There are three certainties in India: noise, dust and spin. The England batsmen will experience all three simultaneously. Dust on the pitch, spin off it and noise – the excitement of fielders – around it. It takes a lot of getting used to, as illustrated by England’s woeful record in India – one Test win in 12 matches over 27 years.
The uncomfortable fact is that playing spin in India is like childbirth - it does not matter how much you study it or prepare for it, there is no substitute for the real thing. Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ohja, an off-spinner and slow left-armer respectively, have taken 60 wickets between them for India in the last four home Tests.
The names may not be familiar, but the tactics are. Stifle the scoring, supplement your accuracy with subtle variation and the batsmen - well, those modest performers from the West Indies and New Zealand, anyway - will get themselves out. Ojha is a steady, orthodox left-arm spinner. He has good flight and a useful change of pace, but he does not spin the ball much. He should not bowl England out. We did, of course, all say that about Pakistan’s Abdur Rehman earlier this year and that is precisely what he did. Twice.
England players should be more concerned about Ashwin. Having rightly displaced a fading Harbhajan Singh, he has taken an exceptional 40 wickets, at an average of 18, in his first five home Tests. It took Shane Warne twice as many home Tests to reach that figure Tall and thickset, Ashwin, from Chennai, was originally an opening batsman. He was an occasional off-spinner who experimented mainly in street cricket and has a new delivery known as the carrom ball, named after the game popular in South Asia involving flicking wooden discs across a board.
The carrom ball is squeezed or flicked out of the front of the hand using thumb and middle finger and behaves a bit like a leg break. Sri Lankan spinner Ajantha Mendis is credited with inventing this delivery in 2008, but Ashwin was working on it simultaneously and rose to prominence in the Indian Premier League with his home team the Chennai Super Kings.
By the 2010 season he was entrusted with bowling the key overs and was the most miserly bowler in the competition, enabling Chennai to win it for two years running, and was called up to the Indian one-day team. However, he had to wait until last year to displace Harbhajan from the Test side. Ashwin is not a big spinner of the ball, and nor is he aggressive and in your face like Harbhajan. Neither is he as mercurial as Saeed Ajmal. He takes wickets more by stealth. He operates from very close to the stumps and bowls very straight, with clever changes of pace.
His main weapon is extra bounce, from a high action, and his carrom ball, over which he has superb control, often trying to bowl batsmen looking to sweep behind their legs, mimicking Warne’s ‘pickpocket’ delivery.
It should be easier facing Ashwin than Ajmal because, despite having a ball that goes the other way, it is easier to spot. The wrist pivots in the opposite direction for the carrom ball (as opposed to the doosra which is out of the back of the hand) and though his bowling arm comes over in a bit of a blur, his variations are possible to pick.
- Sunday Standard