“But then, being spun out to defeats by mediocre finger spinners is more of a norm rather than an exception”
Moeen Ali bowling England to a win was not really a surprise. Especially if one is aware of the way the Indian batsmen have played finger spinners in the past.
At the same time, Adil Rashid being chosen ahead of Moeen in the first three Tests was curious. Again, especially so if one is aware that historically, wrist spinners have hardly ever made an impression on Indian batsmen.
Yes, Richie Benaud did it several times in the 1956-57 tour. But that was in the days when the Indian team were the whipping boys of world cricket.
In more recent times, apart from the unexpected capitulation against Danesh Kaneria at Bengaluru, 2005, the Indian batsmen have not really allowed wrist spinners to vanquish them. Once the major superpowers of Indian batting were unleashed one by one, through the days of Sunil Gavaskar to Dilip Vengsarkar to Sachin Tendulkar to VVS Laxman to Virat Kohli, the leggies and the rare chinaman bowlers have generally been sent on the leather hunt.
They have played most of them splendidly. Shane Warne could never bowl Australia to a win against the Indians. Neither could Abdul Qadir or Mushtaq Ahmed turn games Pakistan’s way.
The only ‘wrist spinner’ who has run through the Indian side and won matches for his country has been Muttiah Muralitharan. Well, a wrist-spinning off-break bowler, that is what the freak genius was.
But, in general, the Indian batsmen have played wrist-spinners in splendid fashion.
Which is perhaps expected. After all, Indians have the reputation of being excellent players of spin bowling.
However, if the focus is turned to finger spinners, the tale is strikingly different.
In the early years, just like Richie Benaud, illustrious finger spinners from Hedley Verity to Lance Gibbs to Ashley Mallett all did have the Indian batsmen in all sorts of trouble.
But, unlike in the case of wrist spinners, these perpetual problems were not eradicated with the coming of the stalwarts of Indian batting. And it did not really take world-class finger spinners to tie the Indian batsmen into lethal knots. Perfectly ordinary tweakers did the same.
Pat Pocock and Phil Edmonds bowled England to win at Feroz Shah Kotla in 1984-85, against a team that included Gavaskar, Vengsarkar and Mohinder Amarnath. Pocock, who ended with a Test bowling average of 44, rarely had such successful days in a 22-year First-Class career.
Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed were obviously better as a pair of spinners than the English duo, but the way they ran through the Indian side at Bangalore in 1986-87 still hurts. Interestingly, Abdul Qadir had been dropped from that Test, after a sequence of fruitless outings through the high-profile series.
John Bracewell was the next low-key off-break bowler, who turned captain Dilip Vengsarkar’s 100th Test into a veritable nightmare. His 6 for 51 allowed New Zealand to put one across India as Richard Hadlee did his bit at the other end.
Then there was Saqlain Mushtaq, with his 10-wicket haul at Chennai in early 1999. That was the match when India chased 271, scored 6 runs for 2 wickets before Sachin Tendulkar walked in to bat and 4 runs for 3 wickets after the master walked holed out for a magnificent 136.
Even Nicky Boje joined the party with 5 for 83 as India surrendered a series at home after a long, long time at Bangalore in 2000.
Muralitharan is obviously an aberration in the legacy of off-spin bowlers. A curious specimen, as discussed, called a wrist-spinning offie. He bundled the Indian batsmen several times, leading to multiple victories of the Sri Lankan side. One can probably ignore him in this list. We can also perhaps ignore his compatriot Ajantha Mendis, a mystery spinner listed as an offie.
But then we had Shaun Udal bowling England to a series-squaring win with figures of 4 for 14 in 9 overs. In 6 more innings that he bowled in through his career, Udal picked up 4 more wickets and ended with a bowling average of 43.
And then there was Monty Panesar at Mumbai, 11 wickets in the match, while he and Graeme Swann taking all 10-second-innings wickets bowling in tandem. Bowling left-arm spin in a patka, that was perhaps the only instance in the career of Panesar when he looked somewhat like Bishan Singh Bedi. Well, in the figures, if not in action.
The list does not end there. Nathan Lyon has done it, but he is perhaps one of the better off-break bowlers of the world. He took eight wickets on the first day of a Test against India. As is Rengana Herath, another world class bowler. But bowling sides to victory against India has been also achieved by less formidable men like Tharindu Kaushal and Steve O’Keefe …
And of course, by Moeen Ali. Twice.
One may look at Moeen’s Test match bowling average of 39 and wonder how he has bowled England to victory against India at Southampton, twice, in 2014 and 2018.
But then, being spun out to defeats by mediocre finger spinners is more of a norm rather than an exception.