It’s all in the mind — and mindset

IN COURSE of his post-match comments, Joe Root said (emphasis mine): “We have to learn from this and find ways to score in these conditions and bowl six balls to one better.”

When we watch cricket, what catches our attention is the deliveries that do dramatic things: Spit and turn off the deck, banana-swing both ways, the toe-crunching yorker… What we don’t truly appreciate is the “boring” stuff — the limpet-like adherence to line and length, and how that ramifies over the course of a session, or a Test. Here is an example:

Ashwin got the wicket of Dan Lawrence with the first ball of his first over of the day (the 26th of the innings). There was clearly a plan in place, based on how the England number three had batted in the first knock. Ashwin and Pant had an extended chat before he began to bowl. The first ball was fired down the leg side — Lawrence did himself no favours by signalling his intent to come down; it nutmegged the batsman and Pant, gathering way down the leg side, reversed himself, dived, and pulled off a great stumping. (Given all the pre-match speculation of whether Pant could keep on this track, and whether he would let his bowlers down, it’s worth noting that Pant kept as brilliantly as the far better keeper, more accomplished Ben Foakes did).

Ashwin’s next strike was off the last ball of the 38th over. It is what happened in between that was key: Ashwin bowled 41 deliveries in the intervening period, and 39 of those were to Ben Stokes. Through that phase of play, Ashwin prodded and poked at the batsman’s technique, probing his muscle memory, his shape — he bowled over the wicket and around; from close to the stumps and from wide on the crease; high arm, round-ish arm; quicker, slower; with drift and without; the big turning off-break and the one that holds its line… He even tried the same ball that got Stokes out in the first innings, the one that drifted across the left-hander, hit middle and turned sharply to top of off; Stokes was beaten again this time, but the ball bounced a bit higher and went over the top of off.

Having worked on him and set him up, Ashwin then bowled one much fuller, giving it more overspin, getting it to slide through quicker. Stokes, set up for the turning ball, poked at this one and edged to slip.

A couple of related points: Shortly after Lawrence was out, Rishabh Pant was heard yelling to his field: “Single mat deiyo”, don’t give away the single. And, secondly, Ishant Sharma bowling from the other end once Axar began to bleed a few runs kept the pressure up with two tight overs while Ashwin was working on Stokes.

That is really the key for spinners in Indian conditions — they need the support in the field, and from the other end, to be able to work things out. Strike rotation negates that ability, and that was the one thing that England really got wrong with the ball: they just were not tight enough.

ALSO from the post-match comments: Axar Patel, on the back of his five-for on debut, was asked how vital the toss was. His response was immediate, and emphatic: “Not particularly. The wicket was assisting spin from the first over; if we had to bowl first on this, we would have done as well.” (Update: Virat Kohli has similar thoughts though Joe Root mildly demurs)

The debate about the quality of the wicket should never have happened in the first instance; it had been pretty much put to rest by the way India batted in the second innings (if you argue that the first innings was down to the toss advantage — which is specious in itself, but still). And Axar finally made the point worth making: The toss did not matter here; what you did, or didn’t do, with the ball mattered.

Axar’s bowling colleague Ashwin, while accepting the Man of the Match, nailed it (emphasis mine): “Look actually, this wicket is very different to the first game. Those balls which were doing much didn’t get wickets, it was the mind doing things.”

Exactly — which brings up England’s woeful batting in the second innings particularly. Surely, you thought, after the way they played in the first innings, and by then having watched the Indian batsmen play on this track across two innings, they would have rethought their reflexive, predetermined game-plans. But, no.

Lawrence, as pointed out previously, charged down the wicket so often, and so often irrespective of length, that he might as well have taken the bowler into his confidence ahead of play. Stokes, who has played enough to know better, played determinedly from within the crease, his front foot sliding along the crease, going neither fully forward nor deep back — which allowed Ashwin the time and space to work him out. Pope came out sweeping and went out sweeping, almost every one of them premeditated — and his top edge off Axar Patel mirrored the way Root had gotten himself out in the first innings, sweeping at the ball turning away from him without being able to get close enough to the pitch to keep the ball from turning and bouncing.

