Hundreds from Parthiv Patel, Aakash Chopra and Subramaniam Badrinath took India A to a mammoth total before two spinners, at different phases of their first-class careers, spun a web around South Africa A to clinch a thumping victory. The duo - Pragyan Ojha, 21, from Hyderabad, a left-arm spinner, and Amit Mishra, 24, from Haryana, a legspinner - once compared to Shane Warne - took 13 of the 17 wickets to fall on the third day.
It is a pity there was only a smattering of spectators present to witness the youngsters outfox the South Africans by sticking to the basics of the craft of spin: line, length and flight. It can be a treat to watch spinners - especially if they are of contrasting breeds - get the better of batsmen and these two did not disappoint. Hashim Amla and Boeta Dippenaar have both played Test cricket but were made to look like novices against Ojha and Mishra.
Ojha has been in form recently, taking 29 wickets at 19.89 in six games for Hyderabad during the 2006-07 Ranji season and spinning India A to wins in Zimbabwe and Kenya, in four-day and one-day matches. Here at the Kotla he chose not to experiment too much, but relied on his accuracy and ability to flight the ball. He started as he meant to, tossing the ball up and landing it in the right area. There was no room whatsoever to cut, a plus point for any spinner. Almost every ball landed on a length and turned, forcing the batsmen to play.
Speaking to Cricinfo after the match, Ojha confidently said that his biggest asset was being patient. "I didn't want to try too much; rather I felt I would be better off being patient. I just wanted to stick to my line and length, nothing else. Before the match I spoke my coach, Paras Mhambrey, who advised me to stick to the basics. We knew this was pretty much a dead wicket, so the plan was to stick to line and length and make the batsmen play."
Line and length is precisely what Ojha adhered to, and the results came rather quickly. Justin Ontong was defeated in the flight and popped up a simple return catch. Last-man Friedel de Wet lost his middle stump heaving across the line, and South Africa were all out for 145 in 45.4 overs. Following on, nothing changed for the visitors. Five minutes before lunch Ojha got Morne van Wyk with one that spun away, the batsman playing forward then trying to withdraw only for Parthiv Patel to pick up a smart catch.
Amla, looking all at sea as the ball repeatedly spun past the bat, was done in by a flatter one, that took out the off stump. Dippenaar battled his way to 29 from 60 balls but failed to put Ojha away. After operating with a middle-and-leg line for about four or five deliveries, Ojha tossed one up just outside off stump, on a length, and sucked Dippenaar forward. He completely fell for the trap, spooning an easy catch to extra cover. Ojha spread his arms and roared as his team-mates ran to embrace the fielder.
Ontong and Tsolekile buckled down for a 66-run seventh-wicket partnership and just as South Africa looked like they may play out the day, Ojha struck. Ontong, tied down by the two spinners, tried to go downtown over mid-on but edged to second slip to give Ojha his fourth wicket. The fifth came as Kleinvedlt tried to cut one that was spun into him, and steered it into Mohammad Kaif's hands at slip. Ojha finished with figures of 5 for 66 from 23 overs.
After taking wickets against Zimbabwe and Kenya, Ojha said he didn't need to draw up a different game plan against a tougher South African opposition, and neither was he intimidated by them. "See, I believe Indians are the best players of spin. And I've bowled a lot on Indian pitches against very good batsmen. When I was selected for the training camps [ahead of the Indian team selection for the tours of Ireland and England] I bowled to Rahul [Dravid] bhai and Sachin [Tendulkar] paaji, which gave me a lot of confidence. So I was not worried that much about the South African batsmen."
But what about that other most crucial factor, flight, which he used so brilliantly on the third day? "It's a result of lots of practice. I made an attempt to flight the ball, land it in the right areas. I had seen this Kotla wicket on television, and knew pretty much how it was going to be. I wanted to flight the ball and keep it on middle and off.
Indian spin is about to enter a void, with Anil Kumble at the last stages of his career, and it was heartening to see these two aspirants show an appetite for a fight
Ojha's discipline, as he says, is a result of hard work in the nets. "I marked out a spot and bowled right there. I didn't want to get overconfident for this match. I know I need to work hard and I am enjoying this time. It feels good to be playing like this."
Ojha also credited his spin partner Mishra. "He bowled very well and it was good to see him do so."
Too true. Mishra faded away after 2003 and only he would know how good today's performance was. Mishra is a bowler who likes dry pitches and today that's what he got. He bowled only two overs on the second day but when tossed the ball with South Africa four wickets down, Mishra got stuck in. In the first innings Mishra tossed up a well-disguised googly and Dippennar misread it, getting caught off the inside-edge at short leg. Thami Tsolekile, a battling young wicketkeeper, last four deliveries to give Mishra two in the over.
Mishra tossed it up a touch more, held it back in the air just a second, and Tsolekile was beaten only to push it to silly point. Mishra let out a roar and a pump of the fists; it was endearing to watch. To the burly Rory Kleinveldt, he changed his line to middle and leg, teasing him in the air, and flung himself to his right to pluck a return catch off an on-drive. He had taken three wickets for eight runs, and India were on their way to enforcing the follow-on. Mishra then picked up the last two wickets in the second innings. First he had de Wet caught at midwicket and then it was Charl Langeveldt, playing the same shot to who-else but Ojha and a comprehensive win was achieved.
Indian spin is about to enter a void, with Anil Kumble at the last stages of his career, and it was heartening to see these two aspirants show an appetite for a fight. And do so by keeping it simple.