Can India's batters return to their defensive strengths?

Ahead of the first Test of India's 5-match Test tour of England, the ability to counter swing with good technique will be key for India.
England's captain Joe Root (L) and India's captain Virat Kohli (R) pose with the Pataudi Trophy (CR) and the Test series trophy (CL) at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground in Nottingham.(Twitter) PREMIUM
England's captain Joe Root (L) and India's captain Virat Kohli (R) pose with the Pataudi Trophy (CR) and the Test series trophy (CL) at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground in Nottingham.(Twitter)
Published on Aug 03, 2021 07:39 PM IST
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BySanjay Manjrekar

A five-match Test series in the age of T20s is a rarity, but we have one starting today in England. A country that still loves Test cricket the most playing hosts.

Let me focus on what’s on everyone's mind: What are India's chances in this series? What can we expect from this Indian touring party?

India, of late, has shown improvements in their overseas performances, but closer scrutiny of this also reveals that India's performance in England has more or less been the same for many years now. India have had sporadic wins, but they haven’t convincingly beaten England in England like they have Australia by winning two consecutive Test series there.

The batting world now do not play swing and spin well. It's the inevitable outcome of the changing nature of cricket.

Without good defensive technique, you can’t excel in swinging conditions. A counter-attacking strategy can work on fast bouncy pitches to an extent, but doesn’t when the ball is swinging or turning.

The simple truth is that the batters of today are not consumed by trying to perfect their defensive techniques like those of earlier eras and who can blame them?

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There are three formats today, the shortest being the most lucrative, so young, upcoming players spend more time acquiring the skills needed for T20s.

The videos of children we get on a show we do on TV called "School Of Cricket" are of 7-8 year olds all properly geared up and playing the ramp shot, the reverse sweep, the dilscoop etc. Their goal is to become a 360-degree batter. No one wants to spend hours trying to possess a water-tight defensive game anymore.

These are of course future batters. Those in England now, barring a few, have the same issue. They will start working on their defensive techniques only when the time comes, a time like this, an impending 5-match Test series in foreign conditions.

The defensive game is not always ready, like a default setting, like it was for earlier batters when Test cricket was the only format. For this generation, the power game is the default setting, which is of little use in such a contest.

I watched every ball of the World Test Championship final, my eyes glued to the screen. To say the least, the technique of Indian batters shocked me.

Barring Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant (when the Kiwi bowlers started bowling short to him) all Indian batters have got into this mindset that if you stand outside the crease and lunge forward to a swing bowler, even if he is bowling at 145 Kph, all your issues against swing will be resolved.

As we saw in that final, it didn't. If at all, it made matters worse.

This method of lunging forward no matter where the ball is pitched can work for Kohli (although in the WTC final it didn’t for him too) but won't for those who are not in his league.

If India have used all this time to revisit their technique and go back to their earlier, better, skills--especially defence--it gives India a good shot at the series.

Otherwise, I am not too hopeful about the Indian batting if the ball swings.

Then there is the fact that all batters in India's top 5 have come to England in poorer form than they were when they last played there in 2018. They will have to start finding form during the series.

This may paint a slightly worrying picture of India’s chances, but, hold on!

England batters too are not insulated from the T20 forces that I talked about. They too, even if they have grown up in these conditions, are vulnerable if the ball swings. India has a very good bowling attack, hopefully Jasprit Bumrah finds movement that eluded him in the WTC final and with Mohammed Siraj as an exciting option available, India can bounce back into a Test match even if their batting does not fire on all cylinders.

This is also a big series for Ashwin. He has only 18 wickets in seven matches in England, also, of late he has had injury issues whenever he has been abroad. I wonder if it's because he is forced to use his body more to get bite from pitches that aren’t as responsive as those back home. He hardly misses a Test at home. With the new English batters not so adept at playing spin, India will look on occasion towards Ashwin, now on his third trip to England, to be the match winner.

This is also a make-or-break series for the Test batter in Sharma, because there is no point in having a batter with over 40 Tests under his belt, aged 34, to be in the Test team if he is going to get you big scores only in India.

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With Ben Stokes out of the series, India get an unexpected bonus but there is still Stuart Broad and James Anderson and their collective experience that India will have to contend with.

England's batting gives India hope like Indian batting does for England.

I believe this will be a series decided by one exceptional individual performance, that one game-changer in each Test, the one who may clinch the moment and take his team surging forward.

For India, that could be Kohli obviously, and then, for me, Rishabh Pant, especially because he has done it twice already in a short Test career. At No 6/7, Pant will be an absolute danger man against England.

Finally, my playing XI for the first Test: Sharma, Abhimanyu Easwaran, Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Hanuma Vihari, Pant, Ashwin, Ishant Sharma/Siraj, Mohammed Shami and Bumrah.

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