Root popped up the ball off the sweep once, and then reverse swept Kuldeep Yadav and was lucky to be dropped, off a sitter, by Siraj at point — by now, the Indian bowlers have figured out not only that Root will sweep, but have watched how he sweeps, and you can see them beginning to see the stroke not as Root’s strength, but as a vulnerability to be exploited. Foakes, who batted so correctly in the first innings, fell sweeping at a Kuldeep delivery that was way too full for the sweep (and which, ironically, was full enough for the drive through the untenanted outfield on either side of the wicket). Olly Stone, out sweeping at Axar Patel…

Here’s the thing: Thus far, the England batsmen have clearly indicated to India’s bowlers that they believe the sweep is their ‘get out of jail free’ card. Any bowler worth his salt, with that kind of information, will work out ways to turn asset into liability. The sweep, used judiciously, is a potent weapon — but if you look back at the two England innings here and count the number of batsmen who fell sweeping reflexively rather than as part of an overall strategy, you’d weep.

Ironically, it was Moeen Ali at number ten who finally showed what was possible on this wicket. Sure, the argument could go that he was batting with nothing at stake — but the trick lay in the how of it. In the same over in which Patel got Stone, Moeen thrice danced down the wicket and deposited the spinner into the stands — the first two over long on, with Moeen coming close enough to negate the turn, and the third straight back over the bowler’s head.

‘Straight’ was the operative word. Rishabh Pant showed the way to bat on a spinning track in the first innings, with his gunbarrel-straight hitting; Moeen showed what England’s more lauded batsmen could have done. And he wasn’t done: When Ashwin took over from Patel, Ali stepped out and lofted the four, against the turn, to long off. The very next ball, Ashwin tossed it wider to force the miscue, and Ali finally went down on one knee to slog-sweep the six — the sweep being on this time because the ball was wide enough outside off. It was brief, but the 43 runs Moeen made off just 18 deliveries was worth a ton of video analysis and coaching drills, if the rest of the England batsmen were watching.

THERE are some numbers England might want to look at. For one, its second innings didn’t last even as long as its first innings — and this was after India had batted out 85.5 overs in its second knock. Two, for all the talk of the importance of batting partnerships, England had no partnerships in the second innings that lasted as long as the one between Foakes and Pope in the first dig. And finally, this: England’s best partnership of the entire match in terms of runs scored was the one for the last wicket between Broad and Ali, which yielded 38 runs in 19 deliveries.

38 runs was the highest partnership of the match for England. Surely — even if you buy the minefield argument — this was an indication of a team that did not apply itself? Surely England’s batsmen are way better than that — as in fact they had demonstrated just recently in Sri Lanka? This was a clear case of what Ashwin was talking about, when he said it was in the mind: India’s batsmen showed application when they needed to and were willing to grind out the tough periods; England’s collective attitude was a shrug of the shoulders and an “Oh what’s the use?” Which cues up one final, chastening number: In its two innings put together, England did not score as much as India did in its first knock. Not that they couldn’t — just that they didn’t.

“We have to find ways to score runs in such conditions, learn from the opposition,” Root said after the match.

Indeed.

Here is today’s match thread — with some points about Pant’s utility and his interventions that are worth noting. And, below, in tribute to man of the match Ashwin via his wife Prithi, this:

PS: Before you mention, in comments, that I haven’t spoken of Axar’s pitch perfect use of conditions to nail a five-for on debut, and a couple of other things, I will. Later.

PPS: A statistic I just picked up from the Clubhouse post-match chat: This is the first time since the eighties that England has failed to cross 200 in two innings in a Test.

Willing, and able

All sport represents the collision of wills: people or teams that want the same thing, and have to cause somebody pain in order to get it. The more it matters to the athlete, the more vivid the experience is for the spectator, and the writer.

Simon Barnes, The Meaning of Sport

UNTIL I got unwittingly dragged into cricket writing in 1996, I watched cricket purely as a fan — for the spectacle of it. Flying stumps, swinging deliveries, spitting turn, gorgeous stroke-play… It is what I remember from all those years of watching — discrete incidents, but never the larger narrative.

