Pinning hope on spin

Cricket : Australia look to break their unsuccessful spell in India with an attack that is top heavy with tweakers

Pinning hope on spin

How much importance Australia have attached to their forthcoming four-Test series against India can be judged from their elaborate plans and intense preparations.

Weeks before the series, they hired the services of former England left-arm spinner Monty Panesar to help their slow bowlers pick a trick or two to succeed on Indian pitches. Panesar himself had an impressive outing in 2012 when the touring England beat India 2-1. The Aussies have also roped in former India left-arm spinning all-rounder S Sriram who is helping them improve their spin-bowling skills and presumably batting technique against them. The Steve Smith-led side also had a week-long camp in Dubai to train themselves in simulated conditions. Smith has even gone to the extent of saying that should the Aussies win the series, his team would attain greatness.

Greatness they would accomplish — of that there is little doubt. But then, greater teams from Down Under that have toured India have failed to breach the fort. From Kim Hughes’ side in 1979-80 to Mark Taylor’s in 1997-98 and from Steve Waugh’s “invincibles” in 2000-2001 to Ricky Ponting’s squads in 2008-09 and 2010-11, all came and went back with empty hands. Only once since Bill Lawry’s men won 3-1 in 1969-70, have the Australians managed to beat India in India – in 2004-05 when stand-in skipper Adam Gilchrist led them to a 2-1 win. While Gilchrist gave an unassailable 2-0 lead by the fourth and final Test, Ricky Ponting returned to helm the team in Mumbai only to see India pull one back on a rank turner.

Since then, Australians have lost three series on the trot, including a 4-0 whitewash when they took on MS Dhoni and company in 2013. Just one series loss in nearly 48 years emphatically demonstrates India’s sway over the Australians at home. Australia have, in fact, lost nine of their last 11 Tests in India while drawing two.

Over the years, Australia have tried many combinations, hatched several strategies and employed many tricks but have woefully fallen short of their ambition to conquer India.

This time they have decided to give India a taste of their own medicine. They have packed their side with as many as four specialist spinners – five if you include the off-spin of Glenn Maxwell – in a bid to find that elusive success. Off-spinner Nathan Lyon, left-arm spin combo of Steve O’Keefe and Ashton Agar and leggie Mitchell Swepson are the four spinners that Australia hope will exploit the pitches that they assume would assist spinners.

It’s a flawed thinking and records prove it has brought little success to visiting teams. England and New Zealand came up with a similar game-plan last year but their more experienced spin attacks found it hard to stop the Indian batsmen. Graeme Swann and Panesar did play a big role in England’s 2-1 win in 2012 but, apart from being the quality spinners that they were, their pacers, like James Anderson, too had a crucial role to play. Statistical evidence confirm that whenever visiting pacers and spinners have played complementary roles, they have managed to beard India in their own den.

While England in 2012 is the latest example, Australia’s last two series wins, which are separated by 35 years, are marked by similar patterns. In 1969-70, when Australia won 3-1, premier pacemen Graham McKenzie (21) and Alan Connolly (17) had a combined tally of 38 wickets, same as that of main spinners Ashley Mallett (28) and John Gleeson (10).

The next Australian win on the Indian soil in 2004-05 saw the pace trio of Glenn McGrath (14), Jason Gillespie (20) and Michael Kasprowicz (9) bag 43 wickets between them while spinners Shane Warne (14), Nathan Hauritz (5) and Michael Clarke (6) shared 25 scalps. Australia’s own record in 13 series in India spread over almost 61 years shows their pacers have been more reliable, having accounted for 375 Indian batsmen as compared to 293 by their spinners. 

Thus, history, both immediate and distant, suggests that it’s the quality and not the quantity that matters. Australia’s hopes of a success depend on how well their spinners combine with their pace attack which will be led by Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. Starc had an outstanding series in Sri Lanka on rank turners but found little support from his spinners as Australia crashed to a 0-3 defeat last year.

Lack of experience

Another big handicap for the Australian attack is that barring Lyon and Starc, who travelled India in 2013, none of their main bowlers has the experience of bowling in India at the international level. Just to put that in perspective, let’s have a glance at the performances of two of the greatest spinners ever to have played the game.

The great Warne struggled on his first two tours to India and claimed his first and only five-wicket haul in 2004-05 series. His fellow spin legend, Muttiah Muralitharan too struggled a great deal. In 11 Tests in India, the off-spinner bagged 40 wickets at an average of 45.45 runs per wicket, significantly higher than his career average of 22.72. Again, it wasn’t until his third trip to India in 2005-06 that the Sri Lankan wizard had some measure of success, returning 16 wickets in three matches. Therefore, turning tracks don’t automatically guarantee success to spinners, no matter how great you are.

In fact, Lyon’s other spin partners have a combined experience of just six Tests. O’Keefe has played four Tests spread over more than two years while Agar played the last of his two Tests in July 2013. Swepson is yet to play an international in any format. For other two pacers in the squad – Hazlewood and Jackson Bird – India is as familiar to them as cricket is to Americans. And then there is pace-bowling all-rounder Mitchell Marsh who has only played T20s in India.

It is with this attack that Australia hope to conquer India who are on top of their game. It’s an enviable task but not for nothing cricket is called a game of glorious uncertainties. For one, this Australian side appears more well-rounded than the one that visited India in 2013 under Michael Clarke. It has a more assured captain in Smith and a batting unit that is well-settled. It is managed by a coach, Darren Lehmann, who can keep his flock together (remember the Homework Gate and its handling by Mickey Arthur in 2013?). All in all, the series promises intriguing twists and interesting turns (pun intended). Brace up then for a mouth-watering spectacle.


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