It had to happen. Sooner or later a visiting team would play India on a track designed to accommodate spin, and beat them. I thought it might have happened when the South Africans toured in late 2015. It didn’t, though a little more luck and a little less reluctant to trust Imran Tahir might have led to a different outcome. This time Australia came prepared, had the requisite good fortune, and had spinners that were expertly utilized by their captain, who himself played an outstanding innings. India were never really in the game.
What the South Africa visit showed, despite India comprehensively winning the series, was that the home team’s batsmen were also vulnerable on turning tracks. The hosts didn’t win because their batsmen were capable of handling what the South African bowlers had to offer; they won because their batsmen did marginally better than those on the visiting team. As former Indian batsman Sanjay Manjrekar importantly pointed out in a tweet, India’s last six totals on “rank turner” read as follows: 201, 200, 215 and 173 against South Africa, and 105 and 107 in this last game against Australia.
“It was one of the most difficult wickets you’ll bat on,” said captain Steven Smith to ABC radio. “This was, from day one, the driest surface and most inconsistent sort of spinning surface that I’ve ever seen. It’ll be interesting to see what they’ll come up with (for the second Test).”
India has, in the past, fiercely defended their right to prepare wickets that turn from the first day. Well, what will they do now that it has been proven that such a tactic will not always lead to success? It could be argued that this is an anomaly that won’t necessarily be repeated in the future. But will they be willing to take that chance? Once a wall or fortress previously thought impenetrable has been breached, chances are it will be difficult preventing further breaches in the future.
Nobody in their right mind would contend that Steve O’Keefe is even close in spin-bowling skill to Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja, especially in Indian conditions. He is, after all, 32, made his first-class debut in 2005, and was never able to command a regular test spot. Meanwhile, Ashwin is perhaps the game’s best slow bowler and has formed a most formidable pairing with Jadeja on home soil. And yet the Australian, by some distance, was the most effective spinner on show, capturing 12 wickets in the game. Ashwin and Jadeja took 12 between them.
“A lot of our right-handers – and left-handers – got beaten on the outside edge of the bat,” said Smith. “Those guys are big spinners of the ball, and generally it’s the one that goes straight that gets you in a bit of trouble.”
Cricket is a funny game. Turn the ball a mile and go past the edge; turn it a few inches and find it. Which is the better delivery: the one that turns much or the one that turns little? Which requires more skill on the part of the bowler? Jimmy Anderson, for example, will swing it round corners and evade the batsman’s blade, while Stuart Broad, at the other end, will snatch a bagful of wickets while extracting much less deviation, just enough for the batsman to edge to the wicketkeeper or to the slips. In that kind of scenario who bowled better? Or, who is better: is it the batsman who gets close enough to a particularly auspicious delivery to edge it, or is it the one who, though trying his hardest to make contact, misses it and survives?
On a very dry surface in Mohali in November 2015, South African part-time spinner Dean Elgar, surprisingly, captured four first innings wickets. In October 2015 at the P. Sara Stadium in Colombo, West Indies opener Kraigg Brathwaite dismantled Sri Lanka’s second innings with 6/22 from 11.3 overs. Both batsmen out-bowled their specialist spin-bowling teammates on pitches that offered a lot of assistance.
“What you do when the wicket starts turning as much as they do,” said Rahul Dravid a few years ago, “you take out the skill factor almost. It becomes a lottery, a lot about luck and chance…So from India’s point of view, if they back their skills on normal subcontinent wickets that start off with a little bit of slow spin and deteriorate as the game goes on. In a four-match series I’d back them to win. But if you make it a case of lottery and chance then anything can happen.”
Ashwin, as mentioned before, is much further up on the spin-bowling pole than O’Keefe. But with the assistance the playing surface offered it was the Australian’s bowling that was more effective. In reasonably normal conditions, you’d bet, Ashwin would have gotten the ball to drift more, would have made it drop faster and would’ve turned it wider. But with the track playing such a big role, length, direction and a little spin were all that was required. In the circumstances, Ashwin’s uncanny skills were somewhat surplus to requirements.
Prior to this Pune game, most pundits felt India would have comfortably won the series. India were unbeatable at home, while Australia had a dismal record in abroad. So, are the hosts still favourites considering how comprehensive this defeat was? More importantly, what kind of surface will we see in Bangalore for the second Test?
India comfortably defeated England on normal subcontinent pitches not long ago. That is probably the path they should go against Australia. There is no need to try and stack the deck by resorting to rank turners.