regular-article-logo Thursday, 13 June 2024

The slow horses

This ability of Indian teams in recent years to pull seam bowlers out of a hat to win matches on tour in countries where earlier teams always struggled makes India the best all-round Test-playing nation

Mukul Kesavan Published 07.01.24, 07:40 AM
Let there be spin

Let there be spin Sourced by the Telegraph

The Australian Test team has risen to the top of the ICC rankings, overtaking India, on the back of its 3-0 blitzing of Pakistan. Pat Cummins leads an extraordinarily good team with a pace attack as good as or better than any Australia has ever fielded, but the team’s promotion to the top of the tree is misleading. India remains the best Test side in the world.

This might seem an odd claim to make after India only managed to split the recent two-Test series in South Africa. Suffering an innings defeat in the first Test is not the best claim to global supremacy and the second Test, which India won in a day and a half, was so freakish that your chin-stroking critic might be tempted to rule it out as an outlier. He would be wrong.


The weird thing about the second Test wasn’t that grassy, fissured pitch that made seam bowling lethal; it was the fact that India’s fast bowlers used it better than a fine South African pace attack. And this without the great Mohammed Shami, with rookies like Mukesh Kumar and Prasidh Krishna providing the backup bowling. It is this ability of Indian teams in recent years to pull seam bowlers out of a hat to win matches on tour in countries where earlier teams always struggled that makes India the best all-round Test-playing nation.

This was the claim that Rohit Sharma was making when he invited touring critics of Indian pitches to shut up when the ball turned on the first day. In a stroke of rhetorical genius, instead of moaning about the Newlands track, he celebrated the challenge of playing on dangerous, seaming pitches, inviting, by implication, touring teams to learn how to play on spinning tracks. On the face of it, he was defending the honour and handiwork of Indian curators and groundsmen; he was also, en passant, making the case that India was a robust, non-whinging, all-weather team.

Timing in these matters is everything, and this is the perfect moment to celebrate India’s pre-eminence in Test cricket. India has routinely routed Australia, England et al at home for a decade now and, over the last year, Indian touring teams have defeated Australia and held their own against England and South Africa. There could be no better time to indulge in some quiet triumphalism.

It must frustrate Sharma that the unprecedented achievements of Indian Test teams in recent times have been obscured by India’s ‘failure’ to win ICC tournaments. Test cricket remains a bilateral sport despite the ICC’s bid to confect a Test championship, and the only sensible way of measuring relative standing is by examining a country’s recent record, home and away. By that measure, this is the greatest Indian cohort of Test players ever to play the game, and Rohit Sharma’s little rant was intended to remind us of that sometimes overlooked fact.

With England due to tour India for a full five-Test series, starting later this month, Sharma has neatly pre-empted the handwringing that inevitably follows in the English press when Indian spinners make touring batsmen look silly. You begin to wonder if Sharma’s plain-spoken persona conceals a subtle mind, seeking psychological advantage.

But I like to think he meant what he said about being up for the challenge of playing on a wickedly unpredictable pitch. There is something about batting collapses that is exhilarating: they remind us of how hard it is to play top-class bowlers when they are given something to work with. Impossible tracks, paradoxically, make great batting possible. To watch Aiden Markram smash a century at better than a run a ball while his teammates fell like skittles around him was a privilege: he was, literally, transcendent.

The fact that the Newlands Test was done in a day and a half was both shocking and salutary. The additional fact that there wasn’t a single over of spin bowled by either team made the case for spin-friendly wickets in India watertight. If Test cricket can make room for a contest that is exclusively a contest between batteries of fast bowlers, there is no argument to be made against matches where fast bowlers are either redundant or reduced to warm-up acts for the main billing: spin.

One of the most tedious aspects of modern Test cricket is the formula of three seamers and a single spinner. Variations on this theme marginalise the spinner even more by either adding a seam-bowling all-rounder or dropping the spinner altogether. For my generation of spectators, raised on triumvirates of spinners, the idea that a spinner’s role is to give his captain ‘control’ or to wait his turn till the pitch begins to break up on the fourth day shortchanges the slow bowler’s art.

The reality of seamer-friendly pitches abroad has made dropping a generational genius like Ravi­chan­dran Ashwin a rational choice be­cause two spinners are deemed a luxury on most pitches in England, South Africa or Australia. Even more reason, then, to make pitches in India that allow spinners to hunt in twos and threes throughout a match. Why would a cricketing culture like India’s, historically familiar with the match-winning prowess of spin, defer to the one-sided orthodoxy of a ‘balanced’ attack when great spinners like Ashwin are reduced to bib-wearing twelfth men elsewhere?

I look forward to seeing Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel and Kuldeep Yadav playing together in the same team with a solitary seam bowler say, Jasprit Bumrah, just for the joy of menacing James Anderson. I look forward to Jadeja averaging a minute and a half an over, to Ashwin scheming performatively each time he runs up to bowl, to batters being comically beaten and stumped, to short-legs and silly points, slips and leg slips, crouched in predatory arcs, to dust exploding when the ball pitches, to the shade of Bishan Bedi looking on and nodding in approval as his slow bowling scions torment the old enemy.

And if they are thwarted, if Ben Stokes’s bazballers win out, fair play to them. They will have tested themselves against a great bowling gharana and mastered it in the same way as Sharma’s team collared the fast-bowling monoculture of Newlands. But if they lose, they won’t be beaten by ‘gluepots’ or home advantage; just the better team.

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