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Beguiling the Hosts: India’s Fall to Spin Bowling

Beguiling the Hosts: India’s Fall to Spin Bowling

By Binoy Kampmark

It defies the belief of recent memory. Not even the Sheikh of Tweak, Shane Warne, managed such feats on the dry, square-turning pitches on the subcontinent. India, of whom little poor has been said of in recent months, were meant to exert their dangerous majesty at home before crowds, and crush a visiting team that had been mauled into oblivion by Sri Lanka.

The First Test saw India collapse to a heavy 333-run defeat. The pitch did what the groundsmen and personnel had evidently hoped: disintegrate in its brown, dry glory. But it was left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe who capitalised on the wearing surface, snapping 12/70 to dismiss the hosts for 105 and 107 respectively. Both scores tallied to the lowest total by the home side in a completed innings.

What has transpired in both the first test and the first innings of the second was a disturbing, rabbit-like paralysis: Indian players were mesmerised by the turning ball, tantalised into appalling shots, or, as was the case with captain Virat Kohli, an absence of shots.

“That’s a brain fade,” claimed selector Mark Waugh on Fox Sports. “I know the ball before bounced and him on the thigh-pad and he’s a bit worried about those two men on the leg side, but that’s bread-and-butter for an Indian batsman, a class player. You just tuck that of the hip.”

Magical play seemed to evaporate before a nightmare, taking away such figures as Ashwin, Pujara and Ishant Sharma. Ajinkya Rahane added to his already poor record on home pitches, wooed out of his crease to fall, yet again, to a slow bowler’s guile. (In the current home season, he has succumbed to slow bowler 11 times.)

Only KL Rahul, after accusations of treating his own wicked with indifference in the First Test, braved it for 90 runs, though he was dropped on 30 and 61. At the press conference, he proved both diplomatic and delusionary about the day’s events in Bangalore.

For the second test, the crown of glory in the M. Chinnasswamy Stadium was passed to Nathan Lyon, who bowled 22.2 of the 71.2 overs needed to vanquish the Indian first innings. Hovering with transfixing accuracy on a slightly fuller length on the off stump, he got sizzling bounce and turn, spiced with changes in pace and flight.

But any effect that would have been neutralised by traditional Indian skipping and footwork to the pitch of the delivery was accentuated in both Pune and Bangalore. While it would be uncharitable to take the shine off the performances by O’Keefe and Lyon, the greatest show was the mental atrophy visible on the pitch. Indian batsmen were being bewitched by an ancient art.

Lyon’s figures of 8-50 were the best by a visiting bowler in an innings against an Indian home side. (The last was South African Lance Klusener’s 8/64 at Eden Gardens in 1996.) Humbly, he reflected on the need for Australia to take the next 10 wickets before any celebration was in order.

The looming question is whether India has somehow regressed in an art form considered not merely sacred but innate. Charming the cricket ball, delicately turning visiting sides into terrified victims of cricket hypnosis, has been a specialty of the sub-continent for decades.

Spinners, however, are no longer sacred cows, to be admitted to the sacred halls of India’s cricketing nirvana. In 2015, the Indian Express was already noting a disturbing tendency in the country: spin was being neglected, reduced to a defensive form at the domestic level. “The batsmen at the domestic level don’t play spin well and there aren’t good enough spinners coming through. A vicious cycle is on.”

The point was already noted when England’s Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar ensured victory against the home side in 2012. What goes around makes its inexorable way back in coming around, and so Panesar was duly recruited earlier this year as a spin consultant by the Australian team ahead of their Indian tour. Adding teeth to the consultancy team was retired Indian spinner Sriram Sridharan.

When Sridharan’s appointment was made, the Sydney Morning Herald noted a sense of intrigue “given Sridharan’s left-arm orthodox is more suited to O’Keefe and Ashton Agar, rather than right-armer Nathan Lyon.” The current run of success by the Australian team speaks for itself, rather than any intrigue.

Indian cricket colossi have also uttered their concerns. Sunil Gavaskar, pedagogically, takes issue with the inability on the part of the modern cricketer to use the crease, being king of perception and awareness.

India A’s coach, Rahul Dravid, wondered about his team’s ability to cope with spin on being defeated by an Australian A outfit. The spin slide, it seems, is on, and India will have much to do if it wishes to avoid another home series defeat at the hands of foreign spinners.

* * *

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com


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