Cricket: England need the Gatting initiative: Simon Hughes says Smith and Co must take positive action if they are to break the spinners' grip

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THE Calcutta experience almost suffocated the England team to death last week. Off the field they could hardly breathe, so acrid was the air, on it the Indian spinners wove a strangling web. In more than 200 overs of wrist- and finger-spin England managed a fist of 352 for the loss of 17 wickets.

The pitch was not treacherous and the bowling was not exceptional. The main problem lurked in the minds and limbs of the batsmen. There was, particularly in the first innings, a lack of technique and strategy. Half-volleys were patted back or lunged at as normally free-scoring players were led like pawns into the corner of a chessboard, then captured.

With each progressive maiden (one every three overs on average) the hypnosis deepened, while Graham Gooch sat on the balcony dismally twiddling his thumbs and Keith Fletcher grimaced: 'Oh Jarv, you're giving me a heart attack going at the ball like that. Let it come to you.' That is how he remembers coping with spin anyway. Look to play back and watch the ball off the pitch; do not commit too early but be positive enough to scatter the close fielders. Even the best can sometimes make a tiny error and nudge a catch to short leg.

There is no general secret to combatting spin on responsive pitches, it is a matter of evolving an effective method. Alan Knott swept at everything, even yorkers, until the ball was directed so far wide of off stump that he had room to cut.

Mike Gatting is more versatile. One over from the off-spinner Rajesh Chauhan illustrated the chasm between him and Robin Smith. Gatting stepped away from the first ball and rifled it at cover, then came down the wicket driving the second to mid-off. Silly point sensibly retreated to safer pastures. The third was fetched from outside off stump to deep square as the short leg dived for cover.

He observes only one cardinal rule: take the spinner unawares by attacking him in the first half of an over - blocking the first five balls then desperately launching at the last is merely playing into his hands.

Next Smith was on strike, hemmed in by close catchers. He lurched at two deliveries, the ball ballooning up off his pads. At least he was able to shoulder arms to the last but even that involved a frenzy of activity as the ball eventually disappeared between his legs.

Smith's determination gets him into trouble - it is better to be slightly casual with soft hands and a loose grip than urgent and too rigid. When he was finally adjudged caught behind, rather unluckily in fact, it appeared that the umpire, Venkataraghavan, was putting him out of his misery.

Historically, few English batsmen have mastered decent spin bowlers. The diminutive leg-spinner 'Titch' Freeman took nearly 4,000 wickets before the war, and when Derek Underwood came on the scene, he took 100 wickets in his first season, aged only 18. These days, when water gets under the covers, allowing sharp turn and bounce, even average spinners wreak havoc in the County Championship.

The reason is that English players are taught from an early age to plunge stiffly forward and drive in a straight line. This is hopeless on turning wickets where wristy, cross-batted shots are productive. The reverse sweep fits this category, of course, but batsmen rarely use it in a Test, fearing the selectors may blow a gasket.

But generally, the more aggression displayed by the striker, the more the close fielders will be out of the game diving for cover. This is the basis of the West Indies' approach, though it is often flawed, because they fail actually to make contact with the ball. If it is any consolation, their technique against spin is even more inadequate than England's, mainly because of their lack of exposure to it.

The leg-before law has changed since Freeman's day and leading with the pad is in vogue as a defensive measure. Ian Salisbury used this method effectively in the Test, but it does keep the umpires on tenterhooks.

As the England batsmen came and went, the wicket began to take spin, though not consistently, which made their job harder. You can at least allow for regular turn. The low bounce of some deliveries was exaggerated by the flat trajectories of the Indian spinners. Someone had to disrupt their rhythm but no one did.

The Indian morale - shattered during their tour of South Africa - is now restored. They have won their first Test for two and a half years and unconsciously discovered a plan to undermine England. Assault their slow bowlers early in the tour so their confidence expires, then bamboozle the batsmen with probing spinners on dusty pitches. If they had preferred the flight and variation of Maninder Singh to Venkatapathy Raju, the devastation might have been total.

To regain the initiative, Gooch must restore belief in John Emburey and Phil Tufnell and bring them into the front line. I have never known Emburey so diffident, but it is a feature of top cricketers that they are able to rise above these bouts of self-doubt. He managed it in the West Indies when they singled him out for punishment, and there is no reason to think he will not do so again.

Fletcher and Gatting can get on with reforming the mental attitudes of the batsmen. It is too late to transform techniques and anyway there is a substantial difference between annihilating various net tweakers and surviving the real thing aided and abetted by a cluster of bat-pad vultures, 50,000 spectators and an over- enthusiastic wicketkeeper.

But they must address the bowling positively and try to dictate. To use football- speak this involves playing the percentage game, taking only calculated risks. Time in the middle leads to the bowler's fingers getting tired and the ball going soft. That explains the relative ease with which England's lesser players resisted. The return of Mike Atherton will allow the fleet-footed Alec Stewart to help them out down the order.

Most of all the batsmen must not be apprehensive. Chauhan's ability was flattered by the wicket, there are several left-armers in county cricket as good as Venkatapathy Raju while the slightly unorthodox Anil Kumble only rolls the ball rather than actually spinning it. The great Ranjitsinhji's motto was 'Ghabrao Mat', meaning 'Don't be afraid.' It would be a good one for England.

(Photograph omitted)