Acid test for spin troika

Cricket

Ravichandran Ashwin will be among the Indian spinners hoping to make an impact in England this time.

Very rarely does focus revolve around spinners before a series in England. The seaming pitches, the rain and the accompanying cold weather are tailor-made for pacers, especially swing bowlers. But things are seemingly different this time.

The intense heat wave that has gripped England for the better part of the summer has suddenly changed the dynamics. With India’s five-match Test series being the concluding chapter of a long-drawn English season and pitches expected to be battered, slow bowlers have now become the talk of the town. So much so that the English Cricket Board attracted the wrath of a few former captains for including leg-spinner Adil Rashid for the first Test in Birmingham, overlooking the fact that he had quit playing the longer format.

While ace off-spinner R Ashwin, his left-arm colleague Ravindra Jadeja and the red-hot Kuldeep Yadav will be excited at the prospect of playing potentially key roles and not being reduced to mere support acts, whoever gets picked will have to really step it up in a country where Indian tweakers, barring a couple of instances, haven’t had much success.

Ashwin and Jadeja were part of the squad during India’s last visit to England and they got a first-hand lesson on how tough it can be there. Ashwin, accustomed to taking wickets by the bucketful at home, managed just three wickets in two matches while Jadeja fared no better, bagging nine wickets in four games.

With chinaman Kuldeep breathing down their neck and India set to tour Australia for a four-match Test series at the end of this year, Ashwin and Jadeja are aware their performances in this series will have huge implications on their respective careers considering they are already, more or less, out of the limited-overs scheme of things. The spotlight, to some extent, will be more on Ashwin whose away form pales in comparison to his home record where he’s almost untouchable. While there’s a growing clamour for Kuldeep to be included in the playing XI for the first Test given his impressive performances in the preceding limited-overs affairs, Ashwin should find a place early on at least.

If anything, Ashwin, a qualified engineer, is one of the game’s studious learners. There have been times when he has gone overboard with his variations in a bid to stay ahead of the batsmen and there’s little doubt that the 32-year-old wouldn’t have done his homework. Barring Joe Root and Alastair Cook, who himself hasn’t been going through a great run over the last couple of years, most of the other Englishmen are not great players of spin and Ashwin would be looking to exploit that weakness.

Unlike in India where spinners can constantly go on the attack, Ashwin would have learnt that patience holds the key in England and like Anil Kumble, India’s most successful spinner in England with 36 wickets in 10 games, he will have to play the waiting game. With India missing the services of the pace duo of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah (for the first Test at least), thereby limiting India’s attacking options upfront, there’s a high chance the management may unleash Kuldeep at the start itself. The left-arm wrist-spinner, a rare commodity in world cricket, has played just two Test matches but his exploits across formats since he made his debut against Australia in the Dharamsala Test last year has seen his stock rise exponentially.

A naturally attacking bowler, the 23-year-old Kuldeep rarely shies away from giving away runs for the sake of wickets. More often than not, he’s been successful with his modus operandi with many batsmen struggling to pick his deliveries. What gives Kuldeep the edge is he really doesn’t need a pitch that assists spin. As a wrist-spinner, he can turn the ball on most wickets and if the surface has bounce, he becomes more potent. Shane Warne, perhaps the finest leg-spinner to have played the game, relished the conditions in England and Kuldeep would be hoping to draw inspiration from the legend. Having already become a near-permanent member of the limited-overs set-up, he will also be determined to be a constant member of the whites club. One wonders what role Jadeja will play on the current tour given the competition for his place has intensified so much. Mahendra Singh Dhoni mostly used him as a restrictive bowler last time and current skipper Virat Kohli is yet to unveil his cards. While Jadeja is great at holding things tight at one end that would allow attacking bowlers to have a go from the other end, he doesn’t possess enough weapons to pose a major threat. The Saurashtra cricketer, though, has worked a lot on varying his pace recently and his live-wire fielding is an asset to any side.

Even if the conditions assist spin, India may play two spinners with Ashwin and Kuldeep being the most likely candidates. India have announced the squad for only the first three games and if Yuzvendra Chahal has good outings against South Africa ‘A’ in the series at home, the selectors may spring a surprise by including him.

On many fronts, the first three matches will have major implications. Ashwin needs to step it up while Kuldeep will be looking to further enhance his stock. If Ashwin flourishes he would have proved his critics wrong who feel he’s largely dangerous only at home. If Kuldeep excels, his career will receive another major push.

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Acid test for spin troika

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