The inability of the Australian players to negotiate spin, especially in India, may come as a surprise to the newer generation of cricket followers. Actually their weakness against this mode of attack – and off spin in particular – is nothing new.
They have an unenviable history of failing against off break bowling and the genesis of this can be traced to Jim Laker’s incredible feats during the 1956 Ashes series in which he took 46 wickets including the famous 19 for 90 at Old Trafford.
Indeed in two successive Tests he took 30 wickets! Subsequently, as if on cue, Indian off spinners have also found the going profitable against the Aussies and Ravichandran Ashwin is the latest in a long line of off spinners to bemuse and bewilder the visiting batsmen.
It was Ghulam Ahmed who set the trend in the first ever series between the two teams in this country. Even with Subash Gupte and Vinoo Mankad in the side, Ghulam was the dominant bowler emphasized by his ten-wicket haul in the third and final Test of the 1956 series.
After being 'Lakerized' in England, the Aussies now found they had to face a bowler who was almost as skilful and it was a pity that poor batting did not crown Ghulam’s ten for 130 with success.
Three years later another off spinner did even better. Jasu Patel in 1959 was not even a regular member of the Indian squad and had played just four Tests in the previous five years. But a master-stroke selection by Lala Amarnath who headed the selection committee led to Patel scripting an unbelievable victory over the all-conquering Australian side at Kanpur on Christmas Eve.
It was India’s first win over Australia and the first defeat sustained by Richie Benaud as captain. Patel had figures of nine for 69 and five for 55 as India won by 119 runs. Polly Umrigar, bowling off spinners, took four for 27 in the second innings to give further credence to the argument that the Indians were susceptible against this mode of bowling.
And of course as everyone knows, Erapalli Prasanna has been the master spinner when it comes to befuddling the Australians. Ian Chappell observed that his brain was working overtime in trying to overcome the cunning of the spin trio he faced during the 1969-70 series. But overall he placed Prasanna over Bishen Bedi and S Venkatraghavan and classed him as the best spin bowler he had come across.
Himself a fine player of spin bowling, Michael Clarke’s adroit use of the feat brings back memories of the former Australian captain. Chappell was involved in a fascinating duel for supremacy with Prasanna before acknowledging his greatness.
Prasanna picked up 26 wickets in the five Tests and by the end of the series none in the Australian line-up – and besides Chappell the other batsmen were Bill Lawry, Ian Redpath, Keith Stackpole, Paul Sheahan and Doug Walters – were able to master him. Prasanna’s haul was on top of the 25 wickets he took in four Tests Down Under two years before.
Venkataraghavan, generally flatter and quicker, was in the shadow of Prasanna and was grossly under bowled by the captain MAK Pataudi who had greater confidence in the latter. Despite limited opportunities, he did well enough to augment the theory that the Aussies were vulnerable against off spin.
And this feeling gained momentum when Shivlal Yadav too finished among the wickets against the Australians both at home and away. An honest trier, Yadav was not in the same class as Prasanna or Venkataraghavan, yet he finished with 24 wickets in his debut series in 1979 and bagged another 15 in three Tests Down Under six years later.
In the last decade or thereabouts, Harbhajan Singh has carried the Indian off spinner’s dominance over the Aussies to a new level after making his debut against them at the age of 17. Whatever his failings Down Under, he has simply swept them aside at home, epitomized by his feats during the epoch making 2001 contest when his bowling along with VVS Laxman’s batting shaped arguably the greatest series triumph at home.
His 32 wickets is by far the highest by an Indian bowler in a three Test series and though there has been a little tapering off in recent years, overall his figures are hard to beat. In fact he made a comeback in the ongoing series on reputation rather than on form.
Given this background, it was always on the cards that Ashwin would be a success in the ongoing series notwithstanding his mediocre showing in Australia about a year ago. But to be candid he has exceeded expectations. Eighteen wickets in the first two Tests including a 12-wicket haul at Chennai are the kind of figures any bowler dreams of. The Aussie batsmen are as helpless as a butterfly in a gale in trying to fathom his bag of tricks.
Ashwin is improving with every match and with a tally of 81 wickets in just 14 matches, he has an excellent chance of becoming the fastest Indian to 100 Test wickets. Prasanna holds the record reaching that mark in his 20th Test but surely Ashwin is not going to take another seven matches for 19 more scalps. However, even in the event of that happening, he will still be in great company for Anil Kumble took his 100th wicket in his 21st Test!