As a follower of Indian cricket with pretensions to objectivity, I expected a far better fight from the South Africans than they put up in the recent Mohali Test.
Nothing should surprise us in subcontinental cricket, certainly not the transformation of what was once one of the quickest wickets in India into a surface that helped the spinners from day one of the Test. Because they tend to travel well, I assumed that the likes of Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers possessed the technique and temperament needed to counter the challenge of a three-pronged spin attack on a turning track. I had doubted the capacity of the Indian spin trio to exploit the conditions as well as they did. Finally, I had underestimated the Indian batsmen's ability to negotiate the turning ball. M Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, in particular, showed the patient application, focus and creativity needed to master the conditions.
A three-man spin attack was perhaps standardised during the Tiger Pataudi regime, and his successor, Ajit Wadekar, persisted with the tactic. Though three spinners, even four (with Polly Umrigar or Salim Durani in the XI, in addition to Subhash Gupte, Bapu Nadkarni and Chandu Borde) had, at times, done simultaneous duty for India in the past, the concept of a systematic, relentless trio was arguably fine-tuned in the south, when Erapalli Prasanna, S Venkataraghavan and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar operated together for the zone.
With the advent of Bishan Bedi during West Indies' tour of India in 1966-67, the three-spinner combination became India's strike weapon on a regular basis.
"Shastri and Kohli have taken a bold gamble by opting for the old three-spinner formula. They have gone one further by adopting a five-bowler strategy, a move that needed a fair bit of courage"
The quartet, as these four came to be known, arrived in Test cricket as finished products. They tended to bowl a consistent line and length, using the crease expertly. They seemed to know the angles well, choosing to go round the wicket, for instance, to force the batsman to play. Attacking fields and a wealth of close-catching specialists made them a formidable force, with silly point and short leg constantly breathing down the batsman's neck. Significantly, most of them also instinctively knew the appropriate pace and flight for different conditions.
It was during Sunil Gavaskar's captaincy that India started to go into some Test matches with only two spinners in the XI, a clear paradigm shift in the making, though the trio formula was back in place under Kapil Dev, after the quicks won him a series in England in 1986. With L Sivaramakrishnan already out of the reckoning after a spectacular start to his career against David Gower's Englishmen in 1984-85, Ravi Shastri, Shivlal Yadav and Maninder Singh became the new spin combination, though rarely to destructive purpose. In a departure from the bad old days of the sixties and early seventies, when they were frequently caught leaden-footed and panic-stricken against Indian spin, visiting English and Australian batsmen were gradually finding their own solutions, with the sweep shot proving a popular option. The Indian spinners too often appeared at a loss when expected to run through sides on spin-friendly wickets.
The culmination of this trend was in Bangalore not long afterwards, when Pakistan's Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed gave a better display of controlled bowling than the Indian trio of Shastri, Maninder and Yadav.
It was also Gavaskar's swansong, his batting on the minefield a model of concentration and footwork. He showed that playing fully forward to smother the spin and fully back to watch the ball to the bat or to leave it alone were better approaches than sweeping.
The three-spinner formula worked well for India again when Mohammad Azharuddin's job as captain was on the line after a disastrous tour of South Africa. Wadekar, now the team manager, stitched together a potent strike force comprising Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan. Though rarely as explosive, Raju, in particular, was an effective foil to Kumble's fastish legspin bowling, which won India the series 3-0 against the touring England team. Wadekar obviously drew from his experience as India captain while ordering underprepared wickets for the series. We had to wait for some years before Kumble and Harbhajan Singh combined to win India some memorable victories.
In his only Test as captain, Shastri, India's current cricket director, masterminded a thumping victory over West Indies in Madras in 1988, with Narendra Hirwani grabbing 16 wickets on a raging turner on debut.
Shastri and Virat Kohli have taken a bold gamble by opting for the old three-spinner formula. The pair has gone one further by playing five bowlers, a move that needed a fair bit of courage. That the Indians outbatted the opposition was a factor in win in the first Test, but more encouraging has been the way the spinners bowled in the match.
R Ashwin's bowling action looks more complete than in the past; he is following through nicely, ensuring better direction and greater purchase. He has grown in stature and confidence despite being uncertain of his place in the team not long ago. Ravindra Jadeja has found just the right surface for his quickish bowling style, showing admirable consistency, while Amit Mishra has responded beautifully to his captain's confidence in him by mixing legbreaks and googlies adroitly, while tossing the ball up to just the right trajectory. What is most evident in the trio's bowling is the hard work behind their greater accuracy. They promise to bring back memories of India's best era of slow bowling.
Will South Africa regroup and adapt better to the conditions to come back in the series? Going by historical evidence, they may struggle to regain their composure enough to make the necessary technical adjustments. For rarely do you bounce back after such a poor start in alien conditions. And it doesn't look likely that Ashwin, Mishra and Jadeja will soon loosen their grip. Unlike the spin quartet, they have taken time to mature as Test bowlers, but they have the potential to settle down as a reliable combination - at home.