Pringle: Seam bowling will still be key in India
Derek Pringle argues that it’s been visiting pacemen, not spinners, who have rattled the Indians on home soil
England’s close-run victory in Chittagong has sparked much chatter about the use of more or different spinners for the challenges to come, in Dhaka and then India.Yet this would fly in the face of history which reveals that it is seamers and swingers that tend to sway Test matches in Asia, at least for visiting teams.
For England, swingers tend to be more potent than pace or seam bowlers, for whom the docile pitches of the Sub-continent bring as much heartache as back ache.
Moving the ball sideways through the air in Asia used to be the province of sorcerers and magicians, at least until Pakistan unleashed reverseswing on an unsuspecting world 25 years ago. Now, most Test pace bowlers worth their salt can get it off the straight with a talented few, like Ben Stokes and James Anderson, exploiting its potential for wickettaking however benign the pitch.
Stokes was outstanding with bat, ball and attitude in Chittagong, where England came within a modest partnership of losing to Bangladesh for the first time in Tests. His performance recalled, in part, the one Ian Botham managed against India in Mumbai 26 years previously, though that bordered on the fantastical as “His Beefiness” took 13 wickets, made 114, and never left the hotel bar before 2am.
In Chittagong, Stokes took six of the eight wickets that fell to seam with Stuart Broad taking the other two during two superhuman spells in Bangladesh’s second innings. Broad also managed to get the ball to reverse-swing but his trajectory, which is steeper than Stokes’s, is less likely to produce the lbws that are the reverseswinger’s go-to dismissal. But Broad limped home wicketless last time England toured India, something he will be determined to put right now.
Bowling for lbws is a lot more productive for teams visiting Asia since the introduction of neutral umpires in 1993 and, more latterly, the Decision Review System. India’s acceptance of DRS for the forthcoming series against Alastair Cook’s side, after being adamant non-adopters, should at least please England’s bowlers if not their batsmen.
For that reason, instead of worrying about a fourth or even a third spinner, England should move medical mountains to get Anderson fit from his shoulder problem. His record in India, 22 wickets at 29.8 from seven Tests is excellent. In fact, in two of the three Test wins England have managed in India over the past 20 years, Anderson has taken six wickets in each with his mix of conventional and reverse swing, something England will miss if he is to sit out the first three Tests as some are claiming.
Forty years earlier, John Lever forced the issue in India with conventional swing only, reverse having been the sole property of Sarfraz Nawaz at that point. Lever took 10 wickets on debut in Delhi and 37 in all (at 19.75) from his 10 Tests in India, his left-arm swing proving more potent in the conditions than Malcolm Marshall’s pace, which managed 36 wickets from nine Tests at an average of 24.6.
Marshall saw India as a supreme challenge after a sobering debut series there in 1978, when he managed just three wickets in his first three Tests. Motivated by incidences of what he saw as unacceptable gamesmanship on that debut tour, he took 33 when he returned five years later, a far better bowler with a point to prove.
If that is powerful evidence for the importance of a skilled pace bowler to winning in India, then other teams like South Africa have shown the value of pace as dispensed by the pack. Since their return to international cricket in 1993, South Africa have won five Test matches in India, more than any other country over the same period. Top man: Ben Stokes showed the value of fine seam bowling on the sub-continent
That is an impressive record made all the more remarkable that it has been achieved, virtually, without spin playing a significant role.
Their first victory at Kolkata in 1996 saw 14 wickets fall to the pace attack of Allan Donald, Brian McMillan, Lance Klusener and Hansie Cronje. Then in 2000, their two wins in Mumbai and Bangalore saw 18 and 11 wickets fall to the pace attack respectively, albeit one now containing Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis.
Their last two victories, in 2008 and 2010, saw Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Makhaya Ntini and Kallis take 19 and 16 wickets respectively, since when South Africa have lost four of their last five Tests in India by large margins.
Looking at the scorecards from the three most recent defeats, in 2015, it is clear that a major reason for failure was the inability of South Africa’s batsmen to cope with India’s spinners, rather than India’s batsmen dominating South Africa’s bowlers. Indeed, India only exceeded 270 once during the series, suggesting that South Africa’s bowlers, seam to the fore, were as incisive as ever.
Their experience should be a lesson to England to focus on what is important over the next seven weeks, which is their batsmen against India’s spinners, who took 53 of the 60 wickets to fall during South Africa’s three defeats.
Playing four spinners, as Cook has mooted, simply because you don’t know which ones might turn up trumps on the day, is how Jose Mourinho might approach England’s dilemma. He would then blame the umpires when they did not run through an Indian side ruthless against mediocre spin.
Watching it all unfold in Chittagong, it was obvious Cook did not know which spinner he could trust most as the pressure rose. But even if he had done, he was right to stick with his pace bowlers to eke out victory against Bangladesh in Chittagong on the fifth morning.
If history is to be heeded, the spinners England need for India (two maximum with Joe Root to fill in) are those that will give least away while the quick men, at least three of them, recover between spells.
To that end, especially if the pitches are prepared to turn, flat, accurate finger spin will be more practical than romantic wrist-spin to keep India in check.
Oh, and get Anderson fit and firing again. Asap.
Class act: Malcolm Marshall had a fine record in India after a sobering debut series in 1978