Horses for courses not a form thing

THE traditional cricket challenge in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has been to prosper or to survive against slow bowling then return the serve.

England's recent outstanding Test series victory confirmed that theorem. Spin played a leading role in Test wins for both teams and the eventual 2-1 score. India proved inadequate at playing slow stuff and perhaps the quality of their spin has slipped since Anil Kumble retired and Harbajhan Singh tired. Pragyan Ojha and Ravichandran Ashwin had their moments but not enough to pressure Kevin Pietersen and co.

Graeme Swann operated on his own in the Gujarati capital during the first Test loss but excelled with sidekick Monty Panesar at the other end through the final three. The venues of Nagpur, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Mumbai were predicated on England's weakness to spin.

Nearly every facet of the India-England series screams play three spinners, but Australia doesn't have such resources and its traditional strength has been quality fast and medium-fast seam bowling supported by capable spin. Shane Warne is the exception that proves the rule.

Despite what the selectors have to say about knowing who the best XI are, they don't. I'm not sure if anyone does; certainly the players don't. Such is the liquorice all-sorts of fixtures and forms, niggles and injuries and resting, and, god forbid, rotation that the skill levels of nearly every fast bowler in contention for the Test team and their ability to get through consecutive days of Test cricket - any cricket really - is uncertain.

The opening Test will be played in Chepauk. It spins a lot. Maybe Australia will find some bounce in the Punjab at Mohali, where the pace bowlers may well have their chance.

The Deccan Chargers' home field at Hyderabad can be grass-less if required and a dust bowl is likely for the final Test at the Feroz Shah Kotla in the nation's capital.

India's fastest bowler, Umesh Yadav, gets it through around the high 140s, but the home pitches have blunted his edge.

Fast bowlers speak mostly Punjabi and curators Hindi or Tamil or Bengali. They either don't understand or don't care what the pacers want. Batsmen rule the roost in the sub-continent and this may well be Sachin Tendulkar's last hurrah. He won't want to spend four Test matches listening to chin music.

Australia needs to choose clever fast bowlers for these conditions. Speed is always nice if you know where it is going and the pitch is reciprocating, otherwise greater pace out of the hand equals more speed off the bat. John Hastings' mixture of cutters and off-speed would suit. An all-rounder like Dan Christian who can mix up junk balls with occasional zip would suit. Christian has been filling that role beautifully on the Adelaide Oval for several years and is a genuine top-order batsman with experience of Indian pitches.

Knowledge of the conditions is vital. Field settings on slow pitches are key to a seamer's success. Often the field will be set mostly in front of the wicket as the edges don't carry on the slow surfaces but the off-speed balls hold up and grip.

Peter Siddle will need to vary his Australian direct method. Pounding a good length at pace with the occasional shake-up ball works well when the pitch isn't neutral.

Zaheer Khan has enjoyed a long and fruitful career in unhelpful conditions because he obeys the basics. He swings the new ball from close to the stumps then reverts to reverse swing when the spinners have trashed the ball. Siddle knows how to use reverse swing as a weapon. Zaheer bowls the fast off-break and the cutter; he takes pace off the ball more than he puts it on.

Rhythm, accuracy, variation and thought win wickets for pace bowlers. Pace works when grass is growing or cracks are widening but not always when footmarks are dusting. Will Mitchell Starc play in front of Mitchell Johnson? These pitches are not for Ben Hilfenhaus but he may suit Trent Bridge. Shane Watson knows India but is he allowed to bowl any more? Will James Pattinson be fit and does he have enough tools to wiggle out Gautam Ghambir, Cheteshwar Pujara, MS Dhoni and Tendulkar on their own patch? He will certainly be needed in the Ashes with a standard quickie's tool box.

It is hard to imagine two such contrasting Test series as Australia will play between late February and late August. The bowlers will need considerable and disparate skills to take wickets and win Test matches. After all, isn't that what fast bowling is really about?

This story Horses for courses not a form thing first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.