Can England spin a surprise?
Thrice have England won a Test series in India after Independence --- 3-1 in 1976-77, 2-1 in 1984-85 and 2-1 in 2012-13. Each time, a left-arm spinner has played a crucial role --- Monty Panesar (17 wickets) in 2012-13, Phil Edmonds (14 wickets) in 1984-85 and Derek Underwood (29 wickets) in 1976-77. Only once in four tours of India post 2000 did England not bring a left-arm spinner. On that 2016-17 tour, where England relied on leg-spinner Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali’s off-break, India notched their best ever series win at home: 4-0.
Sobered by that defeat, England have brought left-armer Jack Leach for the upcoming four-Test tour, beginning in Chennai on Friday, with off-spinner Dom Bess expected to pair him. Leach and Bess don’t have many Tests between them. Leach doesn’t even turn the ball much. And the recently concluded tour of Sri Lanka (Leach ended with 10 wickets and Bess 12) showed they tend to be more effective when the pitch wears down towards the end. But England will be forced to place a lot of faith in them, knowing how the left-arm-off-break combination has been particularly incisive against India (Panesar-Graeme Swan (2012-13 and Edmonds-Pat Pocock 1984-85). Leach hold the key though.
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Visually, it is straining for a right-hand batsman to face a left-armer. Picking the ball, despite bigger sightscreen these days, becomes tricky when a left-armer goes wide of the pitch. That, in turn, creates a sharp angle, decisively pushing the batsman to his backfoot. Shot selection becomes a worry when the ball holds its line. That explains why nine of Panesar’s 17 wickets in 2012-13 were either bowled or lbw. And when it spins away prodigiously? Mayhem strikes. Like in the Mumbai Test that tour, when Panesar drew Sachin Tendulkar forward with flight. It turned away after pitching leg but Tendulkar wasn’t to the pitch of it. He still tried to flick it off his front leg, but the ball turned sharply to take the top of Tendulkar’s off-stump. That remains Panesar’s most celebrated dismissal.
Barring the period post 2010 that saw Rangana Herath take wickets in heaps, left-arm spinners have normally stayed below the radar. Only Ravindra Jadeja and South Africa’s Keshav Maharaj operate with some consistency now. That makes England’s ability to almost consistently send left-arm spinners to the subcontinent even more remarkable. Leach, with a 12-Test experience, may seem a lesser threat than those India have faced before. He neither has the arm speed of Panesar nor the height of Ashley Giles to extract bounce on the most placid of pitches. But he does have the ability to set up the batsman playing against spin by going wide of the pitch. Leach feels that could be play out well in India. “It is probably more about how the ball gets to the batsman in terms of trajectory,” Leach said in a press interaction ahead of the first Test in Chennai. “There have been other successful bowlers who didn't bowl as fast as Monty did. It is about sticking to my strengths and knowing what my optimum pace and then going up and down a little bit from there. Everyone has an optimum pace. It's important to stick to that as much as possible,” he said.
On his first tour, Leach may not get it right against batsmen who take immense pride in subduing spinners at home. After all, it took Panesar two tours (2005-06 and 2008-09) to get his first five-wicket haul (Mumbai, 2012) in India. Giles, too, is remembered for his negative lines at Sachin Tendulkar. But India have historically been a little more edgy against left-arm spinners (Underwood is the most successful bowler in India, with 54 wickets in 16 Tests). The overwhelming number of right-handed batsmen (Jadeja and Rishabh Pant are the only recognised left-hand batsmen) also give Leach a decent chance, at least on paper. He could also take a leaf out of Australia’s 2017 tour of India, when Steve O’Keefe’s returned 12/70 in Pune, the best by any visiting spinner. Like Leach, O’Keefe didn’t turn the ball much. But Indians found his accuracy more stifling.
Another statistic that needs to be factored in is India’s increased aggression towards spinners at home. It has resulted in some jaw-dropping averages against spin (Cheteshwar Pujara averages 75.92 and Virat Kohli 70.47) but they have also become more susceptible to spin at home over the years. Take for example the last decade (2001-11) when three out of the top five overseas bowlers in India were pacers. In the next decade (2011-21) all five were spinners. With James Anderson and Stuart Broad among England’s ranks, India may start their innings on a cautious note. That means Bess and Leach may have a better chance of taking wickets since India are expected to come down hard on them. Also, Indian pitches are traditionally slow, giving batsmen enough time to sort out spinners' lengths. The challenge for England is to prevent giving India from getting that upper hand.