Price is a revelation

SINCE Tiger Pataudi first came up with the magic formula (quality bowlers backed by sharp close catching on dusty wickets) about 40 years ago, spin remains our traditional strength and this was amply demonstrated in the recent Test series when Kumble/Harbhajan rolled the opposition over.

Playing spin bowling is supposed to be another traditional Indian strength, but recent events have shaken this belief, now one is not sure this is quite correct. Only a few months back Nasser Hussain came here with a side that contained Giles, a relatively unknown spinner. Everyone ignored him but Giles made a huge impression with his accuracy and control. Bowled a tremendous line, even if it was a mile outside leg, kept Tendulkar quiet, frustrated the great man so much he tried a crude heave only to be stumped for the first time in 12 years.

Giles offended the purist, none more than the SMG, but the point is he stuck to a plan, wasn't intimidated by the big guns in the Indian middle order and came out with more than just credit in this confrontation. Normally, an inexperienced spinner is murdered by experienced Indian batsman but in this case the guy got wickets, he controlled the game, and had the ball rolled for him a little more would have won the match for his team. Contrary to predictions of widespread slaughter, Indian players failed to get on top - there was no massacre, no carnage.

A similar story unfolded against Zimbabwe. Their frontline spinner was Price, whose name did not ring a bell, and if it did the sound was so faint nobody really took notice. But, again, look at the result: Price kept an excellent line, bowled practically all day, extracted turn and bounce, tested all batsmen and - greatest victory of all - got Tendulkar all three times in the series. Like the psephologists in the assembly elections, most misread the situation; Price was invaluable.

The success of Giles/Price indicates a few things, apart from the obvious one about their talent. It shows that when the wickets are doing a bit the batsmen will not do too much, regardless of who they are. If Sachin can be pressured by aggressive field placings or hassled by innovative (or negative) tactics, it shows that nothing can be taken for granted, cricket remains a cruel one ball game for batsmen. Rahul Dravid is as good a player as any of spin bowling but if the ball jumps on him from the rough, as it did in Delhi, then he can do little.

This leads us to the interesting thought about what would happen if Indian players were to play Indian spinners on Indian wickets. Which is the same thing as speculating on the batting form of Australian batsmen if they faced McGrath/Warne/Brett Lee with balls registering 150 on the speed gun. When the spinners call the shots instead of the batsmen on a crumbling track a couple of things are likely - nobody would get scores of 500 for four and matches may well end much before day 5. Also, the captain won't request/direct groundstaff to remove grass from the track the day before the match.

Watching the Delhi match, selector Shivlal expressed concern about off-spinners bowling too flat. "All this," he said, "is due to one-day cricket because bowlers are scared of getting hit. Earlier batsmen would just about clear the rope, now they clear the stadium. Off-spinners can't flight, those days are gone, and many have bad actions because if you want to turn the ball while bowling quick then the arm tends to bend."

To survive this blitzkrieg crafty spinners have thought of new tricks and none is more puzzling than a leg break from an off-spinner. Murali is, of course, a master but others too have successfully inducted this missile into their arsenal. Says Dravid, someone respected hugely for tackling spin: "You have to be very alert to pick this up. I look at the hand and see how the ball comes out in the bowling action. Still, many times one gets it wrong. Then you play it as it pitches."

Sehwag, a fearless striker, believes in calculated aggression, his methods are direct and uncomplicated. The ball, he reasons, is there to be hit even if the feet are not quite there, for whatever happens, you simply hit through the line. Sehwag has wonderful timing and there is a lot of method in his batting, most would be surprised to learn he is known to quickly look at the computer during a tea break. He sits in front of the monitor with pads on to watch slow motion replays!

Another Indian ace, Laxman, is trying to emerge out of what should be a temporary slump. His patchy form and inability to convert good starts into sizeable scores is a major worry. Currently he is a Formula One driver who speeds off the grid but then suddenly takes a wrong turn. "I don't know what is wrong," he said, sounding a trifle perplexed. "It is not a loss of concentration as people think, I am trying very hard. It could be just wrong shot selection. Perhaps I am just playing too many shots."

Maybe the problem is that Laxman is Bradman at Ranji (having scored 20 hundreds in about 40 games) but international cricket so intensely competitive it won't allow anybody to become another Bradman - bowlers sort you out, work on your weaknesses and get you sooner or later. Test runs are never easy, unless one is lucky to play Bangladesh.

Laxman understands this harsh reality better than anyone else, he is a thoughtful cricketer with a wonderful work ethic. He works hard, leads a disciplined life and is currently reading Steve Waugh's diary on the Ashes tour and the Indian tour. It can't be long before he pushes the right button and produces the big Test scores many think him capable of.