India batsmen show how to tame the turn
A pitch looks playable as long as a batsman makes it to be. India, so far, have been better at it than England in the second Test in Chennai. For all their productive patience shown on a flat pitch in the first Test, England may not be skilled enough to tackle this one. It’s to India’s liking though. Don’t be surprised if Cheteshwar Pujara steps out to Moeen Ali again on Monday. Skipping down a few yards is an aggressive but popular way of forcing the spinner to drop it shorter from the rough on the pitch. That’s one of the basic methods to counter spin on an inconsistent surface. And considering how the game has panned out, this may well dictate the contrasting fortunes of England and India.
Sweeping helps too but on pitches with variable turn and bounce, it isn’t always a percentage shot. Approaches vary, said R Ashwin after his five-wicket haul. But the off-spinner feels getting stuck in defence doesn’t help. There were times it looked as if England had retreated into a shell. “Rohit’s been sweeping very well, he has been using his feet very well too. Puji (Pujara) uses his feet really well. On the other hand, someone like Joe Root likes sweeping and uses his feet a little less,” said Ashwin after play on Sunday. “At the end of the day, I feel playing on a wicket where there is a bit of help, even for the quicks, you need to take those percentage and calculated risks. Sometimes when you are just waiting and trying to trust your defence, there is a ball that will eventually get you.”
Barring Ben Foakes and Dan Lawrence, no England batsman faced more than 50 deliveries. And only Foakes tried to farm the strike regularly. “It was extremely difficult against a high-quality spin outfit and the pitch was playing tricks. I just tried to play within my limits and play the ball late,” Foakes later said. Playing the ball late also demands proper defensive technique and superb hand-eye coordination. England fell short on that front. Deconstruct the first innings of England and you will find every batsman dismissed by a spinner was playing from the crease.
Dom Sibley and Root got out to the sweep, Daniel Lawrence tried forward defence at a sharply turning and bouncing Ashwin delivery, Ben Stokes missed a full in-dipping ripper from Ashwin and Moeen Ali poked at an Axar Patel delivery that was drifting away.
Compare their approach to India’s, particularly Pujara’s attempts to meet the ball down the pitch, and you know staying back has its pitfalls. Being overtly defensive isn’t helping either. According to CricViz, defensive strokes induced a miss or an edge 27% of the time on Day 2, compared to 22% on Day 1. This is going to worsen. That explained India’s urgency in making the most of loose deliveries. Like the six Shubman Gill hit off Ali in the fifth over—not waiting for the ball to pitch and turn, but picking the delivery off Ali’s hand and playing through the line.
Intent thus becomes crucial on a pitch like this. Till just before the end of Day 2, India had attacked 23% of the deliveries, playing a false shot to 16%. England attacked 15% of their deliveries, playing a false shot to 23%. It reflects in their scoring as well. Over 56% of India’s runs in the first innings came in fours and sixes. In England’s case, that was around 39%.
There is no debate Rohit Sharma has made the difference between the sides. The best executor of the sweep shot this Test, he has also been the most attacking batsmen at home in recent years. Outside India, his attacking strokes average 41.06. In India, they average 127.87. Central to his scoring prowess around the wicket is clarity of thought. On Sunday, Rohit whipped, flicked and sliced the ball with aplomb. Perhaps the only big occasion when he wanted to defend in the second innings turned controversial when England appealed for leg-before after Sharma stretched full-length, bat hidden behind the front pad, contending he was not playing a shot though struck outside the line of stumps. The third umpire though decided he was playing a shot.
Barring that, the game has pretty much gone the way India wanted. Thanks to India’s big first-innings lead, England are more or less set to play the pink-ball Test in Ahmedabad with the series tied 1-1. For that, they have themselves to blame. India had risked preparing a surface that would require the highest skill-level to play spin. After two days, it’s clear why they took that gamble.
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