Curiously, the trend of chucking the new ball to two tweakers has become popular in modern times. It has taken place more and more in this decade, which underlines the degree to which pitches have been tailored to favour the turning ball in the subcontinent…..
The second and final Test match between Bangladesh and West Indies at Dhaka was, quite honestly, a pathetic advertisement for the traditional format of cricket.
The old adage of horses for courses is perhaps relevant in the sport. But, if the skills required for one major department of the game, bowling, is limited to one single art, namely spinning the ball, then the entire arena starts to resemble a drab one-horse town.
If the host team can get away by loading the side with spinners and doing away with pace bowling of any sort, that really makes the fare both odd and disappointing.
Even more woeful was perhaps the West Indian batting, which surrendered to the turning ball with deplorable footwork and atrocious shot selection. The 9 sixes of Shimron Hetmyer was a misfit, like a fusillade of gunfire announcing the return of a troop of losers.
Also Read: The woeful batting of West Indies
But, while as a spectacle the Test was miserable, there was enough to keep the historians and the statisticians busy.
Opening the bowling with two spinners is rare. Not as rare as is often made out to be, but infrequent enough to be deemed significant. And Shakib Al Hasan and Mehidy Hasan Miraz did it in both the innings, which makes it quite a feat.
Curiously, the trend of chucking the new ball to two tweakers has become popular in modern times. It has taken place more and more in this decade, which underlines the degree to which pitches have been tailored to favour the turning ball in the subcontinent in recent days.
Strange, really. Especially because logic would say that this should have been more prevalent in the nascent days of Test cricket. Indeed, in the early days, it was quite the trend to have a fast bowler steam in from one end while a spinner took up operations from the other.
Men like Ted Peate, Bobby Peel, Billy Bates, Johnny Briggs, Hugh Trumble, Wilfred Rhodes, Colin Blythe, Len Braund, Aubrey Faulkner, great spinners all, did it fairly regularly. And then there were men like SF Barnes and Joey Palmer, the premier bowlers of the sides who demanded the new ball, but bowled spin at a sharp pace.
Even after the Great War, men like Bill O’Reilly, Clarrie Grimmett and Tich Freeman did so. But it was almost always in collaboration with a paceman at the other end.
Peate had Dick Barlow or George Ulyett starting off, Palmer had Edwin Evans or George Giffen or Fred Spofforth bowling alongside him, Trumble mostly had Jack Saunders at the other side, and later O’Reilly started with Ernie McCormick or Tim Wall.
Two spinners bowling in tandem with the new ball remained a rarity. In three Tests of the 1881-82 Ashes, Peate did open the operations with Bates, but that remained an anomaly. Later, Walter Mead, in his only Test match, teamed up with a young Wilfred Rhodes at Nottingham in 1899.
Strangely, in those hoary days of the 1800s when such things were prone to happen so often, there were no more instances of a double-spin start.
In fact, it took place only once more before the Great War, with leg-spinner Len Braund and left-armer Colin Blythe given the new ball by captain Archie MacLaren in the second innings at Melbourne in early 1902. In the first innings, it had been Gilbert Jessops pace accompanying Braund.
Between the Wars, there was just one instance. In 1921, at Nottingham, perhaps tired of the shelling by Jack Gregory and Ted MacDonald, Johnny Douglas offered the white flag to Warwick Armstrong by allowing Australia get the required 28 runs for victory against an attack of Valence Jupp and Tich Richmond.
It remained very rare down the years. Sonny Ramadhin and Alf Valentine did start off at The Oval in 1950, but that was probably because the Englishmen by then were terrified just by their sight.
As a treacherous Kanpur wicket broke up in 1951-52, Malcolm Hilton opened the bowling with Roy Tattershall in the second innings, ahead of the likes of Brian Statham, while Dattu Phadkar spent time in the outfield while Ghulam Ahmed and Vinoo Mankad tried desperately to return the favours when England batted in the final essay. Even that was an exception.
After a few non-significant pairings, such as Ken Barrington and Fred Titmus at Manchester in 1964, ML Jaisimha bowling an undecipherable variety of innocuous deliveries alongside Salim Durani at the other end and so on, the first serious attempt at winning a Test with two spinners came as late as in 1997. Pat Symcox and Paul Adams started bowling late on the third day at Faisalabad as Pakistan’s second innings got underway and Hansie Cronje tried to get as many overs in as possible.
But with the turn of the new century, these pairings have become more commonplace. Especially in the current decade.
In 2009, at Mumbai, when MS Dhoni set Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha on the Sri Lankans, it was still an attempt to get a few overs in at the end of the day as the visitors started their second innings. But by the time Ravi Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha were at the throats of the West Indians at Delhi two years later, the fast bowling option was more of an afterthought.
Since then the pairings have come thick and fast.
Ashwin and Ojha were unleashed several times, and then we saw Ashwin handed the new ball alongside Ravindra Jadeja. Rangana Herath did the same often, mostly alongside Dilruwan Perera.
Even for Bangladesh, it has not been entirely new. Taijul Islam did open with Shakib in Khulna four years ago. And Shakib and Miraz opened the attack together at Dhaka and again at Chittagong against England in 2016.
Of the 51 occurrences of spinners opening the attack in tandem, 30 have been in this decade. All of them in the subcontinent.
This is extraordinary. These were extremely rare in the past 14 decades of Test cricket, often because of trivial match situations. And the trend has suddenly peaked in recent times.
Again, the modern cases are not those of just going through the motions or trying to get a few quick overs before the end of the day. Opening the bowling with spin is definitely being seen as a genuine strategy in the subcontinent.
And the recent Test match at Dhaka, with Bangladesh going in with no pace bowler, underlines that the advantage of spinners bowling in this part of the world has been taken to a ridiculous level.
With traditional Test cricket being a test of all sorts of skills involved in the game, this one-dimensional approach to bowling is definitely a cause of concern.