Murali Kartik might well be, in the eyes of many, the best left-arm finger spinner in India right now and deserving of a place in the Indian Test squad, but what his proponents don’t realize is that many a times the best man is not necessarily the best man for the job. Pragyan Ojha is like that, kinda like the Ringo Starr of a four man Indian bowling line-up. Murali Kartik is not. He’s more like John Lennon.
This in no way a suggestion that the Indian bowling is as fabulous as the combination Ringo was part of. It’s just that much about Ojha’s role as the second finger spinner in the Indian Test side could, in a sense, be likened to what people thought Ringo did for The Beatles, i. e., apparently, nothing terribly important or much in the eyes of many. This, it needs to be mentioned, is a popular misconception. And one the happy-go-lucky Ringo quickly learnt to get over in order to be able to exploit his relatively limited musical talents to the fullest, and thrive as part of the fabulous four. Ojha, too, will have to come to grips with this challenge of not being the ‘Star’ of the show, if he is to have a long and successful career like that of the ‘fourth’ Beatle or even the fourth bowler in South Africa’s attack: Paul Harris, another left-arm finger spinner Ojha has a lot in common with and who also does an efficient, solid and sound Ringo-like turn for his country’s bowling combination.
Like Ringo, Ojha is enthusiastic, a bit of a clown and seems mighty pleased to do the job he has been assigned by his Coach and Captain. Like Harris, Ojha’s contributions are noticed but rarely do they inspire paeans. That’s because Ojha doesn’t (or can’t) wow audiences with extravagant turn or subtle variations in flight or anything remotely virtuoso. All the big guy does, and pretty damn well, is never lose sight of the big picture. What this usually means is that he ends up excelling in situations when one of the bowlers (him) is expected to concentrate on drying up the runs while the other goes about the business of taking wickets. Ojha has proven to be extremely effective at executing part one of this two-pronged bowling strategy that the sides with limited resources (most sides in this day and age of batsman-dominated cricket) strive to adhere to, thanks to which this young man from Khurda, Orissa, has already come a long way and achieved a feat no Indian specialist left-arm finger-spinner has since the glory days of the clever Venkatapathy Raju, which is play 5 Test matches in a row. It might seem like a small thing, but considering how important Ringo Starr was to The Beatles and Paul Harris has turned out to be for South Africa, Ojha’s mini-landmark should not be ignored, for Ojha has it in him to perform on all kinds of wickets and be groomed into one of the pillars of this Indian bowling line-up in the years to come.
When a side has specialist bowlers who know how to enact the role they have been chosen for, it makes life very easy for the Captain. What’s more, it doesn’t force the team to pick bowlers who can bat a bit or batsmen who can bowl a bit as a back-up for specialists who’re too talented or obstinate or arrogant or undisciplined or just plain unwilling to play a supporting role. Ojha has shown in the last two series he has been part of the Indian side that he can be depended on to do what he’s best at: help his fellow bowlers take wickets by delivering over after over of sustained and what we call ‘passive-aggressive’ left-arm spin from the other end. Having a trustworthy bowler like Ojha in the side makes it easier for the Captain to execute his carefully-laid plans.
Ojha uses his height (he is 6ft tall, Harris is 5 inches taller than Ojha) and strength to send the ball down from an elevated trajectory and at a pace brisk enough to make the batsmen think twice about dancing down the wicket to attack his deliveries. Luckily for them, Ojha is not a big spinner of the cricket ball and so they can play him from the crease quite confidently most times… but not casually. For Ojha bowls a lot of maidens, making it so much easier for his fellow bowlers to take wickets. It’s not rocket science, but neither is it a piece of cake to accomplish. All the more reason we should treasure Ojha, despite his near-brush with death at the hands of the normally mild-mannered VVS Laxman in the closing moments of the last test at Mohali.
On January 15th, this year, Sriram Veera of Cricinfo wrote: If you want your second spinner to bowl tight and apply pressure, you have Ojha to do the job, and if you want that spinner to attack and get wickets, you have Mishra. That's the perception, at least.
Will Ojha strive to change that, or position himself in alignment with the perception and let the team decide what they want out of the second spinner? Time will tell.
Based on recent performances and trends, it does seem like Amit Mishra is not what the Coach and Captain want from their second spinner. On first-day pitches that hardly turn and fifth day surfaces that don’t as much as they used to, it makes tactical sense for this Indian side to have someone less ostentatious than Mishra and more like Ojha in the side. A school of thinking buttressed by the fact that Ojha has played an important hand in India’s last three Test wins. Of course, Ojha being Ojha he has no man of the match awards or five-wicket hauls to show for it. But ask Dhoni and he’ll tell you why Ojha’s contribution was just as significant. It remains to be seen whether Ojha will hold his place as the side’s second spinner in the months to come. If he continues to play like Ringo, there’s a good chance he will for a long time and remembered very fondly.