The influence of spin over Test cricket in India can’t be overstated. The guile of the purveyors of this art, conditions conducive to the display of the craft and the hesitancy of travelling batsmen against the turning ball often converge, as if preordained, to dictate the course of a match, a series. Think of the India’s greatest match-winners, and the names of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, and more recently R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, readily spring to mind. That’s saying something, given the plethora of world-class batsmen India have produced. Cricket is a synergy of bat and ball, the two disciplines operating in sync. Bowlers, despite the odds heavily stacked against them in what is acknowledged to be a batsman’s game, must be celebrated if only for the fact that a team needs to take 20 wickets to finish on the right side of the result.
Like every series in the past, the upcoming four-Test contest between India and England, beginning on February 5 in Chennai, too will witness its fair share of spin-dominance. But, potentially, with a twist. While it remains to be seen how the conditions pan out, the composition of the rival bowling units suggests that this face-off may be dictated at least as much, if not more, by pacers as spinners.
England batting coach Graham Thorpe is well aware of the pitfalls of excess focus on spin. “The one thing about the Indian bowling attack is, it’s not just about spin,” he said, in another indication of the giant strides the Indian pace group has taken in the last half-decade or so. “I suppose their seam attack is also strong and so from that point of view, it’s not to just get side-tracked completely into the spin side of things.”
If all things remain equal, Jasprit Bumrah will, remarkably, bowl in a Test match in India for the very first time, a staggering three years after his debut in South Africa. As if that isn’t an event in itself, Jofra Archer too will grace the stage in only his second outing against India, after the 2019 World Cup league match in Birmingham. The aces in their respective packs will welcome any assistance from the surface, but their enviable skills and pace make them a potent force in all conditions. Where Bumrah makes life difficult for batsmen with his unorthodox style and surprise deliveries, Archer, him of the super-smooth action, can generate deceptive and disconcerting pace and bounce. If they strike their range and rhythm, which has often been the case, they will take the pitch out of the equation.
Bumrah and Archer might be the headline acts, but they aren’t one-man armies. The support cast in both sides is impressive. Veteran Ishant Sharma returns to action, bringing loads of experience of bowling on Indian tracks, while the inexperienced but talented Mohammed Siraj adds youthful exuberance. It’s noteworthy that before his exploits in Australia, Siraj had already proved his red-ball credentials for Hyderabad and India ‘A’. Then, there is Hardik Pandya, whose presence lends greater balance to the side if he is able to send down even 10 overs a day.
The Indian attack will assume greater strength if the injured duo of Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav joins the squad in Ahmedabad. And we aren’t even talking about Shardul Thakur or injured paceman Navdeep Saini, who could be fit by the time the Ahmedabad leg commences with the pink-ball Test.
“Indian bowling has developed into a very good attack and we are very aware of that,” Thorpe pointed out. “When you come to the sub-continent, you will have to deal with spin. More so with the Indian attack, we are aware. The training time (three days) will be used to strike a fine balance practising both (pace and spin).”
At least on paper, England’s attack is more impressive than the hosts’. Led by the peerless James Anderson and his long-time new-ball partner Stuart Broad, the visitors boast a glittering array of seamers. Apart from Archer, the Chennai contingent has Chris Woakes and Olly Stone knocking on the doors, while all-rounder Ben Stokes can always be relied upon to bowl hostile overs hours on end.
The other reason for the prospective enhanced profile of the pacers is the depleted spin arsenal in the Indian ranks and the inexperience of England’s slow bowlers. Left-arm spinner Jack Leach and off-spinner Dom Bess did impress in the two-Test series in Sri Lanka, but bowling to more experienced and accomplished Indian batsmen is a different proposition altogether. Their most successful spinner during the 2016-17 tour, Adil Rashid, isn’t part of the travelling squad while Moeen Ali does have a decent record against India but might miss out at the altar of team balance.
England’s pacers were less than effective four years back when they were crushed 4-0 in a five-match series. However, given the imbalance in their two bowling components, pace will remain the main weapon for the Three Lions, with Archer’s X-factor a genuine, sustained threat.
India will have the services of their most successful active spinner, Ashwin, but they will certainly miss injured left-arm spinner Jadeja, as valuable at home as his off-spinning senior in the last four years. In the absence of Jadeja, adept at keeping batsmen quiet with his stump-to-stump line and turning the ball just enough to catch the edge, it will be interesting to see if Ashwin is allowed to bowl attacking lines, especially with Virat Kohli back at the helm. The Indian skipper likes to be aggressive, but can often slip into conservatism if the opposition batsmen show positive intent, of which England possess plenty.
Ashwin’s spin mates in the extended squad are fellow offie Washington Sundar, left-arm wrist spinner Kuldeep Yadav, who on his day can run through sides but isn’t immune to erratic ways, and uncapped left-arm spinner Axar Patel. Whether this bunch inspires the think-tank to even consider fielding a three-man spin combine is open to debate.
With Jadeja’s injury having temporarily scuttled Plan A, it’s just possible that the path may have been laid out for the men in the fast lane to call the shots.