Our spin blunder 'down under'

THE first Test of temperament is on. On the one ground in Australia where spinners have traditionally prospered as the Test match progresses.

RAJU BHARATAN

Anil Kumble could face the same predicament down under now as did fellow-legspinner B. S. Chandrasekhar in 1967-68. — Pics. V. GANESAN-

THE first Test of temperament is on. On the one ground in Australia where spinners have traditionally prospered as the Test match progresses. To this extent, one hopes both Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh are in the team for the first Test. For it was here at Brisbane that (with Erapalli Prasanna and Bishan Singh Bedi for the sword-arm of our spin) India, in 1967-68 itself, came so close to beating — in the Kangaroos' own bailiwick — Australia when she was at full strength. Such a miracle win all but materialised on the Tuesday afternoon of January 24, 1968. When Chandu Borde (63) so outstripped M. L. Jaisimha (finally 101) in stroke production that Bill Lawry (captaining Australia for the first time) all but panicked. Bill Lawry is on record as stating that Borde-Jaisimha's shots-filled 6th-wicket stand of 119 gave him the scare of his life. Bill Lawry noted that not until Chandu Borde fell (against the run of play) did he breathe free.

India was 310 for six as Chandu Borde (63) was caught (bat-pad) by Ian Redpath off Bob Cowper. The Junior Nawab of Pataudi's India, at that needle point, needed but 85 more runs to win. With ultimate centurion M. L. Jaisimha still there to lead the way. Yet India managed to mess up that chase the very way we lost wickets, in a heap, after being 159 for 4 while heading for 236 at Eden. If that was one-day cricket, the underlying principle — of keeping a cool head during a steeplechase — remains the same now as then. As Jaisimha was last man out for 101 (by way of a doughty follow-up to his 74 in that January 1968 Brisbane Test lost by 39 runs), we habitually settled for the crumbs.

Like marvelling at Jaisimha's having so miraculously delivered after having virtually helicopter-landed, Brisbane centrestage, as India's substitute for B. S. Chandrasekhar! Germane to the issue is the way Jaisimha spot-scored (74 & 101) in that Brisbane Test. Without being seen, in any way, to jet lag behind. So well noticed in Australia then was our near Brisbane Test win that the Junior Nawab of Pataudi, as skipper, made bold to assert (with the rubber lost 0-3): "We would like to be starting the series again right now. It's taken some time but only now are we playing together as a team."

That season of 1967-68 was a time when Australia had, for India, the style of withering contempt most Test-playing nations, today, display for Bangladesh. So much so that Australia then chose the team for the first two Tests vs India with her selectors not even bothering to converge at one point. Sitting back on long-distance phone, they picked the team to meet Tiger Pataudi's India in the first two Tests! Once Bobby Simpson (55 & 103, then 109) led Australia to two facile wins (by 146 runs in the Adelaide Test, then by an innings & four runs in the Melbourne Test), this marathon opener just opted out. For Bill Lawry to be blooded, halfway through, as Australia's captain! Indeed the Aussie selectors yet again named the team (this time for the last two Tests at Brisbane and Sydney) after consultations over long-distance phone!

B. S. Chandrasekhar in 1967-68. — Pics. V. GANESAN-

Nor did they bother to make any midstream change when Tiger Pataudi's India went on to all but overcome Australia in the third Test at Brisbane. They remained unfazed by the fact that India had surrendered that Brisbane Test by but 39 runs. They just left Bill Lawry free to ease himself into the job. True, India yet again fought back in that final (Sydney) Test. Still Bill Lawry's Australia won through (by 144 runs) to make it a clean 4-0 series sweep. Tiger Pataudi, by then, had made the startling discovery that the third spinner in his team, even if he was the one-and-only Chandra, had returned, in the first two Tests at Adelaide and Melbourne, consolidated figures of 62.5 overs, 4 maidens, 174 runs, 1 wicket! Chandra just could not fulfil ace commentator Alan McGilvray's specification that, in Australia, "you get the spin of the ball in the air rather than off the wicket."

This is where one fears for Anil Kumble now as a near Chandra replica. Though no one is swifter than Anil to learn from experience. Given his 1999-2000 Test bowling scoresheet in Australia, when he went for plenty, one logically expects Anil to adapt instantly. By contriving to be slower through the air. But what if Anil is not able to make the adjustment? Do we have a spinner in reserve? Perish the Sourav thought! Ever heard of an Indian team, with spin traditionally its strong suit, touring Australia with just two specialist spinners? If the Harbhajan-Anil spin duo falters, ours is the calibre of pace, even today, that the Aussies play in their backyard all the time. So that what Sourav and the selectors have indulged in is a bit of a cover-up. They have picked a third 'left' in Irfan Khan just to guard against a double contingency. Contingency No. 1 — Zaheer Khan's proclivity to be expansive and expensive rather than incisive and penetrative. Contingency No. 2 — the question mark hanging over Ashish Nehra's head, in terms of fitness, during his run-up from India to Australia.

