The Indian bowlers learnt some harsh lessons at the hands of Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen in the Mumbai Test. On a tailor-made pitch, as demanded by India captain M.S. Dhoni, the Indians looked woefully out of place.
It hardly came as a surprise that the hosts lost by 10 wickets. Because, the question really is where are the bowlers to exploit such conditions — bowlers who can be classified spinners in the classical mould? And, where are the batsmen who can be called fine players of spin?
Spin bowling is an art — a craft that makes cricket so fascinating.
With Dhoni demanding spinner-friendly pitches, “What is a rank turner?” asks spin great Anil Kumble.
Kumble, even when he was captain, never really bothered about what the curator had prepared. “I did not believe in (preparing) pitches to suit your needs. The pitch remains same for both the teams,” he says.
The leg-and-middle line and variations in length are the key against quality batsmen. “You have to be consistent. Our bowlers have been inconsistent,” says Kumble.
“Length is so vital, whatever the state of the pitch. You have to get the batsmen to play their shots and induce mistakes by putting constant pressure. And this happens only when you bowl well in tandem.”
For long, it was said pitches were prepared to assist Kumble and the other spinners.
“Check with any curator whether I’ve ever requested them to prepare the pitch to suit my style,” challenges Kumble.
Bowlers in his era learnt to adapt and attack because there was no other way out. Checking the flow of runs stifled batsmen, and the tactic was well executed at both ends.
“Some days you bowl better, on another your partner will. You have to complement each other,” notes Kumble.
Bowlers are always told to “adapt” and “attack.” The Indians did neither at Mumbai. “When you bowl, obviously you try and read the pitch. When it suited my style, wickets came consistently. When it did not, I knew I had to work harder, bowl differently, have different field settings,” Kumble says.
So, how would he have bowled at Pietersen?
“I would challenge him to play across. You have to make him drive with men in catching positions. He will surely try to take the bowlers on. If you are patient, you can trap him,” Kumble says.
‘It’s about bounce, too’
Venkatapathy Raju (93 wickets in 28 Tests) says: “To me, bounce is important. The ball may turn slowly but bounce is paramount. It is fun to see a batsman go for a drive, and edge to slip or give silly point a bat-pad catch.
“And, what about our batsmen? They hardly play domestic cricket and have no clue against spinners.
“In T20, you turn the ball and it is called a wide. So you end up bowling flat and straight. The field placements have changed nowadays. At Mumbai, our field placements were out of place. Spin bowling is not just about running in and bowling. You have to think, also,” says Raju.
Bishan Singh Bedi too speaks of the importance of field setting. “Fielding positions form the most significant part. Some of the field settings in the last two Tests have been awful,” he says.
The Indian spinners were guilty of giving away boundaries and easy singles at Mumbai. A well-known practice in cricket circles is to bowl relentlessly at one batsman, dry up his runs, enhance the pressure with every ball.
“We allowed the strike to be rotated so easily that the pressure came back on the bowlers,” says Bedi, who had 266 wickets from 67 Tests.
The key lies in bowling longer spells.
“Spin bowling is an art. It is about your character. You have to have the intensity to strangle the batsmen. Consistency is indispensable. You have to be prepared to bowl on any pitch.
“I fail to understand this term ‘rank turner’. A pitch is either prepared or under-prepared, and an under-prepared pitch is bad for cricket. Are we playing Test cricket or gully cricket?” demands Bedi?
The Indians spinners bowled no less than three bad balls every over.
“And, this on a friendly pitch,” Bedi laughed. “I dread to think what Pras (E.A.S. Prasanna), Chandra (B.S. Chandresekhar), Kumble or (Derek) Underwood would have done on this pitch (in Mumbai).
“The handling of the spinners and field settings speaks for the hollowness of the wicketkeeper (Dhoni). He wants rank turners, but who will keep (wicket)?”
Incidentally, the Indian skipper conceded 31 byes in the two Tests against England.
Even as the curator at Eden Gardens toils to meet Dhoni’s demands for a rank turner, the pressure mounts on the bowlers to justify the move, not to forget the batsmen.