If England are to have a prayer of resurrecting their Indian sojourn they must discover some way, any way, of repelling spin. It was always going to be their toughest assignment of the winter, and as they arrived in Ahmedabad yesterday the signs were that they might have more success searching for the meaning of life.
This is not the first time that the dreadful secrets of devious slow bowling have refused to surrender themselves easily, but the tourists' difficulties are exacerbated because they have a long, novice bottom order which will be attacked from both ends. Harbhajan Singh's singular off-spin is being complemented again by the leg-spin of Anil Kumble, who has returned from a shoulder injury which prevented him from playing for a year.
They both have formidable credentials in their own country. Kumble's reputation was cemented forever in Delhi in February 1999 when he took all 10 wickets in Pakistan's second innings. Harbhajan joined him in the stratosphere last March when almost single-handedly he bowled the Australians to defeat by taking 32 wickets in three matches and, in reference to his religious headwear, became known as the Turbanator.
Together they present a horrible threat: between them they took 15 of England's wickets in Mohali last week. It is Harbhajan, still only 21, with a turban on his head, the world at his feet and its batsmen at his mercy, who may prove the more impenetrable. He is the latest in a recent line of off-spinners who use their wrist as much as their fingers, but they are all representative of an art thought to be dead. This is partly because of their new-fangled method, and partly because the modern generation of batsmen are experiencing something they have not seen before.
What, then, to do? "I had a particular game-plan against him which involved trying to be the aggressor and getting off the strike as much as possible so he didn't have six balls at you," said Matthew Hayden, the Australian left-hander. Hayden is worth listening to, because in that astonishing three-match series – which India won 2-1 from behind – he scored a double hundred, a hundred, two fifties and averaged 109.8. If he harboured Harbhajan fears, he confronted them.
"He was getting a lot of bounce and quite a lot of turn and I used the sweep. I know it has not worked for people, but I think the technique of sweeping is pretty important. Bobby Simpson [former Australian batsman and coach] was the first guy who showed me how to thrust my hands out past my pad line and not to worry about the length.
"Mostly, I tried to hit him on the full. I'm not a compulsive sweeper but I felt this was a selective method of taking the attack to him. I changed my guard to off stump and outside, stood a bit further back but also decided that I could leave the crease to play him."
Hayden thinks he was undoubtedly helped by two other factors: he is both an opener and a left-hander. The first allowed him some time at the crease against the new ball, the second tended to reduce Harbhajan's menace. Marcus Trescothick and Mark Butcher should bear all that in mind. Graham Thorpe, the left-handed No 4, already has.
"The first 20 minutes against spin are the most crucial and if you've already managed to get in it makes that easier," Hayden said. "Coming in to face it can be really difficult. Being a left-hander with the ball turning away actually gave me two sides of the wicket to play on. When the ball comes in to me I tend to play only on the on side. With Harbhajan I could play both the cut and sweep. It's quite important to try to get the fielders from round the bat, but if you hit a gap in India it's four.
"Look at the Indian batsmen, they don't go much for running between the wickets. Harbhajan will try to bowl the same six balls every over, I found, and it is probably helpful to make him change his line."
Hayden did not think England were out of the series. He said that they had played Shane Warne much better last summer (although Warne had the last word as ever) but advised them not simply to try to grind down Harbhajan. Not with Kumble at the other end.
There were comforting words too from a great Indian spinner. Bishen Bedi, the tantalising slow left-armer who took 266 Test wickets and was a Turbanator of his day, said Harbhajan was not a master bowler yet. "I don't think he is the best off-spinner in India, actually," he said. "He bowls too quickly, which means the batsmen can use the pace of the ball. It was dreadful batting, not good bowling, that did for England.
"Harbhajan did very well against Australia but that was because the Australians were too cocky. He has a long way to go. Look at his results outside and inside India."
All Bedi's points should offer some succour to England, but his last is certainly valid. In nine Tests outside India Harbhajan has taken 23 wickets at 43.39. Kumble, similarly, has played 32 Tests at home and taken 182 wickets at 21, while his 32 away have yielded 106 at 39.90. It is why both Hayden and Bedi plump for Warne as the world's best spin bowler – 194 wickets at home costing 26 each, 219 away at 27 – but paradoxically his 20 wickets in the spin haven of India have cost 52.
It will be of small comfort to England that Harbhajan's career was partly saved by an Englishman. After his first handful of Tests he was reported for having a suspect action. The International Cricket Council sent him to Lord's, where Fred Titmus, who played for England 53 times as an off-spinner, told him to cut down his run and and stand up straight in delivery.
"It was pretty obvious what he was doing wrong," Titmus said. "He was running up too far and from a funny angle, as so many youngsters from the sub-continent seem to. It means that by the time they reach the delivery they are starting to bend over a bit too much into the action and tending to lean backwards. It makes getting the arm over straight a bit more difficult."
Harbhajan's troubles were not done, because a few months afterwards he was expelled from the Indian academy for misbehaviour. The death of his father late last year concentrated his mind. When Kumble's injury prompted his recall against Australia he responded immediately and dedicated his performance to his father.
He is not the finished article and, as Hayden said, England learned quickly enough to beat Sri Lanka last winter. "A great result which the Australians envied," he said. But this time the feeling persists that it's different.
If England's legions of travelling fans break into song this week and next in Bangalore it may be to put a new slant on the chant: "You only Singh when you're winning."Reuse content