Looking to turn the screws on Aussie left-handers
India appear keen to exploit Australia’s unidimensional batting order through their spinners with help from the Nagpur pitch in the first Test
Modern cricket goes heavily by what the data reveals and that means predominance of one kind, be it with the bat or ball, can peg back a team. The Australia team thus face a problem as they prepare for the first Test against India starting here on Thursday.
The visiting squad is stacked with left-handed batters. With all-rounder Cameroon Green, a right-handed batter, unlikely to play as he recovers from finger surgery, it could leave Australia with possibly five left-handers in the top seven.
Openers David Warner and Usman Khawaja, both left-handers, are certainties. But after the two right-handed batters Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith come Travis Head at No 5 and Matthew Renshaw at No 6, unless they play Cameroon Bancroft as he is a right-handed bat ahead of wicketkeeper Alex Carey, a left-handed bat, at No 7.
India, who see a big opportunity in Green’s absence and injuries to leading pacers Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc, are likely to dish out a dry, not-so-even pitch first up in the four-Test series. They must win by a two-match margin (3-1) to qualify for the World Test Championship final.
On Tuesday, the focus continued to be on the nature of the pitch at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium in Jamtha. There’s another day’s work on the surface to come. But for now, India are weaving their strategy around making things difficult for Australia’s left-hand heavy batting group.
For most of Tuesday, every time the pitch was uncovered and the hessian cloth removed, the support staff from both the teams rushed in to check the moisture on the surface.
India vice-captain KL Rahul though found nothing amiss. “It’s still too early to really know what the pitch is going to do. We need to come here on the day of the match to know. We can only look at it and assume it’s going to play in a certain way, but you never know with pitches,” he told reporters.
Smith was more emphatic. “It’s pretty dry. Particularly one end that I think will take a bit of spin, particularly the left-arm spinner spinning it back into our left-handers. There’s a section there that’s quite dry,” he said.
“I don’t think there will be a heap of bounce in the wicket. I think for the seamers it will be quite skiddy, and maybe a bit up-and-down as the game goes on. The cracks felt quite loose.”
Late in the afternoon, under local curator Abhijit Piprode’s supervision, ground staff shaved off the grass kept for binding the surface. The pitch was watered, but as Smith suggested, the left-handers would be left to deal with a dry patch when the left-arm spinner gets the ball to dart into him. The heavy roller was then used, but the patch on the good-length area was not rolled.
If India have any doubt about how the pitch would behave, they are likely to include Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel as well, besides R Ashwin. Jadeja, making his India comeback after surgery, underwent a round of fitness to ensure his repaired knee was holding up well.
While both the left-arm spinners are not too dissimilar, there are subtle differences. Axar has a higher release point and the doubt he can create in batters with straighter deliveries can be as threatening as the one that turns.
Jadeja knows how to make batting difficult on a tailor-made surface. In theory, their bringing the ball into them should be relatively easier to face for left-handers. Their numbers against left-handers in India – 53 wickets (avg 22) and 12 wickets (avg 23) – though are impressive.
R Ashwin’s numbers against left-handers at home is mind-boggling (149 wkts, avg 18.68) “… left-handers coming in to bat back-to-back will only mean that the bowlers get time to settle into a certain line and length. I don’t think any other team has that many left-handers,” said Rahul.
The spinners will also benefit from the pitch getting scuffed by right-arm-over fast bowlers like Mohammed Siraj and Pat Cummins. Siraj can bowl with equal control from around the wicket to left-handers and Ashwin can exploit that rough against Smith and Labuschagne.
Mohammed Shami didn’t attend the optional training session. Whether India are considering playing a fourth spinner, or Kuldeep Yadav, was unclear. He didn’t bowl much in the nets and playing four spinners would be an extreme step that could limit the bowling variety.
The flip side of a tailor-made pitch is the home batters could struggle. Rahul said: “Each person has his individual plans. Everyone has their set way which has been discussed with the coaches. We have discussed this as a batting group in an attempt to try and play spin better.”
If Rahul continues to open, will India still find a place for Shubman Gill in the middle order or will Suryakumar Yadav make his debut? That’s a selection call the home side is left to make. KS Bharat though looks set to make his debut due to superior wicket-keeping against spin.