Hoping for turn, turnaround

Cricket writers try very hard to report what they see at the nets faithfully, and objectively. This isn't always possible, with four bowlers and a machine propelling cricket balls simultaneously at five batsmen. Vital moments, quite often, reach the newspaper by means of second-hand observation. On Wednesday at the Motera, certain members of the sportswriting fraternity saw Ravichandran Ashwin bowl a leg break.

Did he? Did he not? Was it a leg break, or had the scribe in question failed to spot a googly? Who knows? But further fuel went down the funnel of speculation that Ashwin would unleash upon the visiting English batsmen a hitherto unseen variation - much like Saeed Ajmal's teesra last season in the UAE, a delivery so shrouded in mystery that no one quite knows whether or not they have seen it.

At the pre-match press conference, MS Dhoni fed this speculation a little more, when asked to compare Ajmal and Ashwin. "It is unfair to compare two different bowlers," Dhoni replied. "Ajmal has got a brilliant doosra, he is someone who generates a lot of pace when it comes to the ball that goes away from the right-hand batsman. Ashwin has also got variations. He can bowl almost each and every delivery that anyone can bowl. He has got the flipper, the googly, bowls legspin, offspin, the carrom ball."

Dhoni's tongue, at this point, might have threatened to split his cheek open.

From the moment England landed in India, spin has occupied an overwhelming share of pre-series talk — its threat, its paucity in the warm-up games, what form it will take in the Tests, how the visitors will combat it, whether conditions will favour it, and if so, by how much. In all this, expectations from Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, the likely spin attack India will field on Thursday, have grown to ridiculous proportions.

Ashwin has played eight Tests, Pragyan Ojha sixteen. They have featured in five Tests as a pair. They took 73 wickets in those five Tests, but their opponents were the West Indies - without Chris Gayle - and New Zealand.

Pedigreed batting line-up

England, for all their presumed weaknesses against spin, possess a far more pedigreed batting lineup. Alastair Cook has played in India before, and his four Tests here include a century on debut and three fifties. Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen scored centuries during England's tour of Sri Lanka last season. Ian Bell is a fine batsman who seems to possess all the technical skills required to make a lot of runs in the subcontinent. He hasn't on his last two tours; he might on this one.

Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel both made runs in the warm-ups, and are both aware that the other waits to grab his place in case of a slip-up. Matt Prior is perhaps the most dangerous No.7 in the world. Nearly all their bowlers can bat.

And they can bowl too. Since January 2009, England's bowling average on the subcontinent is 28.49 — significantly better than India's 35.60. On their recent tours to the UAE and Sri Lanka, they took all 20 wickets in four out of five Tests, never once let their opponents score 400, and on one occasion bowled Pakistan out for 99.

In those five Tests, their fast bowlers took 38 wickets, of which 18 went to James Anderson, who proved that he was a skilful operator even in dry, dusty conditions.

Both captains, when asked about their assessment of the Motera wicket, used the word 'dry'. Dhoni suggested that reverse swing may play as significant a role as spin. If that is the case, Anderson becomes a major factor. As do Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan.

Two years ago, Zaheer Khan, masterful with old ball and new, took 26 wickets in six home Tests against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Since his injury on the England tour last year, he hasn't looked the same bowler, and was peripheral in India's last series against New Zealand. He might need to bowl a lot more against England. It remains to be seen if his body is up for it, and if his skills remain undimmed.

Live: Star Cricket; 9.30 am onwards


Never look too far ahead

Once you get into batting in Asia, if you get into a pattern, it follows a similar sort of path. You have to at times get used to men round the bat, know what your low-and high-risk shots are going to be in that environment. It is more weighted to spin bowling but clearly as well you tell the guys not to ignore the new ball and the ball mid-afternoon which may start to reverse. It's a very challenging environment....

I know it's obvious but it's important to get a good start, for confidence. But even then, you can have a good first morning and things can happen quick. That's why you can never look too far ahead. It's a general rule in Test cricket but over there you can be going along quite nicely and all of a sudden — boom — the noise could go up, they take a couple of wickets, you know what it's like, a few men come around the bat .

Graham Thorpe, The Guardian

Cut out extravagance

Your first half-hour at the crease is crucial, when you have to show everyone you have a strong defence. You have to send a signal to the dressing room that you are calm and in control, even though lots of fielders are shouting around the bat. You have to have boundary options as well but, like Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, you must not go looking for them. If you can survive that first half-hour against spin in India, they will gradually spread the field. Then you know you are getting on top. So my message to the England batsmen would be: occupy the crease and play low-risk shots for high reward. Not extravagant, flamboyant cricket, just grind them down.

Michael Vaughan, The Telegraph

Rotate the strike

The basic way of playing spin is to rotate the strike. That way you make the opposition captain alter his field plans. When you play in India on slow pitches or on pitches that turn, you have got to be a bit more patient. It does not mean you have to always hit out of the ground or a four. If you use your feet to get to the pitch of the ball to smother the spin and hit it to long-off or long-on, then it is good. The important thing is to keep the scoreboard ticking.It is something the Indians do much better: they just knock the ball wide of mid-on or through square leg, or just run it past short third man and get a single.

Mike Gatting,


All in the mix

Cook's missing jacket

Skipper Alastair Cook could have been in a tricky situation while going out for the toss for the first Test as he forgot to bring his team blazer and somebody had to rush it from England, if off-spinner Graeme Swann is to be believed. Swann, who returned after flying home to attend to his sick daughter Charlotte, said Cook left messages to his mobile phone asking him to bring his blue jacket with the England crest from home. But Swann did not check his phone and so it needed a friend to bring the blazer for Cook.

The Onions diary

In his tour diary for the BBC Graham Onions revealed the reason for sporting a 'tache, what the English were upto during downtime and how dinner bills get decided on tour. "Stuart Broad and Jonathan Trott are the undisputed FIFA kings — just don't make the mistake of beating Trott on his home turf because he's such a sore loser he'll kick you out of his room!" wrote Onions. He also said Jonny Bairstow and he were sporting moustaches to raise money for a men's health charity while apparently "credit card roulette" determine who foots the bill for dinner on past tours.

The voices in the box

In the lead up to the Tests, Rahul Dravid has been farily vocal about a few prickly issues — Dhoni's Test captaincy and Fletcher's role as coach. And Shane Warne revealed the strategy the Australians had employed the last time a team went back victorious from an Indian tour. For more of their insights, tune in to the pre-game show which begins an hour before the match at 8.30 am on Star Cricket. Apart from the two, the panel will also feature Sanjay Manjrekar and Geoff Boycott.

Marathon man

It will be exactly 23 years since Sachin Tendulkar made his debut when the first Test against England gets underway on Thursday. It was on November 15, 1989, that Sachin made his debut against Pakistan in Karachi, 16-years and a few months old. For those who like their trivia, Sachin was one of four debutants in the particular Test. The other three were Waqar Younis, Shahid Saeed and Salil Ankola. While Younis and Sachin went on to become Test greats, Ankola and all-rounder Saeed played just that one Test.

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