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Tune in to India for rank turners

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HUNTING IN PAIRS: Spinners Pragyan Ojha (left) and R Aswhin are proving to be MS Dhoni's main bowling options

MS Dhoni's call for spinning tracks, his opening the attack with Pragyan Ojha against the Kiwis at Bangalore is in complete contrast to the BCCI's diktat for sporting pitches in domestic cricket. How much impact will the Indian skipper's demand have on Indian cricket's fortunes?

Home sweet home. What a welcome relief it was for Mahendra Singh Dhoni to play a Test match at home. After eight successive defeats to England and Australia, Indians roared like tigers at home winning the two-Test series against New Zealand.

The chinks though are still visible in India's armour. Skipper Dhoni can't rely on his fast bowlers and doesn't have enough confidence in his nascent middle-order to succeed on sporting tracks. In the second Test at Bangalore, on a pitch which had just enough assistance for both spin and pace, even a struggling New Zealand outfit made life tough for Dhoni's boys. There is no surprise that the Indian skipper is calling for rank turners as he gets wary of stronger teams like Australia and England touring India.

In fact, on a surface that had plenty of assistance for the seamers, Dhoni preferred to open the bowling with left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha, highlighting his concerns blatantly. Now his calls for rank turners are not surprising but go against BCCI's policies of opting for sporting tracks at the domestic level.

India has been the final frontier in the sub-continent in the last few decades and that fact is unlikely to change anytime soon. So what makes us such powerhouses at home and, in the recent past, lambs abroad.
The dependence on spin-bowling is not a new phenomenon in Indian cricket. Under Mohammad Azharuddin, the side was built to be tigers at home on slow and low tracks which have dominated Indian domestic cricket till date.

"BCCI has taken stern steps against centres preparing under-prepared pitches. Under-25 and Ranji players should play on hard and pacey tracks. But the trend is changing. We can see most of the top wicket-takers in the recent Ranji seasons have been seamers. Given such a change, we can expect the Indian team not asking for turners in four years' time, " former BCCI Pitches and Ground Committee chairman Daljit Singh says.

The trend was bucked for a brief period under Sourav Ganguly as India saw the emergence of the likes of Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, Ishant Sharma and S Sreesanth and finally started winning abroad.
But that didn't change the scenario at home as Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh continued to be the architects of home wins. Injuries and form have started to catch up with our pace attack. Ishant and Sreesanth have been sidelined with injury while Zaheer's form has been on the wane having claimed only 11 wickets this season in five Tests at an average of over 47.

Not only are India struggling to claim wickets on sporting tracks abroad, the batsmen have failed to tackle the moving as well as the short ball. On tracks that don't provide much assistance to spin, India have lost eight successive Tests.

"Playing to home advantage is an accepted fact. Australia and England have started doing it regularly. One has to keep in mind that rank turners won't be available at all centres. But domestic cricket needs to be played on good wickets, " Daljit adds.

It seems like Team India is keen to roll back the clock to the '90s where over-reliance on spin made them untouchable at home. Concurrently, over-reliance on turning tracks in domestic cricket is one of the reasons why India has failed to produce quality seamers or batsmen who can handle pace bowling confidently. Former India captain and left-arm spinner Bishen Singh Bedi believes no skipper should have a say in what pitches should be prepared.

"First of all, the captain can't ask for a particular kind of track. This is a short-term strategy. One has to be pragmatic. The moment they go out of the country, they will be struggling. Despite having outstanding seamers in Zaheer and Umesh Yadav on a Bangalore wicket that had a bit for the seamers, Dhoni chose to open with Pragyan Ojha. That can hurt the team morale. Had I been Umesh, I would have revolted. What happens when he leaves? He is setting the wrong example. When England come here, Graeme Swann might as well swallow the Indian batting on such turners, " Bedi feels.

Bedi, who picked up 266 wickets in his 67-Test career, feels India will get 'false confidence' playing on such turners. "Playing on such tracks give false confidence to both the spinners and batsmen. Spin bowling is all about mastering the craft. On rank turners, R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha have very little to do. They didn't have to rely on their guile and variation. Before jumping on to the fact that Ashwin has been quickest to 50 Test wickets, let's look at how many wickets Ashwin managed to get in Australia?" Bedi asks.

Fellow left-arm spinner Maninder Singh concurs that Dhoni's demands are uncalled for. "It's an unjust demand by Dhoni. I don't think he is here for long. He might as well try to whitewash England and Australia at home and then quit Test cricket before travelling abroad. He has just won two Test matches in four days. Does he want them to finish in two days now?" Maninder says.

Even a quality off-spinner like Harbhajan Singh failed to claim wickets on surfaces which were good batting tracks. Bhajji had just 20 wickets in six Tests before he was promptly dropped from the side.
Maninder feels Dhoni's demand for turners will do little to build the confidence of Indian spinners. "Dhoni is taking confidence away from his own spinners by asking for wickets to turn square from Day One. He is making them restricted bowlers by infusing negative thoughts in them that you can win Test matches only on turners. All he is doing is making a mockery of his reputation. The BCCI should reprimand him, " he says.

Dhoni should take a cue from England's fall from grace and from the No. 1 ranking last month. England reached the top of the ranking thanks to the performance on traditionally pacy tracks, by their fast bowlers James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn and Tim Bresnan. But when faced with an equally adept South African attack featuring Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, the English were found wanting at home.

One of the strengths of the all-conquering Australians of the '90s and 2000s was their ability to adapt to any surface and condition. It did help that they had worldclass performers in Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, but they didn't have to doctor tracks to win at home.

"It's understandable that Dhoni has got the stick for poor performances in the Tests against Australia and England. He wants to restore the country's reputation. For him winning has become very important. But talking about playing on turning tracks, although it is fair to play to your strengths at home, as an administrator one has to be very careful about what kind of wickets you produce. We, as administrators, are usually careful because every match is observed by the ICC and the BCCI. We won't like cricket to be destroyed with Test matches getting over in two-three days, " former India opener Chetan Chauhan says.
There is no harm in utilising home advantage but India's hopes of regaining the No. 1 rank will certainly have to be put in the closet first, for the time being at least!

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