Joe Root
England captain Joe Root drives on the third day of the fourth Test against India at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Motera on March 6, 2021. Image Credit: AFP

The England rout was expected. Wasn’t it? The margin of victory was not what the pundits predicted. India’s loss in the first Test erased the prospects of a 4-0 whitewash. That was mainly due to Indian batting’s propensity to implode.

A Test series in India is always a searching examination of batsmen’s technique to play spin. Simply because pitches in India are not slow turners. Heavily spun deliveries could turn sharply and jump viciously. It takes skill and patience to negotiate them. That makes Indian batsmen good at handling spinners. Leg-spin great Shane Warne would readily agree.

How do you play spin bowling?

Most experts would tell you that the best way to play turning deliveries is to smother the spin. That would require batsmen to skip down to the pitch of the ball. That’s all fine if you have excellent footwork, but top class spinners have the ability to hold the ball back or drift it away. Erappalli Prasanna and Bishen Singh Bedi of the famed Indian spin quartet of the seventies were masters at beating batsmen in flight. Ravichandran Ashwin too can toss up deliveries well enough to tease the batsmen into mistakes as they search for the ball.

Why did England repeatedly collapse after the bright start in Chennai? Most batsmen were leaden-footed. Only captain Joe Root looked capable of playing spin with some degree of comfort. Ben Stokes and Dan Lawrence showed us in the fourth Test that spin is not a death sentence.

Rohit Sharma offered the best tutorial on playing spin. Perhaps, the English players could have learned from his positive approach and technique. He was unafraid to go down the pitch, and when he was on the back foot, he played it as late as possible and with soft hands. That reduces chances of edging, and even if he edges, the ball won’t carry to the fielders.

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Spin is the great Indian rope trick of cricket. Some of the best spinners in the world come from the subcontinent. Many world-class spinners don’t even get to play for India; that’s the level of competition. More like the West Indies of the nineties, when there was a queue of high-quality pacemen waiting to play international cricket.

A true test of a batsman’s skill is their ability to score runs in India’s spin-friendly pitches. Former Australian captain Steve Waugh calls a Test series in India the final frontier of cricket. So a lot of preparations are required before an India tour, much like the Indians who work on playing seaming deliveries ahead of a series in England.

A part of the solution is to select batsmen adept at playing spin. Keith Fletcher used to be a permanent fixture in English teams to the India in the seventies and early eighties. The other option is to work on the skills to tackle spin. Graham Gooch swept his way into the run-scoring charts after successfully deploying the shot against the Indians.

Kevin Pietersen was another scoring success. He chose the Dennis Amiss route. Amiss was part of the Tony Lewis’ side in 1972-73 and was dropped after a poor run of scores. He sought Bedi’s help. The left-arm spinner took Amiss to a nets session and helped him sort out his footwork.

What was Kevin Pietersen's advice?

Pietersen was one of the best batsmen in the world. That didn’t prevent him from seeking Rahul Dravid’s help to learn to play on spinning wickets. The two corresponded on the technique to tackle spin.

None of the English batsmen, barring Root, seemed to work on their technique. Even if they did, it didn’t show. That prompted Pietersen to share Dravid’s email and asked the England Cricket Board to send it to Dominic Sibley and Zak Crawley.

Turning wickets can be a double-edged sword. You could lose if the opposition has good spinners; India lost the first Test to spin after paceman James Anderson’s early breakthroughs. England teams of the past would have at least one good spinner. Derek Underwood of the seventies was followed by Phil Edmonds. Then came his Middlesex teammate John Emburey. Graeme Swann was the last of the world-class spinners from England.

Touring India without quality spinners is akin to committing hara-kiri. No wonder the pundits predicted a whitewash.