Just before the start of the second Test between India and England in Mumbai, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri were doing the pitch report. The latter proudly proclaimed that he had played all his cricket in Mumbai and his first instincts told him that this was a pitch that would crumble.
Gavaskar, on the other hand, did a heel turn inside the batting crease to show just how soft the upper surface was. He reckoned that as the match would go on, it would get really difficult on bat on and the ball would turn a fair bit.
And while they were going on and on about the pitch, every Indian supporter would have been screaming in joy. The reason: England can’t play spin... or so we thought.
On day three, Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen gave an exhibition of how to play on a turning track. The England skipper was resolute in defence as he played his finest innings in India yet. In the T20 era, bowlers generally wait for the batsmen to play the false shot and when they don’t they run out of ideas. Cook doesn’t mind playing out time in the middle, he doesn’t get ruffled by the dot balls and with him it’s a battle of patience. R Ashwin, P Ojha and Harbhajan Singh didn’t have enough in their tanks to wait him out.
Things were compounded by the way Pietersen was playing at the other end. He manipulated the bowlers by forcing them to keep changing their length – anything pitched up saw the right-hander use his feet well and attack it. That, in turn, forced the spinners to bowl slightly short. Pietersen’s response was to rock on to his back foot, use the depth of the crease to hit the short deliveries through the off-side. It was great batting – the kind that many of us expect from Indians against spin… after all, we are great players of spin.
On a difficult pitch, it was perhaps the only way to be. It was risky and you needed some luck to carry it through – Pietersen took his chance and his 185 was a career-defining innings.
But when Cook fell – after, at long last, a consistent over from Ashwin, the other England batsmen were just not good enough to last on the track. Cook made 122, Pietersen made 185 and the next highest score was Nick Compton with 29.
So when India came in to bat, the feeling was that they had their backs to the wall but if they could some how set a target of 150, they would still have a chance. But then Monty Panesar had other ideas. For the second time in the match, he ran through the Indian top-order to end up with figures of 16-2-61-5 and reduce India to 117-7 at close of play on day three.
The difference between Panesar and the Indian bowlers came down to one simple thing: he knew how to take advantage of wicket. He bowled at a relatively high pace (for a spinner) – around 90-92 km/h throughout. It gave the batsmen little time to react and the pitch did the rest. The Indians were slow through the air and the English batsmen took advantage of that.
For much of the second day, Ashwin was bowling from round the wicket. It was defensive ploy that should have never been adopted – Graeme Swann never did. Swann attacked the batsmen all the time and if you have to adopt this kind of strategy as a spinner then you aren’t worth your salt as a bowler.
In Ahmedabad, Swann didn’t have much support but Panesar has given him all the help he needed and more. India openly asked for a turner before the start of this game and got it but in their arrogance, they forgot to factor in the possibility of England playing well on it. And now they are deservedly paying the price for it.