A closely-fought series is far more attractive

2012 Nov 26 by Suresh Menon

Suddenly, a series that looked to be heading in one direction has burst into life, and that is wonderful. Revenge is fine in war and love affairs, but in cricket, the closely-fought series is far more attractive.

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By Suresh Menon

The comeuppance was swift, and that is probably to India's advantage. So this will not be a 4-0 revenge after all. Neither will it be about preparing rank turners and other such short-sighted tactics. Questions might be asked of India's national coach who is the highest-paid silent Buddha in sport anywhere. India were not just outplayed on the field by England in Mumbai, they were out-thought by the lap-top brigade.

Midway through the Test, England's secret was being mouthed in the street corners by amateur pundits: their spinners bowled at a quicker pace than India's best. Yet, that knowledge did not seep down to (or rise up to) the men who had the job. The Indian spinners failed because they could not adapt to the different conditions a few hundred kilometres apart. What was kosher in Ahmedabad was not so in Mumbai. Yet, aren't these men professionals, capable of adapting their game to the conditions?

An offspinner playing his 99th Test, with over 400 wickets in his kitty bowling at home struggled. Harbhajan Singh might have to sit out the Kolkata Test, but how much was it his fault, how much his captain's, and how much was it the responsibility of the bowling coach?

On another famous occasion, when India trapped opponents on a turning track and one of their own spinners, Maninder Singh, looked like he would take India home, it was Pakistan's Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed who made the difference in a low-scoring game.

“I was too arrogant those days, and did not think it worth my while to speak to people who knew,” confessed Maninder Singh years later. He was referring to the fact that the Pakistani spinners had sought out India's spinning great Bishan Bedi and were offered the excellent advice: On a spinning track, the ball that doesn't spin is the dangerous one.

Surely in the land of spinners, someone ought to have spoken to the Indian trio. It was a wicket made for Anil Kumble – did anyone think it worthwhile to have a chat with him?

But it wasn't just the pace of the bowling that made the difference. There was a lack of consistency too. And there was Kevin Pietersen. Take away Alastair Cook and Pietersen, and the batting was as good or as bad as India's – but aren't Indians better players of spin? It may be unfair to dump on the spinners, perhaps the batsmen were equally responsible.

There are two ways of playing on a turner. One was demonstrated by Sunil Gavaskar in that Pakistan Test in Bangalore, his last Test innings when he was dismissed in the 90s. That involved tight defence, the ability to capitalise on the bad ball and the control of the wrist movement that dropped the bat out of harm's way when the ball needed to be left alone. To not play the ball is a skill too, and Gavaskar was the master.

The other way is the Pietersen way: attacking, creative, inventing shots to throw the bowler and making up in reach and power what might be lacking in delicacy and even orthodoxy. There have been few better innings than Pietersen's 186 in Mumbai – the 86 he made after his century being the exact number of runs England led by in the first innings, the lead that took the game away from India. The manner in which he hit Pragyan Ojha against the spin was startling; his attempt to flick the ball over his left shoulder might not have been attractive or even effective, but it spoke of a mind keen to present the bowler with a problem he might not have confronted before.

It is doubtful if India will play three spinners in Kolkata next week. The early start (9 a.m. local time), and conditions generally at the Eden Gardens favour the seamer, and that's another area where England are better served.

But a week is a long time in sport. Wasn't it only a week ago that India were sitting with a rainbow around their neck, leading 1-0 in the so-called 'revenge' series, having discovered the man to replace Rahul Dravid and with the spinners endorsing how much they enjoyed skipper Dhoni's call for turning tracks?

Suddenly, a series that looked to be heading in one direction has burst into life, and that is wonderful. Revenge is fine in war and love affairs, but in cricket, the closely-fought series is far more attractive.