Cricket Xtra: Sri Lanka spinners pose serious threat to India

Ajit Vijaykumar 12:31 03/08/2015
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India captain Virat Kohli and his team have struggled against spin bowling.

During the golden age of Indian batting, the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly hardly ever worried about an opposition spinner, barring one series against Sri Lankan Ajantha Mendis.

It was all too easy for the stalwarts as finger and wrist spinners were either blocked or blasted. That an all-time great like Shane Warne has a poor record against India is not a coincidence.

Even in the bowling department, they had a legend in the form of leg-spinner Anil Kumble and the effervescent Harbhajan Singh who carried the burden of bamboozling the batsmen with guile and turn for more than a decade. Spin was never seen as a problem for India. 

But it is one now. India are struggling against spinners and their slow bowlers are being dealt with fairly easily. In their previous two Test series, not taking into account the one off match against Bangladesh, India had a torrid time against off-spinners. India lost the Border-Gavaskar series at the start of the year 2-0 and Nathan Lyon was the most successful bowler on either side, taking 23 wickets in four Tests. India Ravichandran Ashwin took 12 from three games at an average close to 50. 

Before that, in the four-Test England series, Moeen Ali was the surprise pack as his 19 wickets from five Tests helped the hosts cap a remarkable 3-1 series win. The best Indian spinner on show was left-armer Ravindra Jadeja with nine wickets from four Tests, at an average of more than 45.

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Those were not ‘one-offs’. Half-decent spinners are tying India down and they are not unearthing any fresh talent which can pay back in kind. The recently concluded two unofficial ‘Test’ series between India and Australia in Chennai followed the sad pattern. 

The Aussies won the series 1-0 following a comprehensive 10-wicket win in the second game. In the first ‘Test’, left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe picked up six wickets. In reply, India’s Pragyan Ojha took five as the match eventually finished in a draw. In the second match, O’Keefe picked up six wickets in the game to set up the big win. Thereafter, for the Indians, it was all-rounder Baba Aparajith who picked up five wickets but the India ‘A’ team still ended up on the losing side.

The main batsmen in that series were Cheteshwar Pujara, Karun Nair, Abhinav Mukund, Naman Ojha and Virat Kohli (for one match). These are some of India’s best batsmen and for them to fail to score big hundreds at home against a visiting team is cause for concern.

There is another problem. For India, the best spinning options right now are Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Amit Mishra. The latter two have been handed a spot in the Test series against Sri Lanka that starts in 10 days and that is an uninspiring development.

 Ravichandran Ashwin has taken 20 wickets in his last six Tests.

Ojha is back with a remodelled action after it was reported and it is a fact no spinner has ever succeeded after being forced to change his action. Harbhajan and Mishra are well over 30 and they have been on the fringes for a very long time. Even if they have a few miles left in them, it might very well run out soon. 

So what we have now is a Test team that has struggled badly in the last two series against off-spinners, doesn’t have a world-class spinner in its ranks, is calling up ‘has beens’ and whose ‘future’ batsmen are failing to overpower an Australian left-arm spinner at home.

As India prepare for the Sri Lanka tour, they have some serious issues to sort out. The Lankans should, in all likelihood, lay out a spin trap for India as Kohli’s boys are not as experienced as the Pakistan team that walloped them in the Test, ODI and T20 series. The Pakistanis have outstanding players of spin like Misbah ul Haq, Younis Khan and Azhar Ali. India do not.

How India tackle slow bowlers in Sri Lanka, therefore, will be of utmost importance. Kohli has made it clear he is a fan of fielding a five-man bowling attack which means the batting line-up might be slightly lean. Also, India’s seam bowlers are in better form than their spinners so don’t expect to see three Indian spinners in a Test. In such a situation, the Sri Lankans will fancy their chances of putting Indian in a spin. 

After the Sri Lanka series, India’s next big assignment is the 72-day long home series against South Africa which includes three T20s, five ODIs and four Tests. The Proteas have some attacking options in newcomer Simon Harmer and the ever improving JP Duminy, both off-spinners. If India don’t bolster their record against tweakers soon, even the relative ‘lightweight’ Protea spinners might become a handful.

As far as India’s spinners are concerned, only Ashwin has delivered consistently this season after going back to basics and sticking to being a classical off-spinner. The rest of the field looks very weak. Given the circumstances, how the team goes about its business in Sri Lanka will decide if spin, once the team’s main weapon, becomes India’s Achilles heel.

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