Indian Test spinner Axar Patel doesn’t have befuddling varieties or turn the ball square yet ran amok against England, underlining why Australia should value accuracy over aggression when picking spinners in Asia.
Patel took an incredible 27 wickets at 10 against England as a reminder that precise finger spinners who exploit the natural variation of Asian pitches are more effective than hard-ripping wrist spinners.
That’s why accurate left armer Ashton Agar shapes as a superior Test option in Asia than leg spin strike bowler Mitchell Swepson.
Once this year’s Ashes is done, Australia will embark on their heaviest ever itinerary of Tests in Asia, making it paramount they nail their spin selections.
Australia remarkably are scheduled to play four separate Test series in Asia next year, starting with two Tests in the UAE against Pakistan, then two in Sri Lanka, one in India against Afghanistan, and four in India against the home side.
This is either a nightmare or a gilded opportunity for the Aussies, depending on your outlook. Australia have had a shocking Test record in Asia since 2013, winning only two of 17 matches in that time.
That included a horrific run of nine consecutive losses between 2013 and 2016. Since then, however, Australia have showed improvement in Asia. In 2017 in India, the Aussies had a chance of a series victory right up until the last day of the series, and followed that with a 1-1 series in Bangladesh.
Then in their most recent series in Asia, Australia scrapped one rousing draw despite missing stars Steve Smith, Pat Cummins, David Warner and Josh Hazlewood.
Australia have also massively improved their white ball performances in Asia. Since the start of 2019, the Aussies have a dominant limited overs international record in Asia, with 11 wins and four losses. They won three of their four white ball series in Asia during that time, including ODI and T20I series wins in India, and a 5-0 ODI drubbing of Pakistan in the UAE.
None of those gains, however, will be of any relevance if Australia flounder across their nine Tests in Asia next year. The benefit of this heavy schedule of Tests in Asia is Australia will get plenty of time to acclimatise before, late in 2022, facing the biggest challenge in world cricket – playing India in India.
England benefited from two Tests in Sri Lanka this January before heading to India, where they upset the hosts in the first Test.
From there, though, it was a bloodbath. The Indian spinners toyed with England’s batting line-up across the last three Test of that series, which the home team eventually won 3-1.
Patel took 7, 11 and 9 wickets in those final three matches. Yet he is not a wizardly spinner who perplexes batsmen with mystery balls and giant turn, like a Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan.
On a lot of surfaces, Patel could appear a relatively innocuous bowler. He does not get huge revolutions on his deliveries, earn sharp bounce or create greatly-deceptive loop.
What he does do, however, is make frequent, subtle changes to his pace, trajectory and angle, and land an extremely-high proportion of deliveries on a testing line and length. This makes him tailor-made for Asian conditions.
So often, when non-Asian fans and pundits talk about conditions in that continent, they focus on the sharp spin on offer. Yet it is not wild spin that kills visiting batting line-ups to Asia, but rather natural variation. If the ball is consistently turning square, the batsmen at least can predict its behaviour.
What they can’t decode is two identical deliveries that react in wildly different fashion when they hit the pitch.
One turns significantly and the next skids on straight. Visiting batsmen constantly get sucked into playing for the turn and so are out bowled or LBW over and over. This is what happened to the English batsmen against Patel.
The key to exploiting this natural variation is to be extremely precise and also quick through the air. That’s why teams like India very rarely play wrist spinners in home Tests – they are too inaccurate and slow in flight compared to finger spinners.
On Asian pitches, wrist spinners give batsmen more time to read them off the surface, and also land fewer deliveries on a perfect line and length.
This is why, despite what their first-class records may suggest, Agar is a better option than Swepson for Tests in Asia. The Queenslander has vastly superior first-class stats, averaging 34 with the ball versus Agar’s mark of 41.
It must be remembered, though, that Agar has been hindered by being based for most of his career at the WACA, arguably the world’s toughest venue for spin bowling, where he averages 61 in red ball cricket.
Australian Test spinner Nathan Lyon probably hates the WACA too, averaging 43 there in red ball cricket, while Swepson has averaged 52 there from five matches.
Before his recent injury, Swepson had shown great development in the Shield this summer. If fit, then he will almost certainly tour Asia with the Aussie Test side next year. Yet Swepson actually shapes as a more enticing prospect on harder, truer Australian pitches, which often demand a spinner rips and loops the ball like he does.
Agar, by comparison, may well be pedestrian on such pitches. He simply does not get enough work on the ball to challenge elite Test batsmen on consistent batting surfaces. But on dry Asian pitches, with generous natural variation on offer, Agar could be a weapon.
As he’s shown in his limited overs international career, Agar has impeccable control. He’s also able to make significant changes to his pace without an obvious alteration in his action. The West Australian is actually very similar in style to Patel as a first-class spinner.
That’s certainly not to suggest he can be anywhere near as effective in Tests as the Indian. But Agar showed in his only series in Asia, when he took 7 wickets at 23 in Bangladesh, that his subtle changes of pace, angle and flight are suited to those conditions.
It is he, and not Swepson, who should be groomed to partner Lyon during Australia’s glut of Test cricket in Asia next year.