No one could have imagined that Pakistan would pull off a 3-0 clean sweep in the Test series against England that was played in the UAE earlier this year. Several factors contributed to this dramatic result, including bold leadership from captain Misbah-ul-Haq, motivational support from coach Mohsin Khan, conducive Asian conditions, and the fact that Pakistan’s batsmen came through at difficult moments. Yet the single most crucial reason behind this memorable upset was the excellence of Pakistan’s spin duo of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman. Together, they accounted for the lion’s share (72 per cent) of England wickets during the series, taken collectively at an extraordinary average of 15.60 and a punishing strike rate of 38.65.
Ajmal and Rehman’s landmark performance casts a long shadow that is inevitably spilling across the border into India. As the Indian team prepares to face England in a Test battle of its own, Indian fans would naturally expect a performance from their team that is no less emphatic than the manner of Pakistan’s victory. They would also be hungry for revenge against England, having suffered a 4-0 whitewash when India toured there last year.
While the Pakistan dimension creates an added pressure for the home side, it also provides a potential recipe for success. The essence of quality spin lies in length, flight, direction, turn and variation. Pakistan’s spinners have shown India the way by badly exposing England’s batting vulnerabilities against each of these factors.
Seasoned batsmen like Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott kept getting flummoxed on UAE pitches as they repeatedly misjudged the length and misread the turn. Even a fluent strokemaker like Ian Bell, whose wristy technique appears tailor-made for handling slow bowling, was comprehensively outdone, while a flashy and forceful batsman like Kevin Pietersen was reduced to being a walking LBW candidate. Right from the first innings of the first Test, when Ajmal ran through England with seven wickets, England’s batsmen became trapped in a defensive mindset from which they could not escape.
The first lesson for India’s spinners, therefore, is that quality spin is a potentially devastating weapon against England. A heavy responsibility rests over the shoulders of Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, the frontline spinners in India’s Test squad. Both have impressive Test records (Ojha with 75 wickets at 31.82 and Ashwin with 49 wickets at 26.63), and both have faced authentic opposition including the likes of Australia and Sri Lanka. They may also receive support from the seasoned campaigner Harbhajan Singh, who unexpectedly made the Test squad, although as an aging veteran his inclusion in the playing XI is less certain.
The straightforward brief for Ashwin and Ojha is to come at England hard and strong, and to do so right from the outset. They can achieve this through accuracy and sharp turn, and by slipping in clever variations. It will be important for them to stamp their authority on England’s batsmen virtually from their opening overs, as that will bring an invaluable psychological edge. Although India’s spinners as well as England’s batsmen are both under strain in this series, the burden hangs heavier on Ashwin and Ojha because of weighty expectations from a massive fan base. Quick and early success in their initial spells will go a long way towards reversing the pressure. It will immediately suffocate England, who are already mortified of reliving their Pakistan nightmare.
While India’s spinners may not be in the same class as Saeed Ajmal, they are nevertheless quite formidable. Ashwin is an intelligent, unorthodox off-spinner with a decent bag of tricks. He doesn’t possess Ajmal’s doosra, but he can bowl a quirky finger-flicked leg-break that also turns the other way like a doosra does. Ajmal’s mastery of the doosra comes from a naturally hyper-extensible wrist, which not only imparts effective rotation to the delivery but also allows him to hide it well, making it very difficult for the batsman to spot it before pitching. Ashwin cannot hide his variation in the same way; he will need to be very clever and judicious with his finger-flicker because over-exposure will reduce its bite.
Ojha’s left-arm orthodox spin is a mirror image to Ashwin’s stock delivery, and his focused attitude of quietly pegging away at an accurate and economical line complements Ashwin’s flamboyance very well. Ojha’s particular strength lies in his willingness to give the ball air, which can prove a potent weapon in making England’s batsmen misjudge the length. He would also be expected to shrewdly use his arm ball, which could be lethal against England.
An especially strong factor in India’s favour is that, as Ajmal and Rehman demonstrated in UAE, Ashwin and Ojha have displayed an ominous chemistry and a powerful partnership in the few Tests they have played together. Granted that those Tests came against lower-ranked sides (New Zealand and West Indies), but this spinning pair have certainly enjoyed outstanding mutual success. By bowling long, accurate spells in tandem, Ashwin and Ojha will create opportunities by softening prey for each other. Their combination looms over England as a major and menacing threat.
In this whole scenario, the elephant in the room is the absence of DRS. The role of decision-review technology received a great deal of attention during Pakistan’s series against England in the UAE, and for good reason, because it was instrumental in reversing a number of LBW decisions that were initially deemed not out. This played havoc with the mindset of England’s batsmen, and it destroyed their footwork as the series progressed. India, somewhat controversially, have steered clear of using DRS in any of its international matches. This stubborn stance might prove a hindrance as India’s spinners try and spin webs around England.
There is a good possibility, though, that the disadvantage of a missing decision-review system could be offset to a large extent by the strength of India’s batting. Indian batsmen like Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, and of course Sachin Tendulkar, are deeply envied in Pakistan, as indeed in the rest of the cricket world. They are particularly brilliant players of spin, which gives India the luxury of preparing brazenly turning pitches for all the games while keeping faith that their batsmen will still make enough runs for India’s spinners to bowl at. When you consider India’s batting riches along with the potential abilities of Ashwin and Ojha — and add in a bit of luck for winning the toss — it is really India who are holding all the cards heading into this captivating contest.
Saad Shafqat is a cricket writer based in Karachi. He con-tributes regularly to Cricinfo and Dawn