Scene 1: India had been bowled out for 327 in the first innings in Mumbai. Kevin Pietersen smacked an incomparable century to hand his side the advantage. The hosts then collapsed as Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar shared 19 wickets in that Test to hand England a 10-wicket win.
“India’s bowling was s**t,” exclaimed one former cricketer, who is also a well-known commentator, in frustration (privately, not on air.)
Scene 2: On a low, slow Nagpur turner, MS Dhoni opted for four spinners among a five-pronged attack. It didn’t work, as the Test ended in a draw. The lasting memory of this fourth Test was the superb reverse swing James Anderson generated to bowl Sachin Tendulkar through the gate.
England won the series 2-1, a first on Indian soil by a visiting team on since 2004-05.
That series win was the perfect template for visiting teams on how to play in India – the summation of fast bowlers who know how to reverse the ball prodigiously, with spinners who can assess the conditions quickly and alter their variations accordingly. It is easier said than done of course, and England were helped by the presence of world-class bowlers like James Anderson and Graeme Swann.
Often, the conditions on offer overawe touring spinners, but Swann showed his quality in 2012-13. In the first Test at Ahmedabad, he bowled a staggering 51 overs in the first innings. For the second Test in Mumbai, England made a crucial change, bringing in Panesar, and his natural pace was too much for the Indian batsmen to handle on their own turf.
Swann’s performance at the Wankhede highlighted the difference among the spinners of the two sides. Learning from how Panesar was benefitting by bowling quickly, he made adjustments within the span of an innings. He didn’t find much success initially as an in-form Cheteshwar Pujara leaned into him, but wrecked the Indian top-order in the second innings. On a pitch where the Indian spinners – Ravichandran Ashwin, Pragyan Ojha and Harbhajan Singh – had tried bowling slower, their counterparts had gone for the quicker turn instead, and the rest is history.
Anderson turned up the heat thereafter, in Kolkata and Nagpur, picking 10 wickets with his bag of tricks with the new and old balls. His tally of 12 wickets was far ahead of the next pacer – Umesh Yadav’s four wickets – in the series, while Zaheer Khan struggled with his fitness and rhythm. Swann, Panesar and Anderson shared 49 wickets between them. You don’t need to look further as to why England won.
“They are a quality side,” said Anil Kumble, in the build-up to the Test series. Their bowling line-up has troubled us in the past too. (But) You can look at history and look at this series the way you want to. It’s a totally different England team that’s here.”
His words traverse the extent of change England’s bowling has undergone since. Swann is retired; Panesar is in his own world, while Anderson is unavailable for the first Test and might not come into the picture until the latter half of this series. The responsibility lies on the shoulders of Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes, and England might still be competitive in the pace department.
As compared to their last visit here, the spinners together as a bunch – Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Gareth Batty and Zafar Ansari – are a major step down though. Sure, Ali enjoyed a good outing against India in 2014 in England. Even so, his relative impact as compared to the Indian spinners will be the key marker here.
Recently we saw the likes of Mitchell Santner and company being overpowered. It is a safe bet that any damage Ali and his mates could possibly inflict on the Indian batsmen, in their current form, Ashwin and Jadeja are more than capable of outdoing it.
This assumption encapsulates where the Indian bowling attack stands today. Back in 2012, when Zaheer was still leading the attack, Ishant Sharma played only two Tests in that series and Yadav played just the one. At present they will be jousting for the second pacer spot, as Mohammed Shami is almost certain to spearhead the bowling. Then, there is the option of Hardik Pandya as the Indian think-tank mulls playing three spinners in a five-pronged attack.
It is a possibility that Pandya will share the new ball with a full-time pacer in Rajkot, while Ashwin and Jadeja will team up with either Amit Mishra or Jayant Yadav. When Dhoni opted for a five-bowler attack in Nagpur (2012), it was a desperate bid to defend his unbeaten home record. In contrast, if and when, Virat Kohli opts for this ploy, it will be to unnerve the opposition and move in for the kill from the outset.
This provides a peek into both camps at the moment. India are confident, and flying high on the back of their 13-Test unbeaten streak. They possess the world’s best spinner, who can probably unleash havoc on home pitches in his sleep.
They are also the No 1 ranked side in the world at the moment. This has been achieved thanks again to their constantly developing bowling attack, pace in congruence with spin. This progression bears much resemblance to 2009-10 when they had become the No 1 ranked side under Dhoni’s leadership for the first time ever.
Alternately, England are placed at exactly the same pedestal the hosts were back in 2012-13. A tiring captain who has been leading for a long time, and is starting to run out of ideas with his senior-most bowlers out of contention or injury prone, forced to find alternatives from an inexperienced bunch.
This is the biggest differentiator for the two sides at present, and it should have a major bearing over the course of these five back-to-back Tests.