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Team India's new nemesis: Spin - Suneer Chowdhary column
by Suneer Chowdhary
Jul 31, 2008
Whatever happened to the greatest batting line-up against spin in the world? Or should one be questioning, what has been happening to a collection of batsmen who have been born and bred on pitches that play akin to the one that one saw at the SSC for the first test match against Sri Lanka. Capitulation on foreign pitches has been Team India's bane for some time now, but the meek surrender on the SSC wicket saw the continuation of a trend that fits into a pattern that has emerged during the last few years.

For starters, the Indian batsmen have, over the eons of ages, been hailed as the best players of spin in the cricketing world. And why not? The pitches on most Indian grounds are tailor-made for spin bowling, and the batsmen are brought up facing hours of spin bowling on wickets that offer turn. Usually, it would take only a day or two for the ball to take enough turn to put the fear of their maker in the batsmen, and by the third, the bounce ceased to become even on such tracks. This lethal and potent combination of million degree on uneven tracks has had led to the downfall of many a visiting team. And the reason why the Indian batsmen have remained insulated from such capitulations is that they have played their cricket on such pitches all their life, and thus have become so adept at negotiating the difficulty these tracks impose that it has been as easy as reading the back of their palms.

So far that is.

The last few years have seen a slow, but a steady and a graduate change in the Indian fortunes while facing upto these bowlers of the slower variety. Decline may be a better word to describe this change, as the comfort and composure that the Indians are so used to demonstrating against such bowlers seems to have got eroded into. And this malaise seems to have penetrated deeper into Indian cricket than what it looks like on a superficial glance. The SSC fiasco is definitely not exactly a one-off as many have made it sound. And statistics prove to be reasonable indicators into the same. If we divide the last twenty years into four periods of five years each, then, the ones between 1988 to 1993, and 1993 to 1998 has seen India win six and seven home Test matches respectively, more than they have lost. This reduces to five in the period between 1998 and 2003, and to an abysmal 3 after that! Clearly, the home advantage that India enjoyed on these dustbowls of wickets has reduced drastically.

However, even if one were not to be too statistically inclined, it is hard not to recollect the memories of some of the lost tests - home or away - in recent times, when the tracks seemed to have been as close as they could get to the ones found in the Indian sub-continent. Despite the existence of such pitches, the batsmen have looked as ordinary as anyone else, and this has been an underlying worry. For starters, there was the SCG test in 2008, where the Indians did not only get done in by messrs Benson and Bucknor, but also by the most unlikely spinning pair of Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke on the final day of the match. Then there was the India-South Africa encounter on a Cape Town wicket that looked as different from the one at SSC as two peas in a pod, and yet the Indian batsmen were asphyxiated to death by little-known left arm spinner, Paul Harris. In fact, Ravi Shastri had gone on to comment that the way the Indian batsmen played Paul Harris, it looked like they were playing Lord Harris instead!

And the one match that tops this list is the Wankhede test in 2006 against England, where the loss was not only of a margin of 212 runs, but also consisted of off-spinner Shaun Udal running through the batting line-up, in the process picking up half his career wickets in a single innings! And jogging back a little further back in the memory lane, there was one that India had managed to win on a brute of a pitch on the same ground, but this was after the batsmen had allowed part time spinner, Michael Clarke to get to his best bowling figures of 6/9, in his first class cricket career. If one examines the list of spinners with a closer eye, one would realize that none of them - with all due respect to Paul Harris - can be termed as one of very high quality.

Now, let us move our focus from the batting, to the spin bowling department. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh have carried the load of Indian spin hopes on their shoulder for quite a few years now, and have performed reasonably well at home. However, the age old adage of spinners maturing and becoming better with age has not been exactly applicable to either of them. Anil Kumble's average in his last five years has been a reasonable 29 in home tests, as compared to a smashing 20 in the five years before that, while Harbhajan Singh has conceded more than 35 runs per wicket in the tests played back at home compared to his overall average of 30.And its not only the averages, but also the fact that Harbhajan Singh has looked half as menacing as he did right through out the early part of this decade. And the scenario looks worse after the departure of the duo; apart from the likes of Piyush Chawla and Pragyan Ojha, who still have a reasonable way to go before they can fill in the boots of their predecessors, there seems to be no-one waiting in the ranks.

The problem has been manifold, and one of the biggest reasons for this crisis has been the focus of the pitch committees, and their heads to try and ape the pitches in the other countries and make them more seamer-friendly. While the intentions may have been not too far away from the mark, that is, to make the Indian batsmen adjust better while travelling abroad, it has left a wide, gaping hole in the assistance that pitches usually afforded to the slower bowlers in the domestic circuit. So while the current pitches have encouraged the likes of Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar and S. Sreesanth, there has been a gradual decline in the crop of spinners produced; a dilemma that many of the countries like South Africa and England have been facing for sometime. And because of this same issue, the batsmen have not had the opportunity of playing spinners - or difficult, spinning pitches - in their domestic career, making them struggle a little more than they have in the past.

While it has not yet reached the levels of crisis yet, for India, it is imperative that the warning signs are heeded to. Or else, the once powerhouse of spin bowling, and of the best batsmen of the same could come crashing down in the years to come.
 
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