A left-arm fast caution for India batters
India’s right-handed batters aren’t the worst players of left-arm pace in white-ball cricket but Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli have worrying numbers.
Do India’s right-handed batters have a problem against left-arm pace? It’s a difficult angle to ace anyway, considering the extent to which it tinkers with the original batting stance. A right-handed batter has to open up his front leg, point his shoulder towards mid-on and at the same time be aware of his off-stump. When a batter isn’t side-on anymore, it automatically creates that corridor of uncertainty since the front foot has a larger arc to cover. If the bowler gets his line right, every delivery becomes an event.
Asked during the recent tour of the West Indies, India skipper Rohit Sharma didn’t feel left-arm seamers were troubling them. “I don't know about that,” he said at the toss for the third T20I. “As a team we want to improve in all aspects of the game, but in the last few series left-arm seamers have done well against us. I don’t see that as a concern. It’s not that the guys are struggling, it happens when you’re trying to score quickly. But we do need to understand when we come up against certain bowlers, we just want to come out and express ourselves, that's what we want to continue doing.”
Be that as it may, India have been on the receiving end of some left-arm fast bowling in the past one year. First over of the T20 World Cup match last year, Pakistan’s Shaheen Afridi bowled a yorker-length ball on a flat Dubai pitch, bending it and forcing Sharma to open his stance even more to be struck on the back leg as a result. Next over, Afridi got the ball to shape in from off-stump and hurry into KL Rahul, clattering on to the stumps. India’s only resistance came in Virat Kohli’s fifty but Afridi finally lured him into top-edging a slower bouncer to be caught by the ‘keeper. India lost to Afridi that day.
Afridi or Trent Boult, Reece Topley during the England ODIs or Obed McCoy in the West Indies, the issues of Indian batters with left-arm pace bowling seem more pronounced now. “They need to play left-arm (pace bowling) a little bit better,” former England captain Nasser Hussain said after Topley took 3/35 in the third ODI at Old Trafford. “History tells you that Shaheen Afridi blew them away one evening in Dubai, Mohammad Amir blew them away one afternoon at the Oval in a final (2017 Champions Trophy), and Topley has blown them away here.”
McCoy was the last reality check, returning 6/17 in the second India-West Indies T20I at Basseterre, all six victims right-handers. Restrained yet aggressive, McCoy no doubt is one of the better shorter format bowlers to emerge in West Indies in recent times. Though he finally ran out of steam on the US leg of the T20I tour, conceding 93 in six overs, McCoy did briefly highlight a nagging concern.
India are not the worst of the lot though when it comes to the matchup between right-handed batters and left-arm seamers. Since the 2019 World Cup final, India’s right-handed batters have averaged 41.14 against left-arm pacers in the first ODI powerplay, which is only behind Pakistan (58). India’s ODI powerplay run rate (5.48) is below that of Pakistan (5.52), England (6) and New Zealand. This points to a more guarded approach that assures modest runs while helping preserve wickets in the first 10 overs—a reasonable approach given that ODIs provide teams more overs to make amends later. India fare slightly better in T20Is though. During the phase mentioned above, India’s right-handed batters have averaged around 43 against left-arm pace in T20I powerplays. That is ahead of South Africa (38.71), West Indies (33.83) and T20 World Cup champions Australia (26.22), but behind England (49.25) and Ireland (47.5).
In a white-ball game, left-arm pace bowling takes up barely 10% of the total overs. Ideally, it shouldn’t affect economies or averages, but once the left-handed pacer starts dismissing right-hand batters, the match-up assumes a different dimension. McCoy did that in the second T20I. Before him, Topley exposed India’s vulnerability by dismissing Sharma in consecutive ODIs, apart from inducing Kohli to poke at his leaving delivery in the third ODI. The only right-handed batter to have consistently performed well against left-arm pace is Rahul, which is why his return to the white-ball set-up would be keenly followed considering India will play Pakistan at least twice in the Asia Cup.
Take out Rahul’s contribution and here’s how India’s top-three have performed since the 2019 World Cup. In ODIs, where he has a formidable conversion record, Sharma has averaged 36.4 against left-arm pace as opposed to 65 against right-arm pace. Once considered a risk-free accumulator in T20Is, Kohli averages 16.80 against left-arm pace compared to 63.90 against right-arm pace—a remarkable gap for a top-order batter. All three go into the Asia Cup—together for the first time since the 2021 T20 World Cup—hoping to allay the apprehension that left-arm pace could become a big factor. Because Pakistan have Afridi and Bangladesh Mustafizur Rahman. It won’t be easy.