Now, it is all about the story, the narrative — and even given the compelling, occasionally noir narratives of international cricket in recent months, the one that unfolded today was one to savour.

In the first innings Virat Kohli (and later, his counterpart Joe Root) came out looking to get their retaliation in first; to dominate in inimical conditions. Kohli’s knock today was the antithesis — a subsuming of the ego, a willingness to acknowledge his batting mortality, to be prepared to look ordinary, if he must, to bat deep, as the situation dictated he must.

England played on his ego in the early passages. For Moeen Ali, they put a short cover in place besides an orthodox cover and mid-off. For Jack Leach, there was a short mid-wicket and a short mid-on. It was a gauntlet flung in the face — drive, if you think you are good enough.

Kohli put on a masterclass in which self-denial was paramount. He cut out his favourite shot; he defended with an almost monkish determination. He went tight — bat close to the body, bat face pedantically facing the bowler, pads in tight next to the bat, either full stretch forward or fully back in the crease, very respectful of the conditions and the way the bowlers were using them, very willing to be human, to acknowledge that even he could not dominate at will.

What was impressive was the way he thought his game through. Against Moeen, turning the ball into him, Kohli got his front leg right across so he could cover the turn and play with it. To Leach, turning away from him, he stayed leg side and played beside the ball — giving himself the space to play, or leave, depending on the length and extent of turn.

Kohli took 20 deliveries to get off the mark, and 53 deliveries to score his first 20 runs; he was content to let Ravichandran Ashwin outscore him during their 7th wicket partnership; his 50, which came off 107 deliveries, contained 85 dot balls — a testament to his willingness to defend, to deny himself the shots he normally indulges himself and his fans. When he unfurled that trademark cover drive — the one where he reaches well away from his body, and seems to let the ball “sit” on his bat for an instant before he snaps his wrists into the shot — it was after lunch, with his personal score on 38. And having played it perfectly, with the air of one on a strict diet indulging himself with an ice-cream cheat, he put it back in his kitbag for more favourable conditions, and settled back into the grind.

It was an innings shorn of the usual spectacle you expect from him — but it is a knock that, I suspect, will stick in the memory long after more barnstorming performances are forgotten. This was not the collision of wills that Barnes wrote about, so much as a matter of a batsman in search of redemption putting his skill, and importantly his will, on the line.

The end — rapped high on the pads to a Moeen Ali off break bowled from around the wicket, the decision depending on the on-field umpire’s call — came as the kind of anti-climax that underlines everything that went before.

THERE is an air of surprise — a bit of patronage, even — in the tone with which commentators talk of Ashwin’s batting. What is routinely forgotten is that Ashwin started out as a batsman; that batting is all he ever wanted to do; that he opened the batting for his state — on this very ground, what is more — and that off-spin bowling was in the early part of his career almost an afterthought. Given his origin story, what should really be a surprise is that he became one of the best off-spinners of this or any era (hold off on the pushback till you’ve taken a look at the numbers) — not that “Ashwin can bat”.

He can. And on the day, he batted on bowling-friendly conditions with the class of a top order player. The start, as in the first innings, was slightly skittish — a fairly wild swipe at a ball outside his off-stump came early in his essay. But this time, he had his captain as partner — and Kohli was quickly down the pitch for a chat every time Ash seemed to lose focus. It is a mark of Ashwin’s innings that as it prospered, Kohli had increasingly fewer opportunities — or need — for those chats.

Where Kohli looked primarily to defend, and took the scoring opportunity only when he was sure it was free of all risk, Ashwin went the other way — he attacked, initially with the sweep to knock the two main spinners off their lengths, then with the drives off front or back foot once the bowlers had pulled their lengths back. The story of their contrasting styles is embedded in the statistics of their association: 96 off 177, with Ashwin contributing 56 off 81 while Kohli’s contribution was 40 off 96.

It was also a good example of batting in partnerships, with each complementing the other — Ashwin was willing and able to play his shots, and Kohli was content to be the junior partner and turn the strike over.

