Turn for the worse at Wankhede

A week ago, except for the perpetually paranoid and the outright cynical, everyone had reason to be optimistic about the Indian Test side. The frame of two smiling 24-year-olds, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, walking off the Motera turf after sealing a win that was orchestrated by a couple of 26-year-old spinners, R. Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha, had a positive vibe about it that was too real to be dismissed. If not a new dawn, the promise of a resurgent Indian side did not seem to be one that would fade away just seven days after the opening Test.

If India's nine-wicket win against England at Ahmedabad wasn't reason enough to predict a 4-0 win for the home team, the 10-wicket loss at Mumbai can't be a basis for a 1-3 England win forecast. The reversal at Wankhede should be followed by a precise postmortem, but it shouldn't trigger a witch-hunt. India happens to be a team in transition, desperately trying to find its feet in a season that follows a couple of high-profile retirements. As is the case with all such teams, along with the highs, there will be periodic lows. Indian cricket watchers, that high-reaction tribe, will have to be patient with the team's inconsistency. Fans of other teams, the Australians included, have endured it and so should the ones wearing the tri-colour on their sleeves.

It should be understood that the Indian team's 20-somethings are still exploring their art and figuring out their strengths. Pragyan Ojha is the most experienced among the just-graduated bunch. The present series has seen Ojha getting the label of India's "spin spearhead" for the first time in his career. His spin-partner Ashwin too is still emerging from the shadows of Harbhajan "Turbanator" Singh. With such largely untested youngsters in the team, even skipper M.S. Dhoni and the team management are unsure about the conditions that will collectively lift the team's skill level.

And that, to some extent, explains the Wankhede fiasco, one that saw the Mumbai groundstaff preparing a pitch that ended up suiting the visitors more than the hosts. To be fair to Dhoni, he had his reasons for asking for a rank turner. As the English batsmen, barring Alistair Cook and Matt Prior, succumbed at the "slow and low" Motera, the Indian strategy of starving England for spin seemed to have worked. No spinners in tour games meant Ojha and Ashwin were too hard to handle for the English. Then, Dhoni had plan number 2. With England on the ropes, Dhoni was uncoiling the knock-out punch.

So for the second Test, Dhoni attempted the old trick and ordered the good old carpet to be brought out. It was the one on which the English men had so famously slipped in 1993. Back then, the spinners Anil Kumble, Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan had helped India register a 3-0 win over the Graham Gooch-led side. This time, Dhoni anticipated the same from Ojha, Ashwin and Harbhajan.

With scores levelled at 1-1, Dhoni would be worried but wiser. The bounce and turn had worked for Kumble and Co., but not for the present day spin-trio. Besides, the batting line-up didn't have many like Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman, who could handle the turning ball on a tricky track in the second innings. In the Tests ahead, Dhoni will have to figure out a new template for his talented bowlers and promising batsmen. And for that he needs to be at the helm, despite the losses, and the likes of Ojha and Ashwin in the squad. Calm and continuity can see India emerge from the crisis that usually occurs during periods of transition.

But Team India needs to be pro-active and can't afford to just wait and watch, hoping for the tide to turn. For starters, the 20-somethings in the team need to be guided by old hands and masters of the game. Coach Duncan Fletcher and seniors like Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag can be big help for the likes of Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, but what about the spinners? India's bowling coach, Joe Dawes, happens to be Australian, with little international experience. He played most of his cricket in England and Australia. Can Ojha and Ashwin pick his mind for inputs on spinning the ball on Indian dust bowls? Probably not.

In the past, when Indians have travelled abroad they have roped in local expertise to understand the conditions better. Maybe, it's time to do the same for the home series too. It would be a big help if Kumble, the encyclopaedia on bowling on turning and bouncing tracks, spends some time with the Indian spinners before the third Test at Kolkata.

sandeep.dwivedi@expressindia.com

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