Focus on new spin duo

Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha...embarking on a most challenging assignment.-PTI

Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha operated with rhythm and bite in the three-Test home series against the West Indies — the duo prised out 42 batsmen between them — but the conditions in Australia will be different. Only one of them is expected to figure in the XI, at least for the first Test beginning in Melbourne on December 26. Over to S. Dinakar.

The Indian campaign in Australia is likely to be fuel-driven by weight of runs and incisive pace bowling. Much would also depend on the support provided by spin. Effective bowling in Test match cricket hinges on partnerships; when two bowlers create and maintain the pressure from either end forcing the batsman to succumb to the stress.

One could don the role of the aggressor and the other might choke the flow of runs. Or, depending on the situation, both could attack with the field settings complementing the bowling. It is eventually cutting-edge bowling that wins Test matches.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha operated with rhythm and bite in the three-Test home series against the West Indies — the duo prised out 42 batsmen between them — but the conditions in Australia will be different. Only one of them is expected to figure in the XI, at least for the first Test beginning in Melbourne on December 26.

Three-one (three pacemen and a lone spinner) has been India's preferred mode of attack outside the sub-continent in this era and the ploy has largely yielded results.

Ashwin — he scalped 22 batsmen at a laudable 22.90 in the three Tests against the Caribbeans — is the front-runner for the spinner's slot. Belief is a commodity he has in plenty. Off-spinners have traditionally excelled against the Australians down under and Ashwin will surely be eyeing the opportunity. The bounce in the Aussie pitches should suit the lanky Ashwin who delivers his stock ball with a high-arm action; when he brings his variety into play, his arm could get a tad lower though.

Erapalli Prasanna was the quintessential off-spinner and exploiting the Australian batsmen's weakness against his tribe to the hilt, he took 25 wickets on India's 1967-68 tour down under.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The glorious deeds of the gifted Erapalli Prasanna in Australia should be an inspiration to the 25-year-old cricketer from Chennai. In the 1967-68 series down under, Prasanna took out 25 Australians in four Tests at 27.44. He defeated the batsmen with flight and dip, consumed them with his turn.

But then, despite the hype, Ashwin's predecessor Harbhajan Singh's record in Australia is ordinary. Harbhajan has nine wickets in four Tests at 73.22.

The point that needs to be underlined here is that an off-spinner has to bowl with precision and guile to be successful against the Aussies. Not everyone comes up with a bucket of wickets there.

Graeme Swann, contemporaray cricket's finest off-spinner, oozed class when he claimed 15 wickets in the five-Test 2010-11 Ashes series in Australia. Even as England's potent pace attack caused most of the damage, Swann, aggressive in his approach, struck at crucial moments during his team's triumphant campaign.

Bishan Bedi gets Tony Mann's wicket, caught by Syed Kirmani, in the second Test at Perth on December 21, 1977. Overall, Bedi took 35 wickets in Australia, 31 of them on the 1977-78 tour.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The big question is — Why do quality off-spinners do well against Australia. The answer could lie in the fact that the Australian line-up invariably possessed a fair number of left-handers who were forced to play against the spin. The penchant of the Australian batsmen to essay the cut shot always provided an off-spinner a chance when bowling at a right-hander. While a slip came in handy for the top-edged attempted cut, a batsman could also be bowled off the inside edge. On the bouncy Australian tracks, an off-spinner who bowled with control and forced the batsman to cut from close to his body was in the hunt. And on the big grounds, there is the possibility of a batsman being picked up in the deep; when flight combines with loop, a trap can be laid.

How Ashwin performs could also depend on pace ace Zaheer's Khan's fitness and form. The footmarks created by the left-arm paceman could come in handy for Ashwin as the Test progresses. The five-day format is a many-layered contest. Ashwin's task could become easier considering this Aussie batting line-up does not compare favourably with the formidable one the host possessed during India's last two tours down under.

