Test Matches in India: Seamers are Fast Becoming, in Case They Haven’t Already, an Inconsequential Commodity

Test matches in India, or let us say Tests played in India, are rarely humdrum. And, although much of the spotlight ahead of every Indian Test match has tended to fall invariably on the 22 yards, we cannot deny that Indian pitches, in harness with elements such as reverse swing with the old ball, short boundaries and  fast outfields, have treated the spectators to an exciting brand of cricket seldom seen anywhere else in the world. 

Test Matches in India – The Long Story

On Saturday morning, the third of the first Test between India and New Zealand, I was sat in front of my TV and not only awaiting the start of the third day’s play but also wondering what ploy would Virat Kohli have in his mind at the start of the ‘moving day’.

New Zealand, led by Tom Latham and Kane Williamson, had put themselves in a commanding position by reaching 1/152 and reducing the first-innings deficit to 166. India’s spin twins, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, had been wicket-less and gave the implication that the Blackcaps’ batsmen had applied themselves really well and also executed their gameplan to perfection.

Third day’s play began 15 minutes earlier because the entirety of the third session on day two was lost due to rain. India had bowled 47 overs and the condition of the SG Test ball, I thought, will be conducive for reverse swing. In Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, India had two pacey bowlers with ideal bowling actions for getting the ball to reverse swing. So, the expectation at the start of day three in Kanpur was Kohli getting a pacer to bowl from one end and one of his trump cards—Ashwin and R Jadeja—from the other and thereby disallowing Latham and Williamson from getting into a rhythm.

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But the fact that Kohli began with Ashwin and Jadeja on the third morning of the Kanpur Test—India’s 500th—told us that he had faith in his spin duo to come back strongly after having gone wicket-less in their 31 overs on the previous day. And, Ashwin and Jadeja did come back strongly, as they bowled a lot fuller than they had done on day two and forced the New Zealand batsmen to play on the front foot a lot more. That slight adjustment in length from the Indian spinners brought them the desired rewards and five of the final nine New Zealand wickets were taken by trapping the batsmen in front of the stumps (LBW).

Kohli’s reluctance to bowl his pacers, at least from one end on day three, was the first stark reminder of a shift in the captains’ way of thinking, for Test matches played in India. 

New Zealand had been dismissed for 262 and India gained a 56-run lead which, as we have seen over the years, can often make a world of difference in Indian conditions and on dry Indian pitches.

Now, I could understand Kohli backing his spinners to come good and getting them into the attack first up on day three. Because the New Zealand batsmen, historically, have not been good players of spin and Ashwin and Jadeja are not only high-quality spinners but also with the nous of bowling on Indian pitches.

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Back in April 2001, at a time when Sharjah used to host ODI triangular series frequently, New Zealand were involved in one named as the ARY Gold Cup, a tournament which also featured Pakistan and Srilanka. The Blackcaps faced a very strong Srilankan side, featuring the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardene, Marvan Atapattu, Kumar Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan, and Chaminda Vaas, in the second match of that tournament.

The Lankan Lions batted first and posted a highly competitive 269/9 in their 50 overs. 15 years ago, such scores were not easily chased and often made for intriguing viewing from the spectators’ viewpoint. In reply, New Zealand made a strong start, as Chris Nevin, a diminutive right-hand opening batsman, set the tone for the 270-run chase. Nevin, in particular, looked to go aerial and scored most of his runs in boundaries, as the ODI rules then allowed only two fielders to be stationed outside the 30-yard circle for the first 15 overs.




Nevin, along with Mathew Sinclair, provided a solid foundation for the Blackcaps to go on and chase down 270, which they could have, given that their middle-order had some real big-hitters at the time: Craig McMillan, Jacob Oram, Andre Adams, Chris Harris, to name a few. New Zealand had reached 82 by the end of the 15th over, the last of the field restrictions. They still had a lot of work to do but the key factor for them was they had not lost any wickets.

Then came the game-changer…

Muralitharan was introduced into the attack in the 16th over and the match turned on its head. Why? Because New Zealand batsmen could not live with spin and Srilanka tormented them by deploying four spinners, of which two were regulars (Kumar Dharmasena and Muralitharan) and two were part-timers (Russel Arnold and Jayasuriya). The New Zealand batsmen, though, could live with none of this quartet and went on to lose the game by a whopping 106 runs. They were all out for 163 in the 43rd over and that, after having been 82/0 at one stage. The Srilankan spin quartet bagged nine of the 10 New Zealand wickets.

On that note, an article you might be interested in reading:

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Reverting focus,

But then, when I saw Williamson get Mitchell Santner to share the new ball with Trent Boult, I was seriously taken aback! Of course, New Zealand had gone in with an additional spinner, hoping to beat India at what is considered their strength: playing spin efficiently when they bat and strangling the opposition batsmen with spin when they bowl. Yet, I was aghast to see Williamson employ the same tactic which Kohli had done when New Zealand batted.

The key takeaway from this tactic is the way the new SG Test ball is being seen by captains when they play Test matches in India. They believe in the hard, shiny SG Test ball helping their spinners get sharp spin and unmanageable bounce, elements which even batsmen who have played spin all their lives can have difficulty in dealing. 

Santner the left-arm spinner caused a lot of problems for the Indian batsmen and with his all-round performances, he was the biggest positive for New Zealand from their 197-run defeat in Kanpur. Williamson’s way of thinking was the major talking point, in my opinion, of the third day’s play in Kanpur and by doing so, the 26-year-old New Zealand skipper has given us an indication that seamers are becoming less consequential on Indian pitches and for Test matches in India.

Verdict

In India, you expect the spinners to bowl most of the overs, almost 2/3rd of the overs in an innings, and also bag the vast majority of the 20 wickets. However, what we are increasingly seeing is captains using their seamers sparingly and not expecting them to provide wickets either.

As long as the groundsmen and curators do not leave grass on Indian pitches, we are certain to see even visiting captains rely heavily on their spinners in the 12 Tests to come during this long Indian home season. And, if visiting teams and captains are not going to be shy of getting their spinners to bowl with the brand new SG Test ball for Test matches played in India, we can definitely say that seamers, in general, have become an inconsequential commodity for Test teams playing Test cricket in India.

Going back to the question posed in this article’s headline, to the captains, well… unless a team has an all-rounder who can bowl seam-ups, we will not be seeing Test playing XIs for Test matches in India bereft of seamers. Because, even though reverse swing seems to have become a thing of the past, captains have to contend with the weariness factor and spinners cannot toil away all day long. So, if only to give the spinners periodic breaks, seamers will be included in the playing XIs for Test matches in India.

What is your take on this tangible shift in using the seamers sparingly for Test matches in India? Tell us in the comments below.