Spin classes start as India looms
Ed Cowan's approach to spin is to stretch forward and smother. Photo: Getty Images
THE Australian batsman from the past I most wish I had seen is Neil Harvey, for his dancing feet. A spin bowler once said that Harvey came so far down the wicket 'I thought he must want to shake my hand'. Yet for all the risks he took, Harvey was never stumped in a Test match.
A few years of watching Michael Clarke has lightened the disappointment.
Surely nobody since Harvey (perhaps Allan Border?) has moved down the wicket to spin bowling with such speed, lightness and precision. At the SCG on Sunday, against some testing spin bowling and under no little pressure, Clarke was again playing a different type of cricket to his teammates. As was said of Harvey when he played spin, the further Clarke skips down the wicket, the safer he seems.
Sunday's chase, which was more tense than the scorecard indicates, provided a guide to how the Australian batsmen will fare in the Test series in India. Rangana Herath is not dissimilar to India's Pragyan Ojha, a left-armer who imparts not so much spin as suspicion onto the ball, which is hard to predict and impossible to trust.
Compared with Clarke, the other top-order batsmen play spin from the crease. Ed Cowan gets further down the track to the pacemen than to the spinners. His approach to spin is to stretch forward and smother. If the ball drops short, he adjusts his shot to deflect, mostly to the leg-side. If it floats, he might drop a knee and sweep. His extravagant step with his front pad means the ball hits it a lot, so Cowan can expect to find himself constantly embattled and appealed against in India. The manner of his dismissal, pressing so far forward that the pad became the first line of defence and the bat the second, was the type of thing he'll have to watch out for.
Being under siege may not be a bad thing for Cowan. His temperament so far shows a preference for struggle. On a plumb wicket against a third-rate attack, Cowan can be relied upon to lower himself to the prevailing standard. By contrast, his best innings this summer have come in desperate times: his century in Brisbane prevented a rout, he prospered in Perth when all others were falling, and his second innings in Sydney cannot be underestimated. In the strictly limited way that Cowan is a strictly limited batsman, it was a match-winning knock.
There are more reservations about Cowan's batting than there are at a new Matt Moran restaurant. In India, his lunges and his limitations will be questioned, but so far he has shown himself a good man in a crisis, and on Indian wickets crises can feel permanent.
Phillip Hughes' approach to spin has worked on the subcontinent before.
Like a butcher, he takes his position and waits for something to cut. He has brought lighter feet back into the team, and will try to force the bowlers off their length from time to time. He did not face Ravi Ashwin in the Test matches here last summer, and the tall off-spinner will challenge him. The English left-handers who liked to cut were sometimes caught out misjudging Ashwin's pace in the recent series. Hughes will do well to watch some video of Alastair Cook, learn what he can about patience, and then throw the video away and be his own man.
Those three nervous hours at the SCG were just a taste of Chennai and Hyderabad. It won't have gone unnoticed that the batsman who coped with the spin bowling and noisy close-in fields better than anyone except Clarke was the bloke who came in at No. 5. A cover-drive, a pull, a reverse-sweep. Farewell, Mr Cricket, we'll miss you. And for your team, 46 days from now in Delhi, they'll miss you.