It is far from clear yet whether the victory at Chennais Chepauk this week will amount to anything approximating the turnaround that began with the 2001 Test win over Australia at Kolkatas Eden Gardens. After all,then,as now,India had not been doing so well home or away,and the victory was taken beyond the narrowly partisan pleasures of seeing ones team win by the sheer majesty of individual performances. That match,back then,made V.V.S. Laxman,Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh integral to the squads successful transformation as Sourav Gangulys Team India. This victory also built on a stylish double-century,a responsible century and durable spin bowling has restored a few reputations,most of all skipper M.S. Dhonis.
But if that match belonged to one spinner Harbhajan the conversation this time is on the entire spin attack. Between them,Ravichandran Ashwin,Harbhajan and Ravindra Jadeja took all 20 Australian wickets,only the third time an Indian spin attack has managed the feat. (Yes,for such records it needs the opposition batsmens contribution too in not running themselves out!) And for all the praise being lavished on the curator,giving the spin success a possibly one-off match or series,as the case may turn out to be slant,it is tempting to place the exploit in a larger context: the age of spin in the days after Anil Kumble,Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne.
The threesome at Chennai may not in fact,they certainly do not match the viability of the Bedi-Prasanna-Chandrasekhar-Venkataraghavan quartet,but the 20-wicket haul needs to be celebrated to rectify an imbalance in cricket. The sport has a tendency to mythologise its spinners in a way vastly different from its manner of appraising batsmen and pace bowlers. At the expense of exaggerating the point purely for emphasis,it could be said that spinners tend to be viewed as shooting stars,with their skill always perceived to be on the verge of being blunted by over-exposure. Once the batsmen get a measure of their choice deliveries,the spinners,it goes,will be rendered innocuous. Only a few make it through a full international career,and each is different. Therefore,the story of spin is the story of remarkable bowlers,made of discrete profiles,not of a cooperative tradition.
Amol Rajan,a Britain-based writer,rectified that narrative somewhat a couple of years ago with his thesis Twirlymen: The Unlikely History of Crickets Greatest Spin Bowlers. Its a thesis made more compelling by its overstatements,and after the Chepauk spin,it is worth a recap. In particular,it adds depth to Ashwins profile. As he tells it,unless crickets writers recognise the threads of continuity that pass through the history of spin bowling,they may fail to appreciate the exciting juncture the tradition may be at.
Rajans contention is that we are living through spin bowlings greatest age,something that is not sufficiently taken note of. It is not only that in this time Warne and Muralitharan dominated the stage by becoming the highest wicket-takers ever,but that fresh innovation and variety are still spicing up things,especially with Ajantha Mendiss game-changing carrom ball. Moreover,he argues that the rapid spread of Twenty20 has in fact helped in the flourishing of spin. By way of clarification,he says that Murali chucked,but that his action was within the rules,and more importantly,he greatly enriched cricket.
And though Mendis subsequently ran into a dry patch,the carrom ball,something that has defined Ashwins profile,comes in for particular emphasis by Rajan as he hazards the immediate future of spin bowling. He says it will replace the doosra the overuse of which hastened the eclipse of Saqlain Mushtaq (who at one time practically asserted a copyright on it) and accounted for Harbhajans decline as the alternative of choice for young off-spinners and slow left-arm orthodox bowlers. He writes: So clearly has the doosra hurt the prospects of those who became obsessed with it (Muralitharan aside),that most young bowlers will forget the fashions of the early 1990s and 2000s and abandon this project. They will see that,provided they have sufficiently strong digits,the carrom ball offers a more promising alternative. It too spins from leg to off; but it is less liable to disrupt the stock ball,or cause a bowler to lose it altogether,and with a little chicanery it can be easily concealed. He adds: The dichotomies that have ruled spin bowling history,between left- and right-handed bowlers,and between those who impart off-spin and those who impart leg-spin,will continue to crumble. there will be an increasing number of spinners who bowl both off-spin and leg-spin in the orthodox fashion.
Rajans predictions for the variety that will rule spin bowling in the immediate future may or may not hold,but as younger proponents of the dark art establish themselves in the shadow of the recently retired greats,it is only right to acknowledge the evolving tradition that powered Indias win at Chepauk.
The writer is a contributing editor for The Indian Express