Despite losing captaincy, Ricky Ponting, seeking form, is still around. The Aussie batting — particularly the top order — appears incleasingly vulnerable. And the middle-order lacks the famous depth that Australia once boasted of.

Leg-spin legend Anil Kumble was the toast of the Indian team during the epic 2003-04 Test series in Australia that ended 1-1. The champion bowler took 24 wickets in only three Tests at 29.50 (he has a whopping 49 scalps in 10 Tests at 37.43 in all in Australia) to become the sword arm of the Indian bowling.

Kumble said to Sportstar, “That was a different batting line-up. The Aussies were very strong then. There were dangerous players both in the top and the middle order and you had someone as influential as Adam Gilchrist walking in at No. 7. The Australian batting is not the same now.”

That was a series where Kumble bowled with remarkable control and seamlessly converted the deep field settings into attacking ones. The Aussie batsmen were sucked into holing out down the straight-field — the long-off and long-on were a lot straighter — and the Indians celebrated. Kumble believes Ashwin could have a rewarding tour of Australia. “He appears to have a sound temperament. He has bowled long spells with good line and length and subtle changes. And he has the variations. Ashwin should relish the bounce in the Australian wickets.”

Anil Kumble exults as he traps Ricky Ponting leg before at the Sydney Cricket Ground on January 4, 2003. Kumble bagged 24 wickets in this series and 49 over three tours to Australia.-V. V. KRISHNAN

Indeed, Ashwin can send down different types of deliveries. How will the Aussies cope with his ‘carrom' ball? Both Ponting and skipper Michael Clarke employ their feet capably and the left-handed Michael Hussey can use the depth of the crease very well. Ashwin's duels with southpaw Hussey could be intriguing. And if he can harness the angles and the bounce against the right-handers, then Ashwin could even switch to a middle and leg line in the latter stages of the match and have the batsmen caught bat-pad or off the glove at forward or backward short-leg. His extra bounce could hurt those facing him.

Although he requires to smoothen his action — this aspect of his bowling is still a work-in-progress — Ojha is a much improved bowler. The most experienced of India's current breed of young spinners — he has 62 wickets in 14 Tests at 34.62 — he brings stability to the attack. A left-arm spinner is potentially a more effective bowler against the right-handers, but unless he has a worthy arm-ball — which he can angle across the southpaw — he can be taken to the cleaners by the left-handers.

Ojha can spin the ball away sharply from the right-hander but is still to develop an effective arm ball — he sends down the slider but not the real thing — with which he can win leg-before decisions against the right-handers or have the southpaw caught behind the stumps. On the positive side, this 25-year-old spinner from Hyderabad can keep one end tight. He can strike too by imparting revolutions on the ball and getting it to hang in the air. There have been occasions where he has showcased both, indrift and away spin, a telling combination for any left-arm spinner. There have also been times when he has struggled with his line — Ojha has strayed down middle and leg and been swept — but seems a more mature bowler now.

“Ojha has come on well. He can keep one end going and has learnt a few tricks,” said Kumble. Left-arm spinners too have left their imprint in Australia but the ones who hog the headlines have to be of an extremely high quality.

The immortal Bishan Singh Bedi bagged 35 wickets in only seven Tests at 27.51 down under. The frugal Dilip Doshi — he was a wily bowler — played his part with 11 strikes in the three-Test series in the early 80s. In a rousing performance, India drew 1-1. Ojha might receive a look-in if Ashwin's form dips, or the three-pronged pace pack does not deliver or in the unlikely scenario of the team-management, reading the surface to be unexpectedly spinner-friendly, selecting two spinners in the XI.

If Ashwin develops further as an all-rounder during the series — he has a reasonable technique and is composed at the crease — the think-tank could play a batsman less and pick five specialist bowlers including two spinners in the XI. This attacking option could be tried if India, trailing in the series, faces a must-win situation.

The tour of Australia could well define the career paths of Ashwin and Ojha. The challenge down under beckons.