Kohli fell in the 66th over; Ashwin, at the time, was batting 56 (81 deliveries). And given the propensity of India’s tail to fold, what followed was an absolute delight — from the point of view of sports fan and writer both. Taking nine, ten and jack along like an expert sheepdog, Ashwin changed gears — he farmed the strike, he talked his partners through their stints, in the early part of every over he looked for the opportunity to go big and, with his home crowd providing the wind beneath his wings, he powered through to his 5th Test century — the 47 runs after Kohli’s dismissal took just 54 balls.

And then — in the face of the second new ball — he and Siraj buckled right back down to the job. They chatted between overs, they passed on information to each other, they continued to play the ball on merit. When, in the 86th over, Ashwin checked with the umpire to see how many balls were left, and tried to hoik a single onto the onside for Olly Stone to peg back off stump, the pair had added 49 runs for the last wicket and, equally notably, played out 55 balls.

That last is worth underlining: Between them, Ashwin, Kuldeep, Ishant and Siraj batted out 121 deliveries and added 84 to India’s total, which finished up on 286 — more than double what England managed in its first innings, on a pitch that has been the subject of much chatter just the day prior.

The Indian second innings put all that talk into perspective. It also showed up the Indian top order which, this morning, appeared to have a collective brain-fade. Pujara managed to get his bat stuck short of the crease, lost his grip on it, and was stumped. Rohit, who was reprieved on a stumping in the first innings by a third umpire who saw a chimera where there was nothing behind the stumps, dragged his foot forward again, had his toe on the line again for Foakes to pull off the quick stumping again, and this time the decision was given. Rishabh Pant, promoted up the order, went down the track to Leach and, for once, lost the line, the length and the plot and was stumped. Rahane was the proverbial cat on the hot tin roof — a long way down and still a long way short of the pitch of a ball that was inches short of being a half-tracker, ending up in no position to play any cricketing shot and fending to short leg.

Two wickets with the score of 55, one at 65, another at 86 — there was that about the Indian batting in the first hour that made you believe they too had bought into the chatter, and decided to perish by the sword rather than trust to their skill to survive and thrive. It took the Kohli-Ashwin association to restore sanity — and for the ebullient Mohammad Siraj to drive the point home in his little cameo of 16 off 21 balls, in the course of which he took Broad straight back over his head for a six, and then played as neat a slog sweep as you’d like to see, off Leach, to put the ball in the bleachers behind wide mid-wicket.

A word on the way England bowled — much better than in the first innings, but the marked difference between the two teams was lack of consistency, of discipline. If you give away a four every ten balls or so, you can’t keep applying the pressure — and for the second time in two innings, England bowlers kept releasing the pressure they had sweated to build.

The day was full of moments to cherish, but for me the best, the one that will live longest in memory, was this: the fifth ball of the 82nd over, Ashwin steps out to a flighted ball outside off and has a swing; off the edge, the ball flies wide of the slip and down to third man for four.

And on the screen, you saw Mohammad Siraj, running down from the non-striker’s end, leap high and punch the air in an orgasm of ecstatic celebration. He didn’t celebrate his two big hits with half the fervour — heck, Ashwin didn’t celebrate his century with half that vim.

ENGLAND began far more positively than in the first innings, but Dom Sibley — who impressed in the first Test with his ability to pick length and go either fully forward or fully back to counter turn — forgot his best game, and went back to a ball of good length from Axar. It was clever bowling for all that: Axar had produced a couple of big-turning leg breaks to prime the pump; he then bowled one straight, and quicker through the air, to pin the batsman in front.

Rory Burns looked good in counter-attacking mode — until the 17th over. Rishabh Pant, from behind the stumps, called it: “Another outside edge, Ash”, he yelled. Two balls later, Ashwin reprised the ball he had bowled to Stokes — from wide of the crease, getting a lot of drift across the batsman and then turning sharply the other way. Burns made the cardinal mistake of playing it against the turn to the leg side, got the outside edge, and slip was in business.

What the logic was in sending out a left-hander, Jack Leach, with Ashwin bowling with his tail up is best left to Root to explain. In the event, Pant, again: Bowl it on the stumps, he yelled. Axar did — on off, turning sharply in across the left-hander to find the outside edge to leg slip.

