England unfazed by Indian talk of ‘mystery ball’

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England are being urged to ignore the hype about Ravichandran Ashwin’s new ‘mystery ball’, and simply play the off-spinner on his merits.

Alastair Cook and his fellow batsmen could be forgiven perhaps for some uncertainty on reading headlines in India yesterday about Ashwin’s latest delivery, and his intention to unveil it in the forthcoming four-Test series.

But they need only have a quick chat with their own spin wizard, slow-bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed, to conclude that they should not start fretting just yet. Ashwin is already adept at his own version of the ‘carrom ball’, popularised by Sri Lanka’s Ajantha Mendis, to go with his orthodox finger-spin.

Asked about his new prototype delivery, the 26-year-old said: “I have been working on that ball for some time now. I might just use it in this series.”

England, it seems, will not be suckered until the ball itself – as well as Ashwin – starts to talk.

Assistant coach Richard 
Halsall spent enough time on the Sussex staff with Pakistani leg-spinner Mushtaq to know some of the tricks of the trade are purely verbal. “I was very fortunate to spend a few years with Mushtaq at Sussex, and Mushy would have a ‘mystery ball’ every week,” he said. “He’d show it to the opposition in the nets – and as we’d wander off he’d say ‘that’s just my leg-spinner’.”

If Ashwin is not bluffing, however, England will be ready to adapt too. “If he has got a mystery ball, that’s fantastic for him – move cricket on, and all that,” added Halsall. “But I’m sure our batsmen will watch him carefully and deal with each ball as it comes.”

It is well-chronicled already that England have been starved of useful match practice against frontline spin in their three warm-up fixtures here – a fact generally interpreted to be a tactic from on high in the India camp, to prevent the tourists becoming accustomed to the challenge they are about to face against Ashwin and slow left-armer Pragyan Ojha. England are confident nonetheless they have done all they can to help themselves. “It is frustrating, but we can’t do anything about that,” said Halsall. “We have been able to give the players sufficient practice of a high enough quality off the pitch that they feel ready. Then we hope that when you see them in the middle, they’ll look quite comfortable with what’s put up against them. The fact the players feel ready is testament to what we’ve done.”

England have offset the lack of exposure in the middle to quality spin by bringing in, with the help of their local hosts, skilled exponents and allowing them to bowl to their batsmen on scuffed net surfaces.