India vs Australia: Countering the off-stump line of attack
The first ball Marnus Labuschagne faced in the series, he made an exaggerated shuffle, moving well across the off-stump, shouldering arms and twisting the body Courtney Walsh-style. It was amusing to watch, but the lesson was lost on the Indian batsmen. After how the first session of the third day’s play in the Adelaide Test panned out, they may not find it that amusing.
Walsh had zero skills with the bat to make it count, but his method has been successfully adopted by Steve Smith; Labuschange is trying the same. It’s the safest way to counter the moving ball on the off-stump.
When pitched at a perfect length, the moving ball is like a knock-out punch. For an incoming delivery, you can tighten your defence and block it but when it is coming for the bat’s edge, you can only count on your luck.
Luck eluded the Indian batsmen on Saturday morning and they were flattened by an inspired Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Fast bowling legend Wasim Akram summed up India’s 36 all out in two words: “Pace matters”.
Hazlewood was on song, doing what similar outswing bowlers have done—pitching it fuller than the first innings, the line and length perfect to kiss the edge. The only point on which the India batsmen could be faulted was that they were indecisive in their foot movement and didn’t go fully forward. The pitch had quickened on the third morning, and the according to statistics by Cricviz, Australian pacers got wickets with deliveries bowled 4kph quicker (137kph to 141 kph) in the second innings than in the first, reducing the reaction time for the batsmen.
Hazlewood attributed his success to pitching the ball up a bit more than in the first innings. Cricviz numbers point to the length being shorter on average, which can be attributed to Cummins and Starc mixing it up more.
There is only one counter though to Hazlewood’s line of attack—being sure of where your off-stump is. Then shoulder arms.
Cummins was deadly because his deliveries were angled towards the stump—the batsmen were sucked into offering an angled blade slanted towards the on-side—and moved just a shade to induce the nick.
Different players work on it differently. In the earlier days, batsmen would go back and across, especially when playing on uncovered wickets. Among modern players, Smith is the best example of finding a method to counter the off-stump line of attack since he started shuffling across the stumps in the middle of the 2013 series. It has baffled the greatest of outswing bowlers, including James Anderson.
However, against Cummins’ style of bowling, you need to be smarter because he leaves you guessing, like it happened to Cheteshwar Pujara, whether the ball is coming in or leaving you. Even Smith was at sea trying to hit him during the Indian Premier League.
Hazlewood finished with dream figures of 5/8, but it was Cummins who showed just why he is the No. 1 bowler in ICC Test rankings. He is not just a wicket-taker, he is one bowler who can put fear in the mind of the batsmen. He almost took out Jasprit Bumrah’s head the delivery before he got out when he shook him with a bouncer that had Bumrah backing off. Next ball, Bumrah was out to a slower ball, caught and bowled.
Umesh Yadav had startled Cummins with a bouncer which he fended to be caught at gully, and retaliation was expected. The Australia pace spearhead launched a hostile attack on the Indian bowlers, putting Mohammed Shami out of the series with a fractured arm.
GRASS AND PINK BALL
In the record book, it will simply go down as India’s lowest total. But it has to be mentioned that 36 all out occurred in a pink-ball Test. The challenges for the batsman in a pink-ball game are greater.
If you have the game to get on top of the bounce, Australian wickets are the best to bat on, though pitch preparation is different for day-night Tests. The curator ensures healthy grass cover to maintain the pink ball. At Adelaide, there was around 8mm grass cover aiding movement, making it a challenge to bat.
WHY AFTER 46 YEARS?
India’s previous lowest total was 42, at the 1974 Lord’s Test. There have been batting collapses in the intervening 46 years, but there was Kapil Dev and Harbhajan Singh to counter-attack, players who thrived when India had their backs to the wall. On the third morning, India would have felt the absence of Hardik Pandya the most. They needed someone to throw the bat for a quick cameo—a 150 target would have made it a different ball game.
Indian batsmen have faced Cummins, Hazlewood and Starc enough times to know each other’s game, and what to expect. The challenge is to keep surprising each other with different strategies. The basics of the Indian batsmen were not an issue in the first Test—no one was out poking the ball away from the body. The Australia bowlers ambushed them with their change in length and speed. From what one saw on the first two days, it was no ordinary battle as India played wonderful cricket to take the first innings honours. Cummins and Hazlewood outwitted the batsmen on the third day.
In this series, each session is expected to be like this. The think tank has to come up with counters for every move. What surprises each has for the other and how it is countered in each session will determine the outcome.
In such a tight contest, one mistake can prove costly. India harmed their chances by committing too many. During the Kohli-Rahane partnership India were on top, but the suicidal run out happened. R Ashwin surprised Australia batsmen with his bag of tricks. He can expect a counter in the second Test. And how India execute plans in the absence of Kohli and Shami against a home team flying high will determine the series.
There are no excuses though for the dropped catches.