Another horrendous piece of umpiring — this time, a duet involving the on-field and third umpires in tandem — saw Root reprieved on the LBW shout off Ashwin. The initial appeal was for caught behind, which Nitin Menon ruled not out. On the referral, there was no touch — but the ball was hitting the middle of middle stump; “umpire’s call” was the verdict. Oh well — one of these days someone will explain referrals to me. (Actually, before that, someone will hopefully explain referrals to the umpires themselves).

Dan Lawrence in more watchful mode (barring a foray down the track to loft Ashwin, bowling around the wicket, high and long behind long-on), and Root took England in at 53/3, trailing India by 429 runs.

That Lawrence shot merits mention: In the first innings, he came down, realised he was not to the pitch of the ball, and poked at it. Here, he wasn’t to the pitch either — but having decided to come down, he went through with the shot and nailed it out of the middle. It is all in the mind, really.

But are they, really? Can England chase this down? The odds are heavily in favour of India. And precedent says not — not against this attack, on this track. But this England team was recently celebrated — justly — for twice losing the toss and going on to win the match on sharp-turning tracks in Sri Lanka. And if there is one thing to takeaway from India’s recent showing in Australia, it is that “precedent” is worth bupkis. Remember fortress Gabba?

The question for England is, how badly do they want this? And how willing are they to put their skill and will on the line to get it?

That is equally going to be the trick for India: Can the bowlers trust in their basic skills, and have the patience to go back and do the same thing, over after over, working away on the batsmen? Eagerness to get a wicket with every other ball is the surefire way to ensure that you don’t get wickets at all.

It’s set up for a fascinating day four — and the fact that there is a day four, and even possibly a day five (I am fairly certain England will play far better this time around), is the best response to the doomsday prophets who went into full bore panic mode yesterday.

Post-Script: Given all the noise surrounding the pitch, a couple of points: This game has already lasted way more than the one between Australia and India at Adelaide. Where, on day two, one team lost four wickets, then the other team got bowled out, then the first team lost a wicket before close — 15 in the day, exactly the same as day two here in Chennai.

And then there is Brisbane. Where Tim Paine, on winning the toss and opting to bat, said (emphasis mine):

Very good toss to win. Looks a fair bit harder than it normally does and there’s a crack down the middle.

You rate pitches on the potential for danger — not on the basis of whether a particular team has the requisite skill set. And surely a crack running the length of the pitch is surely more fraught than dust off the surface?

Just to underline the point, Labuschagne at the end of the first day’s play said “The crack is widening already”.

Remember anyone having a word to say then?

Here, FWIW, is today’s thread.

Post-PS: Spare a thought for Stuart Broad. A man with over 500 Test wickets, left to graze in the outfield until 45 overs had been bowled — and then he came in, found Ashwin’s edge when the batsman was on 28, and saw Ben Stokes spill the chance at slip. His first spell was 2-1-5-0, and he was promptly put out to pasture again. When he was brought back — after nearly twenty more overs had been bowled — he found the edge again, and saw the chance go down again, this time dropped by Ben Foakes, whose effortless keeping on a turning track has been a pure joy to watch. His final analysis reads 9-3-25-two-drops, which sadly for him don’t show up on the scorecard.

This is the problem with too much analysis. It was as if England had, before play started, decided that this wicket was for spinners, and persisted with them without even once considering the possibility that the two quick bowlers they picked were in the XI for a reason. (Just to underline that, England persisted with spin throughout that last wicket partnership between Ashwin and Siraj, until Olly Stone finally knocked Ashwin over).

Spin and other turns

ENGLAND lost its way in the mind before it lost its wickets on the ground.

The pitch aided turn — as it has since the first hour of the first morning. But there was no quantifiable difference between the turn on offer on day one, versus what was available on day two.

When India batted, three batsmen in their own ways figured out how to play the turning ball on a helpful pitch. England came out to bat with all the ginger hesitancy of men condemned to walk in lead-lined shoes across a minefield. The modes of dismissal tell the story:

Ishant Sharma, like Olly Stone for England, opted to target the stumps on a very full length. Two balls going away from the left-handed Rory Burns to set it up, then a third straight on the stumps to pin the opener in front.

