Three spinners in a playing XI in a Test match? Away from home, even if Sri Lanka is as close to home as India can expect to get? Welcome to the world of horses for courses.
Not even when Ishant Sharma and Varun Aaron were getting the ball to go and extracting appreciable bounce out of the day one surface at Galle International Cricket Stadium would Virat Kohli have doubted if he had got the composition of his five-man bowling attack right. The first reaction was that India would have been better off playing the extra seamer, a feeling that took deeper root when Ishant fired out Dimuth Karunaratne and Aaron accounted for Kaushal Silva.
The Indian think tank, though, had read the surface perfectly; their assessment was that this was a track that was, despite the recent rains, a lot drier than surfaces in Galle normally are. It took R Ashwin just two deliveries to prove them right as he got one to dip, bounce and turn significantly away from Kumar Sangakkara.
Before Wednesday (August 12), India hadn’t played three spinners overseas in 18 years; the last time they fielded three full-time spinners in any Test match was at home, at Feroz Shah Kotla in New Delhi against Michael Clarke’s Australia, in March 2013. Ashwin remains the only constant between then and now. On that occasion, his spinning mates were Pragyan Ojha and Ravindra Jadeja, the two left-armers; the spin trio picked up 17 wickets as India cruised to a six-wicket win. This time around, Ashwin had for company two experienced campaigners who made their Test debuts well before him, but both of whom he has upstaged to establish himself as the No. 1 tweaker in the country.
Harbhajan Singh was a shoo-in as the second spinner, given that he was expressly drafted into the Test squad for the one-off game in Bangladesh in June because of the profusion of left-hand batsmen in the Bangladesh line-up, not unlike the case with Sri Lanka, too, who have four left-hand batsmen in their top six. India took a cue from the preceding tour by Pakistan of Sri Lanka when Yasir Shah tormented the home side while picking up 24 wickets in three matches as they brought Amit Mishra, the legspinner, back into Test cricket after four years.
Mishra’s last Test was in August 2011 against England at The Oval. Mishra, now 32, will remember that match more for making 43 and 84 in an innings loss than figures of 39-3-170-0 that put his career in limbo, seemingly permanently. It is debatable if Mishra would have made this trip had Karn Sharma, the young leggie who debuted in Australia late last year, been fully fit. Karn missed the limited-overs tour of Zimbabwe after sustaining a break in the middle finger of his left hand last month, and even though he is playing for India A in the triangular series in Chennai, wasn’t considered for national selection given his lack of recent match practice.
Mishra had missed 33 Tests between his last appearance and this game and hasn’t added a five-wicket haul to the 5 for 71 he took on debut against Australia in Mohali in October 2008, but he does have 476 first-class wickets.
While the leggie did rip a few in his three overs to lunch, he was clearly feeling the pressure of a comeback. And though he may not bring the same virtues of a Shah, he does have his own unique skill-sets that the Indians are hoping will pay dividends as the match progresses and the pitch wears further.
Anil Kumble, Rajesh Chauhan and Nilesh Kulkarni, on debut, formed the last Indian spin triumvirate to play in an overseas Test, at R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo in August 1997. Kulkarni, the last of the three to be introduced to the attack, became only the 12th bowler to take a wicket with his first delivery in Test cricket.
That was as good as it got, Sanath Jayasuriya and Roshan Mahanama associating themselves in a stand of 576 for the second wicket. Sri Lanka amassed 952 for 6 declared, the highest score in Test cricket, and between them, Chauhan (78-8-276-1), Kumble (72-7-223-1) and Kulkarni (70-12-195-1) had combined figures of 220-27-694-3. Given his self-confessed reasonably sketchy idea of history, there is every chance Kohli is unaware of any of these numbers, just as there is little danger of that slice of history repeating itself. Ashwin alone had figures of 6-1-15-3 as Sri Lanka took lunch at a wobbly 65 for 5. Now, to see what course this threesome charts over the next few days.