In the lead-up to the England series, a certain distasteful fervour underpinned the advertising campaigns which attempted to drum up television audiences. There was an unholy obsession with the revenge theme, with little thought to the fact that while Andrew Strauss's England handed out a 4-0 thrashing in the summer of 2011, this team was all Alastair Cook's. The concerted attempt to render England's practice matches meaningless, by hiding specialist spinners and providing misleading batting surfaces, ensured that the focus then shifted to England's foibles against spin.
It was indicative of the Indian mindset, focusing on the perceived weaknesses of the opposition and trying to portray the series as something more than sport, instead of dwelling on their own considerable strengths. A batting line-up missing Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman has thrown up stars such as Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, but we heard barely a peep about the possibility of this beforehand. The gravest and most baffling oversight, however, was the lack of respect for a spin combination that has won every battle it has fought at home.
Somehow, when people looked at Pragyan Ojha, they did not see a bowler who had taken 63 wickets in 12 home Tests, but rather a left-arm spinner who bowled fairly quickly through the air and could be restrictive and accurate. When Ravichandran Ashwin was discussed, it was about his lack of mystery – which itself is odd considering the variations he has – rather than the fact that he was on the cusp of being the fastest Indian to 50 Test wickets, something he quickly achieved.
Midway through the third day's play, however, the value of Ojha and Ashwin, both individually and as a pairing, became obvious to anyone with an open mind. Ashwin, despite not being anywhere near his best, and struggling to land his carom ball or leg-break anywhere but on the pads, accounted for three of England's top four. Ojha, who was occasionally used by Mahendra Singh Dhoni in spells as long as 11 overs to keep control over the game, was even better, consistently threatening to burst through England's defences.
Kevin Pietersen's penchant for being dismissed by slow left-armers notwithstanding, the manner in which Ojha tormented the big man for 47 minutes on the third morning was proof of how far he had come as a bowler. When Pietersen lunged down the pitch, Ojha altered his line in a flash. If Pietersen plonked his foot down the pitch in an attempt to use his not-inconsiderable reach, Ojha was quick to shorten his length. The ball that eventually got KP was fairly innocuous, but Ojha had already planted enough doubt in the batsman's mind and deservedly reaped the reward.
Operating together rather than just bowling from either end at the same time, Ojha and Ashwin shredded England's batting line-up on a pitch that would ease up significantly enough to allow Cook and Nick Compton to progress to 111 in nearly two-and-half hours in England's second innings. Having bowled 42 overs between them in the first dig, Ojha and Ashwin could hardly have been tired, even given the Ahmedabad sun, but when the two went temporarily off the boil the complexion of the game changed.
Suddenly, instead of thinking of their weakness against spin or trying to be aggressive in a bid to show they were not daunted by the slow bowlers, two England batsmen were batting normally, and enhancing hard-earned reputations.
When Ojha and Ashwin were on song in the first innings, a four-day finish seemed inevitable, and the eight wickets they shared seemed like the first instalment of a systematic looting of the series.
What little there has been of the second innings, 38 overs, has shown how eminently negotiable Indian conditions are when the spin duo are not running riot. Born just 15 days apart, Ojha and Ashwin, both 26, can rest assured that their value will not go unrecognised.
Anand Vasu is managing editor of Wisden India: www.wisdenindia.com
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