinners in a Test involving the duo. When you think that even White, whose batting has always looked his strongest suit, might do better, it's enough to send a cold chill down any Indian cricket-lover's spine.
The contrast with the fast bowlers was stark. Ishant started off troubling Ricky Ponting, and his performance graph didn't dip even as the Australian top order batted the team into a healthy position. Each time he was thrown the ball, there would be a buzz of expectation, and Ponting's assessment ["He'll be troubling a lot of international batsmen for some time to come"] was borne out by deliveries that would rear off a length, dart in and make the batsmen hurry. No one played him with a measure of comfort, and he showed his willingness to learn by bowling as well with the old ball as he had with the shiny red one.
Movement in flummoxed Watson, and his cricketing intelligence was then highlighted by the dismissals of Brad Haddin and White. On a pitch where the only worry for the batsmen was low bounce and boredom, Ishant soon realised that bowling full pelt would only result in rapid electrolyte depletion and exhaustion. The sharp lifters and full deliveries were soon interspersed with cleverly disguised slower balls. Both White and Haddin were far too early into the shot when they went after wide ones that invited the crashing square-drive, and the delight on Ishant's face was a reminder that even these thankless tasks [Shoaib Akhtar memorably referred to fast bowling on the subcontinent as 'donkey's work'] come with some reward.
Zaheer got his in eight balls after tea following a display that was frustratingly inconsistent. He had been superb on the opening day, but there were far too many 'hit-me' balls on the second morning as Hussey resumed with rapid accumulation in mind. Having failed to make use of the second new-ball, he was an entirely different proposition when the scarred old one started to reverse. When he gets that lovely banana-like shape going, he can be next to unplayable, and Australia's quest for 500 was swiftly ended by the three wickets, each of them heralded by the sweet sound of worn leather on wooden stump.
It made you wonder just how much of a factor Munaf Patel might have been, on a surface where the odd ball was already keeping disquietingly low on the opening day. With his accuracy and ability to move the ball, Munaf could have maintained some sort of stranglehold on the scoring. Instead, India were never able to build any pressure. When Ishant was unplayable, the others bled runs. When Zaheer was in his element, the spinners were innocuous. With the fielding so creaky, singles were a given, and Hussey in particular targeted the soft spots with a ruthlessness that would have made the unsmiling Allan Border proud.
Thanks to the seamers, who took 9 for 168 between them, India haven't already been shut out of this game. But with Mohali likely to be pace-friendly at this time of year, it's time the selectors started thinking of doing away with outdated traditions. Playing three fast bowlers - there are quite a few to choose from when compared to the near-empty spin shelves - won't mark the beginning of the end of Indian cricket. Instead, it may just herald a new beginning.