Bangalore: There is no correlation between marble games, whose origin can be traced back to the Harappan civilisation, and cricket, but from them emerges one of the doctrines of left-arm spin bowling: precision. That some of the finest slow left-arm orthodox bowlers belonged to either side of the Radcliffe line that divides India and Pakistan only substantiates the belief. The tribe’s contribution to Indian cricket is a wonderful storyline that runs through the decades.
Vinoo Mankad’s figures of 12 for 108 against England at Chepauk in February 1952 inspired India’s first Test win, and Bapu Nadkarni’s 21 consecutive maiden overs against the same opponent at the Corporation Stadium in Chennai in 1964 remains the most economical spell in Test cricket. Salim Durrani was flamboyant, Bishan Singh Bedi was large hearted and skilful, while Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar relentlessly dominated the domestic circuit.
Dilip Doshi, who made his Test debut at 32, reached the 100-wicket mark in just 28 matches. No one else apart from Clarrie Grimmett, the Australian legspinner, has reached that milestone after making his debut past the age of 30. Ravi Shastri, Maninder Singh, Venkatapathy Raju, Sunil Joshi and Murali Karthik have during their time, in their own virtuoso ways, kept the craft and its narrative alive.
At Eden Gardens in November 2011, when Pragyan Ojha trapped Kirk Edwards, the West Indian batsman, leg before, he became the fastest Indian left-arm spinner to 50 wickets. With 75 wickets from 16 Tests, at an economy rate of 2.75, he has established his eligibility as the heir to India’s left-arm spin fraternity. Like most of his predecessors, Ojha is not a great turner of the cricket ball and he knows that. “I have learnt over the years that my weapon is consistency,” he says. “If I hit the right areas, from there I can penetrate.”
Ojha was born in Bhubaneswar in 1986 and studied at DAV Public School, Chandrasekharpur, till class nine. Like many of his age, cricket fascinated him and he joined a local club in the city. If the folklore in Bhubaneswar is to be believed, then he went to the same club – Shahid Sportings – as Debasish Mohanty, the former India pace bowler. However, this was before Sourav Ganguly became captain of the national team, and helped bridge the gap between smaller centres and big cities.
Ojha shifted to Hyderabad to complete his schooling, and enrolled in college. It was only then that he took cricket seriously. “Today, I am thankful to my school, Bhavan’s Sri Ramakrishna Vidyalaya,” he says. “You needed someone who would back you and it was great to have their support.”
While the dream to play for the country had always been there, he never considered himself “India material” till his one-day international debut against Bangladesh at Karachi in June 2008. Instead, the focus was always on savouring the experience – “I just wanted to do well in domestic circuit and enjoy first-class cricket.”
Solid performances for Hyderabad, South Zone and India A between 2005 and 2008 led to his Test debut against Sri Lanka at Kanpur in November 2009, exactly a year after Anil Kumble’s retirement. Disciplined bowling and four wickets, including that of Mahela Jayawardene, would have allowed him to believe that he would get a consistent run. But it was not until the West Indies series last year that he established his position in the side for home Test matches. He has yet to play a game outside the subcontinent.
Since his debut, India have played 33 Tests but he has featured in only 16. Ojha is aware of the fickle nature of his position and the competition that he is a part of. Therefore, he is not willing to be carried away by his initial success. “It is just the beginning and that is how I would like to keep it,” he says. “I have just started playing Test cricket. I am not focussing on wickets right now. I am focussed on the process. I know if I can play a lot of games, keep myself match fit and just keep the rhythm going, everything will fall into place.”
Last summer in England, while India were being thrashed 4-0, eventually losing their number one Test ranking, Ojha was busy picking up wickets in county cricket. He picked up 24 wickets in four matches, as Surrey were promoted to Division 1 of the championship. In Australia, prominent voices in the media questioned his absence from the playing XI despite being a part of the touring party. However, Ojha is unperturbed by his stopgap career. “When you are aiming to play for your country, you do not have to think about anything else.
