“I think Australia can take heart from the fact that England did so well playing India in their own backyard. It made you wonder if India’s spinners are any better than what we generally face around the world.”
– Former Australian skipper Allan Border
In the past, if cricketers were asked what they feared most when preparing for a tour of India, their answers would vary, from the alien conditions, the infamous Delhi Belly, the crowds, the traffic, the heat to dehydration. These were all things to be feared. But there was one constant at the top of the list: the spinner.
You would have men around the bat, balls turning and bouncing, the odd chirp from the keeper and the close-in fielders, tons of leg-before appeals, no DRS and, of course, a pitch that became deadlier as the match wore on.
Then came the spinner himself. Battle-hardened, he would have bowled on Indian pitches for years, he knew the line he had to bowl and how he had to exploit the conditions to the fullest. Vinoo Mankad, Subhash Gupte, Dilip Doshi, Jasu Patel, Erapalli Prasanna, B Chandrashekar, Bishen Singh Bedi, S Venkatraghavan, Maninder Singh, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh… it’s an illustrious list indeed, reeking of raw quality.
But now, as Australia prepare to take on India are they truly afraid of India’s spinners?
There have been 24 ten-wicket hauls in India-Australia Tests – 13 by Australia’s bowlers, 11 by Indian. Harbhajan Singh, alone, has three of them. But do the Aussies view him as a threat?
He may have 408 wickets from 99 Tests at an average of 32.27 and a strike rate of 68.1, but Harbhajan must be feeling like a junior going into the Test. His bowling lacks the fizz of old, he darts the ball in and that isn’t something that would have escaped the notice of the Australians.
Then, we come to Ravichandran Ashwin. He has played four series’ so far: Against West Indies, he took 22 wicket @ 22.90 and against New Zealand, he took 18 wickets @ 13.11. But when he came up against tougher opposition, he faltered badly. Against Australia in Australia, he took 9 wickets @ 62.77 and in the recent series against England, 14 wickets @ 52.64. It is a record that is riddled with inconsistencies. His lack of guile stands out in the longer format and having faced him comfortably in Australia, Clarke and Co won’t rate him very highly.
In a recent interview, Bishen Singh Bedi spoke about Ashwin’s bowling: “He tries out so many variations while he is bowling – going round the wicket, changing the angle, the carrom ball. To me, it’s a sign of him having no plan. He tries out everything hoping that something will work. He doesn’t have confidence in his stock delivery and that cannot be good.”
Finally, we move on to Pragyan Ojha. He is an sub-continent specialist – having played all his Tests in India, Sri Lanka and Bangaldesh. He is accurate but if you can hit him off his line — as Kevin Pietersen showed us during the Test in Mumbai — he doesn’t have a comeback. He was India’s best bowler against England but even then his 20 wickets came at 30.85 runs apiece. After 20 Tests, despite playing all of his Tests in the subcontinent — his average is already 31.62.
So India has spinners averaging 31.62 (Ojha), 32.41 (Ashwin) and 32.27 (Harbhajan) as they prepare to take on Australia. The visitors, at the most, might respect their reputation to begin with but as the series wears on, they will hope to dominate.
Many have wondered why Dhoni has asked for turning tracks so often in the past. The answer to that may simply be because he doesn’t believe his spinners are good enough to win matches on fair wickets.
They are not a patch on India’s past greats – not yet anyway – and without a ‘helpful’ wicket to aid their efforts, they don’t stand a chance. That is the perception that India’s spinners will fight in this series. They are fighting to prove that deserve a spot in India’s team on merit. They are fighting to prove that they belong at this level.
And even though the Australians aren’t afraid right now, Dhoni will be hoping that by the end of the series, the spinners would have given fear a new meaning for the Aussies.