A tour of India is a challenging one on many different levels, but for a spinner it’s even more demanding. Yes, the conditions tend to be spinner friendly, so us twirlers should be in our element, right? Well, yes and no.
For an overseas spinner it’s an intense examination of their ability; just ask Dom Bess. From the first innings hero in the opening Test, to a full toss chucker in the second, which led to him being tossed aside like chewing gum that had lost its flavour.
The treatment, especially to a young player finding his way in the game, can be ruthless, but the feeling of pinning an attacking batsman with a stumping makes all the hard work worth it; it’s akin to getting him out twice – once in the air and once off the pitch.
The bottom line, though, is that our spinners are being out-bowled; we are not as good as them at this stage. But the think-tank must get together and conjure up ways of removing the Indian batsmen more cheaply if we’re going to be competitive in the series. Here are my thoughts, player by player:
He is a free-flowing batsman, capable of striking boundaries at will with his use of the sweep shot, coming down the wicket, and the backfoot punch behind point. Jack Leach has got the better of him when he drifts the ball in the air and that is key to get Sharma out. England need him to play for the drift, with the bat going towards mid-on and mid-wicket, and for the pitch to grip the ball to beat his outside edge or bowl him like he did in the first Test. That was the perfect delivery, and the template for how to bowl at Sharma.
His classical technique and fluent strokeplay is lovely to watch. He just has that extra time against spin: he doesn’t have a trigger and relies on his solid technique to score heavily down the ground and with punches off the back foot. England must not be fazed by the apparent ease with which he is batting against them. Instead, attack the stumps and catch him early with his lazy footwork. Jeetan Patel is big on bowling the heavy stock ball, which is getting revs on the ball and bowling with a lot of energy. You want to keep the line tight at the stumps to either catch him off bat-pad or LBW.
The wall of this batting line-up, but he does have vulnerabilities. He is unsure of his defence and inclines to come down the wicket to disturb the spinner's line and length, so England must have a forward short-leg - he doesn’t like that fielder. In the recent series in Australia, when Nathan Lyon got him out in Adelaide, he attacked his outside edge by having a forward short-leg. His trigger is the forward press so you want the ball to dip above his eye line: when he starts searching for the ball, the short leg and bowled come into play. I once got him out in a warm-up match where I managed to get him to play with the bat, with his front foot already committed. So, the shape of your ball is going to be imperative for Pujara to play a false shot or across the line.
India's captain has amazing hand-eye co-ordination but, again, there are weak points. I remember getting him out caught extra cover while he played the ball on the up, which was identical to when Leach nearly got him out caught on the drive. Both he and Bess must get him to drive and play in front of square. The man on the drive and at extra cover will be the key in getting Kolhi out. He will play some amazing shots in that area and hit fours but you must be persistent and stick to the plan. Getting him driving also allows the slip to come in the game as he accelerates his hands at the ball.
Rahane has struggled against spin - he doesn’t seem to pick the length as quickly as the other Indian batsmen. His initial movement is to play spin off the back foot, which doesn’t leave him with many choices apart from cutting the ball. He often gets caught slip or even at point. He tends to defend the ball off the back foot and likes sweeping when in doubt. You could see how Moeen Ali capitalised on that by dismissing him sweeping a ball that was too full. You would rather bowl too full than short to Rahane.
If Jack Leach is bowling well then he should attack Pant’s off stump, with an in-out field. Similarly, if there is rough then he has got a chance to get him out like he did in the last innings: Leach bowled a gorgeous delivery which caught the rough, turned and bounced and got him stumped. As a spinner you have to be prepared to give away a few boundaries to get him out. This is about the mindset and your attitude towards him. Do I keep the ball flighted and give a few boundaries for his wicket or do I bowl defensively and get him off strike? The English spinner must evaluate their own rhythm, form and mindset. There is nothing wrong going defensive initially before attacking once the ball is coming out better. Leach and Bass must communicate with their captain, but also be prepared to start taking the initiative.