If India had any element of fantasy left — giving themselves a possible 125 to defend — England crushed it in less than an hour. Harbhajan Singh blasted the day’s first ball over mid-off before England spinners, who gobbled up 19 out of the 20 Indian wickets, imposed themselves all over again.
Somehow, India’s Ahmedabad win now seems a distant dot in the past. Getting beaten at your own game calls for soul-searching, but MS Dhoni insists that his faith in turners remains absolute.
“What’s the point in playing on flat pitches, trying to win the toss and bat for three or four days? You want to face challenges in Test cricket and these are the sort of tracks that push you towards that. Definitely, all the wickets should be like this,” the skipper said after England inflicted a 10-wicket defeat on his side to draw level in the four-match series.
But perhaps it’s time to revisit this theory. Spin duos classier than Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar have travelled these shores in the past. One recalls Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed in the 1999 series. But back then, India had an equally apt counter in Anil Kumble.
It is thought R Ashwin had forgotten his length right from the second innings of the Ahmedabad Test — one significant factor that allowed the England batsmen to hold sway. But can it be denied that Panesar and Swann have generally shown superior skills?
“If you compare all the bowlers, they also got wickets, but they never looked like bothering the batsmen as much as Monty did,” Dhoni admitted.
Let’s turn the clock to two Tests in Mumbai 2004 and Kanpur 2008 against Australia and South Africa. Both were low-scoring encounters on tuners that were necessitated by India’s desperate bid to win a Test. India’s frontline spinners in the 2004 Test were Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Piyush Chawla as opposed to Australia’s Nathan Hauritz. If ever names told a story, this was it. Paul Harris, South Africa’s only spinner in Kanpur, could barely extract three wickets on a treacherous surface where Virender Sehwag seemed unplayable.
It is also supposed that India had a far more dependable batting card there. Sourav Ganguly’s 87 at Green Park may not be spoken in the same league as VVS Laxman’s 69 at Wankhede but the two innings reinforce what India have dearly missed against Cook & Co: authoritativeness from their top-order bats (barring Cheteshwar Pujara, of course).
When you have a line-up comprising an inconsistent opening pair, a fading batting giant and a No 6 bat who has never felt secure against quality spin, hopes of doing an encore of Cook-Pietersen is fanciful.
At 119 for five in the first innings and 117 for seven in the second, India were always on the backfoot here. If not for Pujara’s odyssey, the contest may have ended even earlier.
India’s time-honoured template at home is based on getting the runs on batting beds. Win the toss, score big, bat once, and give the spinners a cover of 550-600 runs. And that’s how they started their journey to the Test summit. Lest forgotten, some of India’s celebrated home Test wins between 2008 and 2010 weren’t three-day affairs that Dhoni has been advocating. They all went down to the fifth day as India were willing to be patient and imaginative.