One of the greatest non-hundreds in Test history came at the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bengaluru, back in March 1987. On an absolute minefield where the challenge was to control rather than extract turn, Sunil Gavaskar produced an innings for the ages against the rampant Pakistani spin twins, Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed.
India had frittered away a small but significant lead of 29 by allowing the cross-border rivals to stack up 249 in their second innings; the spin trio of Maninder Singh, Ravi Shastri and Shivlal Yadav guilty of perhaps trying too hard. That translated into a huge fourth-innings target of 221 on an increasingly deteriorating surface.
For five-and-a-half hours, Gavaskar carried Indian hopes, like he had for 16 years since his debut in 1971. For 264 deliveries, he negated Qasim and Tauseef’s threat with Zen-like concentration, surety of feet, security in defence, decisiveness in thought-process. When he was eventually ruled out for 96, caught close-in even though neither bat nor glove had made contact with the ball, it signalled the end of the resistance. Pakistan trooped out winners by 16 runs in the final — the decisive Test of the five-match series.
Few knew at the time that it was to be the great opener’s final hurrah in Test cricket, four months short of his 38th birthday, as he beautifully countered vicious turn and spitting bounce. The abiding memory of that epic is him going forward to a length ball from off-spinner Tauseef, which took off without warning. Unfazed by the unexpected development, Gavaskar swayed out of line and actually watched the ball sail over his head and all the way into wicketkeeper Saleem Yousuf’s gloves. It was magical, ethereal.
Gavaskar, GR Viswanath and Dilip Vengsarkar, and the likes of Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Gautam Gambhir after them, set the gold standard for Indian batsmanship against spin. They, and their illustrious predecessors who couldn’t grace television screens, unequivocally established India’s status as pre-eminent destroyers of high-class spin bowling. Today, they must blanch inwardly at the timidity of a majority of India’s best Test batsmen against the turning ball on slightly helpful surfaces, even against modest spinners.
Especially in the last half-dozen years, India’s diffidence against half-decent spin on moderately responsive tracks has been evident far too often for comfort. All of a sudden, the once-lampooned commanding wins on home turf in the early 1990s under Azhar have assumed an entirely different dimension. On pitches dismissed as ‘dust bowls’, India stacked up runs by the bushel with Azhar, Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli tearing spinners to shreds. Anil Kumble, especially, and Venkatapathi Raju, top-class practitioners of spin bowling, cashed in on generous assistance, but there was no way out for spinners from the rival team, who left Indian shores with their confidence in tatters because they had been schooled in conditions that suited their craft to a ‘T’.
Contrast that with what’s on offer now. India have made it a habit of introducing middling — any other term would sound disrespectful — spinners from the opposition ranks to the world. Simon Harmer hogged the limelight on South Africa’s visit in 2015-16, Steve O’Keefe assumed Bishan Bedi-esque hue in 2017 when he took 12 for 70 to bowl Australia to a 333-run romp in Pune in 2017, and now Jack Leach has been allowed to grow fangs by a generation of batsmen that has forgotten what it takes to counter the turning ball.
It’s no secret that there is a paucity of virtuoso spinners across India. The profusion of white-ball play, and the need for economy more than penetration, has spawned a pool which darts the ball in rather than brings loop and flight and drift and dip into play. As a direct consequence, a vast percentage of the batsmen breaking into the Test team aren’t necessarily best equipped to tackle the ball deviating sharply. Those already in the Test scheme of things have access to the finest — R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja for nearly a decade now — but they only face them on good surfaces in nets, not the occasional turner that India feel needlessly compelled to put out when they have the resources to deliver on perfectly good decks.
Because the demands of 50-over and T20 batting centre around power, the delicateness and soft hands required to dead-drop the spitting cobra is fast going out of circulation. Because they aren’t confident of their footwork, most of them tend to play from the crease. The glorious exceptions are Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli. But to see someone like Ajinkya Rahane, especially, freeze when the ball starts turning square doesn’t edify India’s long-held reputation as the best against spin.
One of the reasons for the steady dip in standards when confronted with the turning ball is burgeoning workloads, which prevent established Test personnel from playing domestic cricket regularly. Despite the insistence on a minimum mandatory length of grass on pitches countrywide, it’s on the first-class stage that the best non-national spinners ply their guileful wares. When Laxman was cutting his teeth at the first-class level, in the Hyderabad nets alone, he ran into the wonderful spin trio of Raju, Arshad Ayub and Kanwaljit Singh. When he travelled to Bengaluru to take on Karnataka, lying in wait were Kumble and Sunil Joshi. Over in Tamil Nadu, he encountered Sunil Subramaniam and M Venkataramana, while Kerala brought him face-to-face with KN Ananthapadmanabhan and B Ramprakash. By the time he graduated to international cricket, he was a master at playing the turning ball; because they also played for their states at every available opportunity, he and batsmen of his generation were able to enhance their education and expertise against spin.
There is no quick-fix solution to the current woes. Rohit and his captain provide every day lessons on what it takes to impose oneself against the wickedly turning sphere. Their colleagues would do well to focus on their hands, feet and eyes. And pick their brains to glean what their own eyes can’t see.