Lessons from changing conditions: Play the line, play in the V
As much as the ongoing India-England series highlights the dominance of spinners—82 out of the 110 wickets so far—it has also ignited a debate about the quality of pitches as well as the quality of batting on offer. Let’s leave the pitch alone for a moment and look at the batting in the ongoing series and how it coped with three very different set of conditions in the three matches played so far.
Barring Joe Root in the first Test and Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin in the next two, most batsmen struggled on the increasingly challenging surfaces. The aggregates chronicle that decline—1285 runs in the first Test, 913 in the second and 387 in the third.
Should the batsmen have come down the pitch more? Tried to use the sweep? Was the footwork not good enough against quality spin? What’s for sure is that most batsmen found it impossible to settle into a rhythm.
Chennai offered two different pitches for the first two Tests. The first one was of red soil—the clichéd slow subcontinent pitch that overseas teams are most prepared for nowadays. England’s success, riding heavily on the sweep shot was thus predictable. What flummoxed them completely was the dark clay pitch in the next Test at the same venue, with the ball bouncing and turning sharply off a rapidly disintegrating top soil. Then there was the (in)famous third Test in Ahmedabad with a pitch that turned even more than Chennai, coupled with the extra lacquer of the pink ball that made it skid right through all defences.
With the conventional red ball though, it might not skid as much in the fourth Test. Still, batsmen may again have to adjust their technique.
How does one go about that? The first requirement is correct defence, said India captain Virat Kohli. “Because of the influence of white-ball cricket, Test cricket is witnessing consistent results but as a byproduct, the defence part of the batting is being compromised,” said Kohli in a media interaction on Wednesday. “That grind of playing four-five sessions is not the focus these days. Everybody wants to put on 300-350 runs on the board quickly.”
Being enterprising is next on the checklist. In consecutive Tests, opener Sharma reaped benefits by taking the attack to England on the first day.
“It was important to be proactive on a pitch like that when you know the ball is going to turn and the odd ball is going to keep low or going to bounce extra,” Rohit said after scoring 166 during the second Test.
“Making sure that, before it is too late, you start doing what you want to do. And be clear in your mind. You can’t be tentative. You can’t have two thoughts. If you want to sweep, you sweep it. If you want to use your feet and play with the turn, you should be able to do that as well.”
On Tuesday, Rahane said playing the line of the ball is key to being a good player of spin. Given the number of dismissals to the arm ball, playing the line of a delivery (and not its length) seems a practical ploy. Yet, it might not work every time.
The changing conditions have created quite a bit of flutter in both camps, necessitating different strategies in each Test. Like in the beginning of the tour when England seemed bent on playing the sweep shot. On a slow pitch, it contributed to 26% and 35% of their innings totals in the first Test. Next Test though, India (specifically Sharma) played the sweep shot better—17% and 28% compared to England’s 12% and 27%—by stretching out and sweeping from the spot where the ball was pitching.
Using the feet to spinners is something India have consistently done better than England. They got some help here in terms of pace of deliveries as well. If Axar Patel bowled at a minimum pace of 90km/hr in the second Test, denying England the luxury to sweep, Jack Leach bowled at 85km/hr, allowing Indians that extra time to come down the pitch.
“Leach was bowling stump to stump so it was important for me to use my feet, play with the turn, not with a straight bat facing towards him, but with the turn, slightly angled, making sure I pushed the ball between covers and point,” said Sharma about playing England’s premier spinner.
It allowed Sharma to not only score boundaries but also rotate the strike better than anyone. Barring the second innings of the second Test, the English were heavily handicapped in this aspect (see graphic) throughout the series. Consequently, it also affected the percentage of runs scored in the V (between long-off and long-on). India again does better here, especially in the third Test. With the pitch set to remain almost similar for the fourth Test, use of the feet and playing straight may once again prove beneficial. The onus is on England to show they have learnt from their mistakes.