Much has been said, most of it harsh, by a large section of the media and former cricketers about India’s new spinners, left-arm Pragyan Ojha and right arm, Ravichandran Ashwin after India’s timid and compliant performance against England in the second Test that ended some five sessions in advance. Ojha has just about completed three years in international cricket and has played 18 Tests (89 wickets) and Ashwin, one year and has played 10 Tests (55 wickets).
Ashwin’s entry into the big league of international cricket was caused by the poor run of Harbhajan Singh for a long time. Harbhajan with a wealth of experience — almost close to 15 years — and 406 wickets in 98 Tests was included in the XI to stifle the England batting on a track that was predicted to assist the spinners from day one. The pitch played tricks, but not for India’s three spinners as much as for Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann.
The finger-spin combination and skill of Ojha and Ashwin and with some meaningful support from Zaheer Khan and Umesh Yadav delivered a nine-wicket victory for India on a slow pitch at Motera with the England captain Alastair Cook and Matt Prior demonstrating intelligence, expertise and knack to put up more than a semblance of defiance.
Together they sent down 147. 2 overs and took 13 wickets. Ashwin, Ojha and Harbhajan bowled 116 overs at the Wankhede and took nine wickets as against the 19 by Panesar and Swann. It was Panesar’s career-best (11 for 210) match figures in his 43rd Test match and Swann’s best in India (8 for 113) in his 48th Test.
How well Shane Warne was proved right when on the eve of the second Test when he said that England missed the trick not playing Panesar at Motera. England’s team director, Andy Flower also admitted that a gross mistake was done in the first Test.
Superior spin attack
Not many would disagree with Geoffrey Boycott’s opinion that England’s spin attack in Swann (5 wickets in an innings 14 times and ten wickets in a match twice) and Panesar (5 wickets in an innings 12 times and ten wickets in a match twice) in 91 Tests is far superior to India’s. Now Swann has 206 Test wickets and Panesar, 153 and both have 22 wickets apiece on Indian soil.
Panesar joined the list of 24 previous overseas spinners who caused such a significant impact and made a winning contribution to their team in India and only four of them other than him in Richie Benaud (Australia, 11 for 105, Calcutta, 1956-57), Hedley Verity (England, 11 for 153, Madras, 19933-34), Ashley Mallett (Australia, 10 for 144, Madras, 1969-70) and Saqlain Mushtaq (Pakistan, 10 for 187, Madras, 1998-99) have recorded 10 wicket plus hauls. The other 20 have taken between 6 to 9 wickets in a match.
James Pycroft whose book ‘The Cricket Field’ was published in the mid 19th century said: “Bowling consists of two parts: there is the mechanical and the intellectual part. First you want the hand to pitch where you please and then head to know where to pitch, according to the player. There is a deal of head-work in bowling: one make your batsman set his mind on one hit and give him a ball requiring the contrary, and he is off his guard in a moment.’’
Swann and Panesar appeared to be leading the top order Indian batsmen into a trap with plenty of cunning and ruse with the hard and shining ball and the old. Almost every ball they sent down had some venom as it dropped and dragged the batsmen in front or pushed them back.
But Ojha, Ashwin and Harbhajan too did not do any different after Ashwin coaxed an edge form Cook on the third morning; after Cook and Pietersen, shaped the recovery (from 68 for two) with a record third wicket stand of 206 for England in India, the home team spinners showed the stomach for fight and caused the downfall of eight England batsmen for 138 runs.
Where Cook and Pietersen stood out was in back foot play and front foot which they stretched a bit by stepping down the pitch. Mahendra Singh Dhoni admitted that his spinners bowled a trifle short and slow and that the score sheet resembles the same taking out Cheteshwar Pujara and Cook and Pietersen’s knocks.
Ojha and Ashwin have had little opportunities overseas and against world class batsmen; they would have learnt some hard lessons bowling to Cook and Pietersen. They will be extremely exhausted at the end of the series against England and Ashwin plays all three formats.
Cook & Co have already made it a tough start for them and with Australia scheduled to play four Tests, it looks like hardship all the way for India’s two spinners, but from an experience they can emerge better.