While credit for the reversal of India’s fortunes overseas for a decade often went to the famed batting line up of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly, a part of it must also be reserved for the bowlers, for at the base of it, Test Cricket still is a contest between the teams who have the arsenal to take 20 opposition wickets. India’s best wins away came as a result of inspired spells by its pacers – Zaheer Khan (Nottingham), Agarkar (Adelaide), Sreesanth (Jo’burg) and Ishant (Perth) blew away the opposition.
But at the same time backing them up were the two men – Kumble and Harbhajan, who India knew could be relied on to exploit last day conditions. Once Kumble retired in 2010, Harbhajan took on the mantle of India’s lead spinner, and did reasonably well in South Africa and West Indies. And then came England. Since Lords’ 2011, not only did India’s overseas form fell away, but also India lost an important cog in the wheel – the spinner who can take wickets abroad.
Although at home the Ojha-Ashwin pair first, and then the Ashwin-Jadeja combine have got wickets by the bagful, nothing has worked for India in the spin department outside the subcontinent post Lord’s. The last best memory of Amit Mishra in Tests is with bat instead of ball – of a valiant 84 in a 144 run partnership with Tendulkar in 2012.
Ojha, who was never given a chance outside the subcontinent, has now been suspended by the ICC. Ashwin’s first four wicket haul came four years after his first playing a test away from home. Ravindra Jadeja, in conditions not suiting spin, doesn’t look half as threatening as he does when he gets turning tracks. The problem, thus, is grave, and the results corroborate it.
Ravichandran Ashwin has been India’s premier spinner in the last 4 years and looked to be justifying Captain Dhoni’s faith in him as he became the fastest to 100 wickets for India. In fact with a batting average of 35, his value in the team increases more. But that’s till India leaves its shores.
Although 9 tests aren’t enough to pass judgments on a fledgling career, but the contrast in Ashwin’s record in 9 tests away and 15 tests home is too huge to ignore. His average of 24 at home climbs up to 56 when India plays away. He loses his incisiveness, experiments too much or bowls containing lines, and rarely beats the bats. His batting begins to look more solid than the art he is more adept at. At a time when India is searching for a spearhead in the bowling department after Zaheer and Harbhajan, Ashwin is disappointing with every next performance on foreign soil.
For once, India’s spinning reserves don’t inspire much confidence. With an aim to develop pacers and test batsmen against quality bowling, the pitches in the domestic circuit are no more as they were a decade ago. Harbhajan Singh, who at 34 doesn’t want to believe his India days are over, recently rang the bell against the dangers of making seamer-friendly wickets at the domestic level.
India’s top 3 spinners in the domestic circuit – Harbhajan, Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla – get to bowl in conditions that do not have anything for spinners. Chawla, playing for Uttar Pradesh, rued the same fact last season too when his batting performances attracted more attention than his bowling figures. Amit Mishra who has hardly looked to have Captain Dhoni’s confidence in him ever in his career, has to make do with the greentop of Lahli, playing for Haryana. Hopefully, new skipper shows faith in the attacking leg spinner.
Another reason for the empty cupboards lies in the fact that since Mishra in 2008, no Indian spinner has earned his Test place through strong First Class performances. It’s been IPL all the way for the selectors when it comes to picking spinners for tests. Be it Ojha, Ashwin or Jadeja, they all made their way to the test team through their IPL numbers. Not the ideal criteria for test selection, and while their numbers at home may gloss over this faulty process, their performances away uncovers the rot.
Moreover, such selection process sends strong but wrong message to the young spinners waiting in the wings. The IPL is where they want to perform and grab the selectors’ attention. 4-over spells, no matter against what quality of batsmen, is not the ideal preparation for the highest levels of the game. With the focus on containing runs in T20 cricket, they’re developing their games in diametrically opposite direction to what is required to deliver the goods in Test cricket. And now it is showing, nowhere better than in Ashwin’s struggles.
Although the team hardly plays away from home in next one year, it’s a dream to become something more than lambs to slaughter outside subcontinent won’t materialize until this part of the puzzle is solved. With the likes of Kohli, Rahane and Vijay coming good consistently, batting is more or less taken care of.
But as said before 20 wickets is what is needed to win Tests. And it’s on that count, with the handicap of a non performing spinner, India will continue to fail. With the focus currently on World Cup under Dhoni’s leadership, the onus now would lie on Captain Kohli to tackle this question before the Test season commences. Sadly for him, there aren’t many options beyond the obvious ones. His best hope is a matured Ashwin, or an improved Chawla or Mishra, or else, a miracle.