Just to guard against this dual danger, Sourav has opted to go in with a fifth pacer in Irfran Khan. Ignoring Ian Chappell's just-repeated maxim that, in Australia, "I am not a great believer in four quickies because, if three cannot do the job, four are not going to do it." What prompted Sourav to undertake the long-drawn tour of Australia without a third specialist spinner in our ranks is something that passes comprehension. Murali Kartik was just picking up the virtues of "spin in the air" when he found himself jettisoned for the tour Down Under. After that second selectorial sitting on the fateful Eden Tuesday of November 18. Our D-Date with Destiny after Murali had yet again excelled with the ball. Just as Irfan Khan is in the team now in Australia to guard against one of our quickies breaking down or being found out, Murali Kartik deserved to go if only to insure against either Harbhajan Singh or Anil Kumble having to stand down through some eventuality.

Wait and watch the course of events in this Brisbane Test. Without doubt, in the first two hours — even for a couple of hours after the Brisbane Test opening session — the quicks could be having a field-day. But, by the very token by which conditions are pace-tough for batsmen in the first four hours of a Test match Down Under, the wicket in Australia rolls out to be Mark Taylor-made for shotplay in the sessions that follow. This is when spin comes buzzingly "into the air." This is the backdrop against which I say that we have gone with the wrong mix of pace and spin for the four Tests in Australia.

Our pace certainly is not Steve Waugh's main source of Test worry. Australia's true spot of bother is Harbhajan Singh. Do please also remember that Steve Waugh, in the face of Anil's lack of Test success last time out in Australia, still rated Kumble high as a spinner in `Waugh Zone'. In other words, Indian pace is combated easily enough in Australia. It is India's spin they have traditionally dreaded. Let me drive home the point by quoting two of Australia's celebrated cricket writers from the era in which Kerry Packer made such telling inroads into the game. At the end of the fourth (Sydney) Test — with the Adelaide decider to come, as that 1977-78 series (seeing Bishan Singh Bedi captain India) stood poised at 2-2 — wrote Jack Fingleton:

Haribhajan Singh has a chance to shine, but leaving Murali Kartik behind was a grave mistake. -- Pic. N. SRIDHARAN-

"The Indians enjoyed a clear-cut superiority, in spirit and technique, over the Australians. They had the better batsmen, with Gavaskar a bonny Test opener, Viswanath a superb stroke-maker, (Mohinder) Amarnath a splendid Test all-rounder, Kirmani, Vengsarkar and Ghavri all showing us batting of the highest order and never flinching from Thomson. While Bedi, Chandra and Prasanna took our minds back to Australia's best spinning days of Mailey, Grimmett, O'Reilly and Fleetwood-Smith."

If that, in hindsight, sounds a bit of Jack Fingleton overestimate (in the context of the downgraded dimension of batting opposition that India's spin trio then encountered in Packer-ravaged Australia), what Bill O'Reilly had to say of Bedi is revealing indeed. Noted Bill O'Reilly, evaluated by Don Bradman as the best spinner he ever faced: "Bishan gets the ball to bite and he manages that subtle amount of outswing float to mesmerise the batsmen. Bishan bowled with incredible control over direction and length and got sufficient turn to insist upon precisely correct footwork to ensure batting survival — just the thing in which most of the Australians, today, are found wanting! Last season," (1976-77) — added Bill O'Reilly — "I had the temerity to write that Grimmett and I would have crashed through the then Australian team for 100 runs. Bradman said he thought I was being a little optimistic in writing what I did, because no Australian spinner ever gets the ball, nowadays, until the score has passed 100!"

One sincerely hopes that Sourav, now, is not similarly hooked on pace in Australia. To the point of bringing on Anil and Harbhajan too late in the day. That would be just inviting our spin duo to be fluidly driven by Aussie batsmen already well set. We have seen, with Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn, that, if they are still fallible against spin, it is early in their innings. Later they manage to brazen it out. So let Sourav now assess what Bill O'Reilly and Jack Fingleton then wrote — as `bowling analysis' of enlightening value. "No wonder," observed Bill O'Reilly, "the Australians cannot play spin. The Australian selectors have forgotten what the term means! Jack Fingleton, for his pithy part, rubbed salt into the spin wounds of the bemused new crop of 1977-78 Aussie batsmen by reminding them of what The Don would have done to Bedi. "Bradman would have slaughtered this genial Indian," concluded Jack Fingleton. "The Don had feet of quicksilver and they would have taken him yards down the pitch to get to Bedi on the full."

Even allowing for a rare overestimate (of Indian spin) on the part of Bill O'Reilly and Jack Fingleton in the Packer-depressing January of 1978, our pacemen now could, at best, provide us with an initial breakthrough. It is only our spin that could be expected to complete the job. A critical job for which we are, haplessly, a spinner short in Australia.

Murali Kartik, to be sure, is no Bishan Singh Bedi. But how does such a natural left-armer get the chance to develop unless pitted against the best batting in the world in alien conditions? That quickies are ten-a-penny in Australia is the discovery Sourav & Co are now all set to make. While living to rue the fact that we left Murali behind at Eden when Adam is vulnerable against just this style of spin!