“Shane Warne used to always look at a seaming wicket and say, ‘If it seams, it is sure to spin’. That was always Warney’s approach to pace-friendly pitches.” These were pace great Glenn McGrath’s words, spoken from India’s broadcast studio during the Adelaide Test, on long-time team-mate and the greatest leg-spinner the world has seen. There is a reason why Warne took 319 of his 708 wickets at home in Australia, where the pitches are predominantly suited for McGrath’s, and not Warne’s, tribe.
Still, for large swathes of his long career, Warne excelled in his role as the lone spinner amid a pack of pacers while playing in their backyard. Australia was fortunate to find in Nathan Lyon a man who could carry forward Warne’s legacy; the off-spinner too has found immense success in difficult home conditions (192 wickets out of 391) while being the only frontline spinner in the attack for nearly a decade.
Attacking alone, however, hasn’t been the trend when great spinners (or even great spin-bowling nations) from outside of Australia have drawn blood on tours Down Under. Perhaps because it takes one with deep local knowledge—of the conditions and their craft in those conditions—to see spin when all others see seam, India’s Test spinners have largely been successful in Australia not while operating alone, but while bowling in tandem.
A TRIPLE TREAT
The first time India won a Test in Australia, Melbourne 1977, Bishan Singh Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar shared 18 of the 20 wickets while a third spinner in Erapalli Prasanna went wicketless (he had the lion’s share of the three in the following Test in Sydney, which India won by an innings with the spinners contributing 16 wickets).
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If you’re putting that down to the fact that Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Prasanna were three of the four members of India’s great spin quartet, then don’t. In 1985-86, when India didn’t lose a Test series in Australia for the last time in that century, Shivlal Yadav, current Indian coach Ravi Shastri and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan tasted great success together—17 wickets in the drawn Boxing Day Test of 1985, followed immediately by 14 wickets in the drawn New Year’s Test in Sydney.
This isn’t to say that India don’t win Tests in Australia without the help of spin, although there is a direct link between them given that India’s spinners didn’t tally over 10 wickets in a match even once between 1986 and the tour of 2003, and India didn’t win a single game in that phase. When Anil Kumble scalped 12 wickets in the Sydney Test of 2004, it was primarily his bowling effort that saw India draw its first series in Australia in a long, long time. Kumble still had a frontline spinner in Murali Kartik (who took one wicket, that of opener Justin Langer, the current coach) for an ally, something Ravichandran Ashwin has never had on his four tours of Australia since 2011.
Which then lends easy insight into why the last time Indian spinners accounted for more than 10 wickets in a Test in Australia was during a tour prior to Ashwin first playing here; in 2007-08, when Kumble and Harbhajan Singh twice combined with 10 and 12 wickets, in Melbourne and Sydney respectively.
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Ashwin has had to make do with bowling alongside part-timers Suresh Raina, Virender Sehwag, Rohit Sharma, Hanuma Vihari and even Murali Vijay. Not even Karn Sharma or Kuldeep Yadav, who both played one Test each there in 2014 and 2019, both in Ashwin’s place. And not even alongside his most formidable ally in home conditions, Ravindra Jadeja, who played his only two Tests in Australia on the previous tour in Melbourne and Sydney, with Ashwin out injured.
SPIN FOR PACE
We now know that two or more Indian spinners have always been more effective than one in Australia. Could not a strong case be made to play Ashwin and Jadeja together, especially in Mohammed Shami’s absence?
Both the culture and the central composition of India’s bowling line-ups on overseas tours have seen a tectonic shift under Virat Kohli’s stewardship. And the change has been for the better. Out of nowhere India became a fast bowling nation, and the rise of Jasprit Bumrah, Ishant Sharma, Shami and Umesh Yadav saw India win their first series in Australia in 2018-19.
India’s fast bowlers have scalped more combined wickets than any other pace attack in the world in the last five years, and they weren’t too bad at home either. In fact, in the last Test played in India in November 2019—incidentally a pink-ball game—the pacers took all the 19 wickets that fell at the Eden Gardens. For the first time a spinner didn’t take a wicket in an Indian victory at home.
Under such circumstances, even the thought of playing two frontline spinners at the cost of a fast bowler (especially in fast bowling conditions) would’ve been considered laughable. But what about now, on a tour that had Ishant sidelined for all four Tests and Shami flying back home after just one?
It is an itchy subject, something stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane could well have to deal with in Kohli’s three-match absence.
TWO IS COMPANY
At home, there has never been a problem; Ashwin has featured in each of Jadeja’s 33 Tests, a period in which they have scalped 348 wickets between them (remarkably similar to the 356 wickets Kumble and Harbhajan took in each other’s company over 34 Tests). That’s an average of 10.5 wickets in tandem, or more than one innings distributed between them, every time they have gone shoulder-to-shoulder in a Test in India.
What about overseas Tests? Consider this very telling statistic—Ashwin and Jadeja have played only two Tests together away from the subcontinent, and only one of them under Kohli. That was in St. Lucia in 2016, the other, more consequential, match coming under MS Dhoni at Manchester in 2014.
Plenty of water has flowed under the bridge between Manchester and Melbourne, where Rahane may yet be forced to field Ashwin and Jadeja together. History, especially that of Indian spinners in Tests in Australia, reckons that were it to happen, it could well be a blessing in disguise.