The day started with the prospect of a famous away win on Independence Day but ended with the team imploding to its 6th test loss since the win at Lord’s last year, something which could well feature in the list of India’s most disappointing losses. With 153 needed at the beginning of day 4, the morning session was to decide the fate of either side and it appeared it to be India’s game to lose despite having to chase that in-between total. By the time the teams broke for lunch India had lost 6 wickets for 55 runs; the win was nothing but sealed for Sri Lanka and India was left to ponder over an alternate approach in the run-chase. The formalities were completed within an hour from lunch with Sri Lanka securing a 63-run win.
As anticipated, Sri Lanka entrusted its spinners in the quest to defend a modest target of 176. The duo of Herath & Kaushal delivered with combined figures of 38.5-7-95-10 out of the overall figures of 49.5-12-112-10. While the reviews of this match would hail Chandimal & Herath, question the shot-selection of Indian batsmen and penetration of Indian bowlers in the 3rd innings, ponder extensively over India’s stubbornness in befriending the Decision Review System (DRS), it would also put this batting slide in the growing concern of Indian batting unit’s loosening command against spin bowling, especially on away soil. 15 wickets were lost to spin in this match, while 5, 12, 0, 4, 9 were lost in the 5 defeats since that historic win at Lord’s. Among the 45 wickets in this sample space which covers matches in England, Australia & Sri Lanka, 25 belong to dismissals of the first-6 batsmen.
While these numbers aren’t necessarily conclusive, what puts them into context are the statistics versus pace. 71 Indian wickets have been claimed by opposition fast bowlers in the same grouping as above at an average of 26.49 and a strike rate of 52.7. At the same time the 45 wickets picked by spinners came at the frequency of a dismissal every 21.08 runs and 36.5 deliveries. With 19 wickets Moeen Ali was the joint-2nd highest wicket-taker during the Pataudi Trophy (2014) and having claimed 23 Indian wickets, Nathan Lyon was leading wicket-taker during the latest Border-Gavaskar Trophy (2014-15). Spinners claimed all the wickets in the only drawn test against Bangladesh recently and while no wickets were lost to spin during the test series in New Zealand (2014), 9 wickets fell during the 2 tests versus South Africa (2013-14) comprising of a bowling attack of Steyn-Morkel-Philander.
This does not intend to suggest that India’s batting has been hapless against spin, but the greater success of seemingly non-threatening spinners is a growing trend. Since the turn of the century, the numbers for 3 sets of five-year fragments (a. 2000-04, b. 2005-09, c. 2010-15 Aug 2015) in away conditions are a substantial indicator.
Pace (wickets/average/strike rate): a. 317/34.23/65.6, b. 284/35.23/64.3, c. 436/27.93/54.7
Spin (wickets/average/strike rate): a. 91/42.59/83.0, b. 109/43.09/77.8, c. 153/38.78/68.7
These numbers present an additional challenge for Indian batsmen on foreign soil, something which batsmen in the past weren’t accustomed to. Some believe that the sustained pressure of fast bowlers in conditions like those in Australia, England makes batsmen see the spinner as the run-scoring option, thereby inducing complacency and choice-less need to score off him. With the growing clout of ball striking prowess courtesy bigger bats, shorter boundaries and bowler unfriendly tracks, batting approaches have emphasized attack-as-best-form-of-defence even more strongly in the current era.
Another school of thought talks about the lack of domestic cricket grind owing to hectic international cricket calendar and the IPL. India has not played a home test for close to 2 years now, and has travelled to South Africa, New Zealand, England, Australia, Bangladesh and now Sri Lanka in this while. It would be fair to advocate for the tendency of young international players in grooming techniques to combat seam and swing and trusting muscle memory to tackle spin. For a side which has 2-16 win-loss ratio for away matches since the World Cup win in 2011, there are already plenty of issues to address; the recent woes against spinners shouldn’t be disregarded under the pretext of being touted as the finest players of spinners, or this apparent problem can swell quickly!