England confident they can deal with Ravichandran Ashwin

 

England are being urged to ignore the hype about Ravichandran Ashwin's new 'mystery ball', and simply play the off-spinner on his merits.

Alastair Cook and his fellow batsmen could be forgiven perhaps for some uncertainty on reading headlines in India today about Ashwin's latest delivery, and his intention to unveil it in the forthcoming four-Test series.

But they need only have a quick chat with their own spin wizard, slow-bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed, to conclude that they should not start fretting just yet.

Ashwin is already adept at his own version of the 'carrom ball', popularised by Sri Lanka's Ajantha Mendis, to go with his orthodox finger-spin.

Asked about his new prototype delivery, the 26-year-old told the Times of India: "I have been working on that ball for some time now.

"I might just use it in this series."

England, it seems, will not be suckered until the ball itself - as well as Ashwin - starts to talk.

Assistant coach Richard Halsall spent enough time on the Sussex staff with Pakistani leg-spinner Mushtaq to know some of the tricks of the trade are purely verbal.

"I was very fortunate to spend a few years with Mushtaq at Sussex, and Mushy would have a 'mystery ball' every week," he said.

"He'd show it to the opposition in the nets - and as we'd wander off he'd say 'that's just my leg-spinner'."

If Ashwin is not bluffing, however, England will be ready to adapt too.

"If he has got a mystery ball, that's fantastic for him - move cricket on, and all that," added Halsall.

"But I'm sure our batsmen will watch him carefully and deal with each ball as it comes."

It is well-chronicled already that England have been starved of useful match practice against frontline spin in their three warm-up fixtures here - a fact generally interpreted to be a tactic from on high in the India camp, to prevent the tourists becoming accustomed to the challenge they are about to face against Ashwin and slow left-armer Pragyan Ojha.

England are confident nonetheless they have done all they can to help themselves.

"It is frustrating, but we can't do anything about that," said Halsall.

"What we have been able to do is give the players sufficient practice of a high enough quality off the pitch that they feel ready.

"Then we hope that when you see them in the middle, they'll look quite comfortable with what's put up against them.

"The fact that the players feel ready, I think, is testament to what we've done."

England have offset the lack of exposure in the middle to quality spin by bringing in, with the help of their local hosts, skilled exponents and allowing them to bowl to their batsmen on scuffed net surfaces.

"It's not a concern, but it has been quite odd that we haven't faced the spin out in the middle - especially when there have been spinners playing.

"But we've been fortunate to have some exceptional net bowlers. Over here, you do get some exceptional players not in the games.

"So we've managed to get enough high-pressure, quality practice into the batsmen off the field so that they feel ready for the first Test."

England are well aware they must go, if not from nought to 90, as they switch from modest warm-up opposition to Test cricket then certainly right through the gears.

"I wouldn't describe it as a baptism of fire," said Halsall.

"But it will be different - Test cricket is very different from normal games.

"The players know that, but I think they'll be confident they've done the preparation which allows them - we hope - to be as successful as possible, come Thursday morning.

"I think we're delighted with the preparation - the amount of play we've managed to get into our batsmen, with five centuries so far and a lot of time in the middle.

"Our bowlers have managed to get enough significant spells into their legs, so that they feel ready."

The exceptions, of course, are first-choice seamers Steven Finn and Stuart Broad - who are hoping to recover in time from their respective thigh and heel injuries - and, to a lesser extent, off-spinner Graeme Swann following his brief return home while his baby daughter was unwell.

Swann was back with the squad this morning, after his 8,000-mile return trip in just a handful of days - and both Broad and Finn bowled off their full runs in the nets yesterday, the latter for the second time since he strained his thigh at the start of the tour.

"Steven and Stuart both looked fairly hostile," added Halsall.

"We'll monitor them over the next two days.

"It's fantastic to see where Steven is. We didn't think he'd be at this stage so soon.

"That's great, and Stuart is coming along exactly as we thought he would.

"Over the next two days, we'll know a little bit more. But we're happy with where they are at the moment."

PA

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