“You have to just keep backing yourself with performances. I was getting wickets on India A tours and gradually went on to play for country. When I did not get games to play, I ensured that I did not miss domestic games. Having bowled to a lot of Indian players on the domestic circuit, I have gained a lot of experience, because they are more difficult to bowl to than foreign players.”
He accredits his level-headedness to marriage, which has helped put fluctuating cricket fortunes into perspective. “Marriage helps you stabilise and be calm and not think about too many things,” he says. “It has helped me grow as an individual.”
Ojha is keener to stick to his strengths rather than try out new variations during the season. “At the highest level, instead of concentrating on your weakness, if you can focus on your strength and hit the right areas, I feel it will help you,” he says. “Weaknesses are there and it is in the off season that one needs to work on them, not during the season when you are playing important games, and are an important part of your team. You cannot let your team down by trying different things.”
He believes that a lot of his progress as a bowler has been possible because of the captains he has played under right from junior cricket days. He puts his current national captain right up there. “Dhoni bhai is outstanding,” he says. “He makes my job easier by setting the field, helping me figure out how to bowl to a batsman. That way, I am really lucky to have got good captains right from under-19 days. In the future too, I hope I will get to play with a lot of great captains.”
Another cricketer with whom he has shared a great rapport since childhood is Ravichandran Ashwin. After the duo’s outstanding performance against West Indies last year at home and against New Zealand earlier this season, all eyes will be on them in the eight home Tests against England and Australia. Ojha is aware of the expectations, and knows the dynamics of their relationship. “He attacks on the wickets that suit him, and I attack on the pitches that suit me,” says Ojha. “So we complement each other. All aspects of cricket are about partnership. In a bowling partnership, it is important to not give away easy runs. You keep mounting the pressure and then the batsman gets frustrated and gives away his wicket.”
Though he has been labelled a conservative bowler at times, Ojha is unperturbed. “I know what my job is,” he says. “It’s not like I am always trying to contain. I am focussing on the process. I should not be concentrating on what the other person is doing. If I do that, then I will be leaving my game plan and focussing on the other guy’s game. It does not matter who picks up wickets. At the end of the day, we are playing for India, and we have to do well.”
Like his current Hyderabad captain, VVS Laxman, Ojha too is a big fan of domestic cricket. He believes it is the ideal training ground for what promises to be a long and gruelling season. He picked up 13 wickets against New Zealand in two Tests, but the warm-up began much before that. “You practice for hours in the nets but that is different from playing the game, therefore I played a few league matches before the New Zealand series.”
After the New Zealand Tests, he played in the Irani Cup for Rest of India, was in South Africa with Mumbai Indians for the Champions League Twenty20, and has played a Ranji game against Punjab. He says that playing regularly in the domestic circuit has multiple benefits. “As Laxman bhai says, ‘Not only it is good for me, it is good for the future. People who look up to you, when they see you come and play domestic cricket after playing for the country it inspires them to play domestic cricket’. And it keeps you match fit.”
He knows that for him to be a regular member of the limited-overs sides, he needs to improve other skills. “I am definitely working on my batting,” he says. I should get scores in the 20s.” The Mohali Test match against Australia in 2010, which India won by one wicket, is one of the batting performances he cherishes. “Laxman bhai had the liberty to get angry with me that day,” he says, harking back to a rare loss of temper from the senior stalwart. “We never wanted to lose from that point. The hard work he put in would have gone waste with one mistake. He was guiding me.”
Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook, the current England captain, are the only visiting batsmen with a Test century against their name in India. Pietersen’s vulnerability against left-arm spin is well documented – Of his 274 dismissals in international cricket, 49 have come against them. In their first encounter in 2009 at Cape Town, during an Indian Premier League match, Ojha dragged Pietersen out of his crease and had him stumped. If economics is to be applied to the upcoming Test series, then Pietersen and Ojha make a good example for substitute goods.
Aware of the background and his significance to the series, Ojha says, “That is there in my head. However, I would like to keep things simple rather than complicate them. At the end of the day, it is a sport, and we should enjoy it rather than put a lot of pressure on ourselves.”