Another English summer in full swing
England. Summer. A Dukes ball. Put them in any sequence you want it spells—swing.
Moving the ball is not an exact science—the weather matters more than the nature of the pitch at times. The Dukes ball takes longer to stop swinging than the Kookaburra or the SG. Sometimes it swings more as it gets older. Like on Day 1 of the first Test between England and New Zealand on a fairly even Lord’s pitch, when Stuart Broad extracted an average swing of 1.8° after lunch compared to 0.4° in the morning session.
These are highly unpredictable conditions for batsmen, especially from India: Among all the countries to have played at least 10 Tests in England since 2007 (also the last time India won a Test series in England), India have the worst record against fast bowlers, conceding 251 wickets at an average of 14.76 scalps per Test.
With India set to spend the next three months in England, starting with the World Test Championship final in Southampton, it’s safe to say success will depend heavily on their ability to counter swing. First up are New Zealand who averaged 2.6° of new-ball swing against England in the Lord’s Test earlier this month. According to CricViz, that’s the second most for any team since 2006. Any degree of lateral movement is concerning for a batsman but for India, outswing has been the most difficult delivery to deal with. A comparative analysis of India’s batting in England since 2007 (see graphic) reveals that not only has outswing affected more dismissals than inswing, it also took a toll on the scoring. Virat Kohli’s attacking shots percentage, despite a successful 2018 tour, takes a beating (29% against inswing to 17% against outswing), as does Cheteshwar Pujara’s (22% to 10%). Ajinkya Rahane is the only aberration among the current lot (13% against outswing to 10% against inswing) but the overall performance of the trio has been well below their career marks. Kohli averages 36.35 in England against a career average of 52.37. Pujara 29.41 against 46.59 and Rahane 29.26 against 41.28.
Key battle: Kohli v Southee
Why are these three batsmen important? Because of the two openers selected for the World Test Championship final, only Rohit Sharma has played a Test in England (at No 6), that too in 2014. Shubman Gill is slated to make his debut in England on Friday. Given the thin experience, India will have to prepare for every eventuality. And an early setback would mean exposing the middle-order—these three most experienced men—to New Zealand’s swing bowlers, especially Tim Southee who had England on the ropes with 6/43 in the first innings of the Lord’s Test. Southee, who swung the ball more than anyone else in that Test, including James Anderson, has dismissed Kohli 10 times across formats, the most by any bowler against the India captain.
Kohli should be prepared though. He knows swing bowlers feed on batsmen’s propensity to free their arms against outswing when they are expecting the opposite. The front foot doesn’t move across swiftly as a result and the head falls over, affecting the balance between body and the arc of the shot. It’s a recipe for disaster, something Kohli knows well from his 2014 tour of England when he scored just 134 runs in five Tests. “The problem with me was that I was expecting inswingers too much and opened up my hip a lot more than I should have done. I was in no position to counter the outswing,” Kohli said later in an interview to bcci.tv. “I had too much of a bottom hand grip and I didn’t have too much room for my shoulder to adjust to the line of the ball, so it was getting too late when it swung in front of my eyes.”
Come the 2018 tour of England and Kohli was a different batsman, chalking up 149 in the first innings of the first Test at Edgbaston (he finished with 593 runs for the series). An obvious visible difference from the 2014 tour was how he used to stand outside the crease (by around 30 cm in front of his stance in 2014) to try and meet the ball under his eyes. That and a more side-on stance did the trick. “Every time, I played the ball, I wanted to make sure that my toe is pointing at point rather than cover, that’s how I kept my hip nice and side-on and gave myself room. I widened my stance as well so that I have good balance when I wanted to go forward,” he said.
“He left it a lot better and he was a lot more patient (in 2018),” remembers James Anderson. “He waited for you to bowl at him and then he’s very strong off his legs so he could score freely.”
But even technique doesn’t cut it every time. Sometimes, it boils down to sheer determination. Rahul Dravid, who holds the highest ever Test average (68.8) in England among Indians, is a great example. Look beyond the drawn (1-1) series of 2002 when Dravid scored three consecutive hundreds (115, 148 and 217) to the one India lost (0-4) miserably in 2011 (here too, Dravid scored hundreds at Lord’s, Nottingham and The Oval). Facing a sharper, more varied English bowling attack compared to 2002, Dravid’s resilience as makeshift opener in the second Test at Nottingham made for an unforgettable innings. Against persevering swing and pace on a lively pitch, Dravid was beaten but not broken. Playing late and close to the body at times, Dravid conceded maidens, nudged and nurdled singles between sieving the odd boundary through the gaps, slowly guiding India to a handy first-innings lead with 117 grafted over six hours. India suffered a heavy defeat but Dravid said it was one of his better hundreds because of its “hard-working, fighting” characteristics.
In Pujara, India have another skilled grafter who can complement Kohli’s flowing batting style but the fact that he hasn’t crossed 20 in 10 out of 18 innings in England points to unresolved issues at the start of his innings. New Zealand would be eager to exploit that. Kohli himself could be set up with an inswinger amid a flurry of deliveries leaving him. Rahane too will have to find a way to temper his generally aggressive ways away from home but simply put, this New Zealand side offers fast bowling variations that promise to test India at every level.
“New Zealand have got a right arm swing bowler (Southee), a left arm swing bowler (Boult), (Neil) Wagner who can both swing and bounce everybody out, Kyle Jamieson who’s six foot eight and can swing the ball and get bounce, and Colin de Grandhomme sort of bowling 120 and wobbling the ball around,” said former Kiwi quick Shane Bond during an interaction with the media.
Bond paints a scary picture for Indian batsmen—to Southee and Boult’s swing, add Jamieson’s high release point of 2.22m. The Test batting average of Kohli, Rahane, Sharma and Pujara against release points of 2.15m and above since 2018 are 36.66, 29.66, 25 and 19.90 respectively.