Ashwin, predictably, opened the bowling at one end. He bowled two successive maidens to Lawrence, then in the 8th over got Dom Sibley at the business end. To just the second ball of that over, Sibley aimed a big sweep at a ball too full for the shot — a predetermined swipe, more than a calculated shot; the ball hit the bat, ricocheted up and took the back of the bat on the way through to leg slip, India reviewing the on-field decision successfully.

Joe Root got off the mark with a single — off a sweep to the second ball he faced in his innings, off Ashwin. In debutant Axar Patel’s second over, Root aimed another sweep — this time to a bowler who was turning the ball away from him, which meant he was hitting against the turn. Root reached for the shot, Patel held it back a shade, the ball got enough room to pitch and bounce and take the top edge for a simple catch to backward square leg placed there for exactly that shot. Again, premeditated shot without taking the nature of the bowler into account.

Facing the last ball before lunch, Dan Lawrence jabbed at a back of length ball from Ashwin bowling around the wicket, his bat a long way in front of his pads — and inevitably, popped it into the hands of short leg. Four wickets down for just 39 runs — and not a single one of those wickets fell to deliveries that did anything out of the ordinary.

Ben Stokes was done by the kind of delivery you want to play on loop when teaching an off-spin masterclass. Bowling around the wicket to the left-hander, Ashwin went wide on the crease to get the ball to drift across onto a middle stump line, then turn the other way. The drift and the line forced Stokes to play the line; the turn slid the ball past the outside edge onto top of off stump — the kind of delivery that could have done for the best batsmen in the world, and a result of a bowler knowing his craft to perfection. It was not, in case it needs pointing out, the turn that did for Stokes, but the initial drift in, that dragged him out of position and squared him up.

Ollie Pope, in company of Foakes, was looking good to the point where India shelved Axar Patel and gave Mohammad Siraj a go in his first home Test. The first ball angled across the right-hander, going further away with the seam; Pope played a half-hearted glance, gloved it, and saw Rishabh Pant fly through the air to his left to pull off a blinder. I could go on, but the point makes itself: Only one England batsman — Ben Foakes — applied himself to the task of batting in demanding conditions; he was either fully forward, or fully back, to the turning ball; he worked the ball around for singles and braces and put away the rare loose ball.

England were bowled out for 134 — but well before the second session began, the chorus of “bad pitch” had already reached deafening levels.

Actually, the commentariat has been talking up nightmare scenarios from before this Test had even begun — no wonder, then, that England batsmen came out with all the air of those condemned to the guillotine.

The Indian openers came out bristling with “intent”. Jargon aside, on a pitch with assistance for spin, the batsmen refused to make standing targets of themselves — they either went deep inside the crease or came dancing out based on their reading of length, and kept the board moving at a brisk rate (England, which played in the exact opposite fashion, scored at 2.23).

Gill had a second successive failure, nicely set up by Leach. The left arm spinner got turn and bounce away from the right hander; he then slipped in a slider attacking the stumps, catching Gill playing down the wrong line and plumb in front. Rohit, deliberately padding up to Leach, was lucky to get a reprieve on an LBW referral. It was as clear a case of deliberate padding as you could see, but the on-field umpire in his wisdom decided that a shot had been offered — hence, with the point of impact being outside off, Rohit was reprieved.

Two points: One, not even Rohit will say he was offering a shot there. And two, this point of impact business is just plain wrong — a ball outside a batsman’s off stump is not a negative line, the ball is not in his blind spot, so whether or not he offers a shot, the only question should be whether the ball was hitting the stumps.

The pitch is what is getting negative attention, but the umpiring in this game has been horrendous — embarrassingly so. You can take the odd error as being human — but to see Rohit’s toe behind the line in the first innings when it clearly wasn’t; to see Rohit offer a shot here when he clearly did not, is the kind of thing that can legitimately give rise to talk of home umpires favouring the home side.

Just to make matters worse, that ball would have hit the middle of middle stump. Begs the question: Surely the boards — and not just this series — can afford to bring in neutral umpires and put them in the same bubble? It is not as if the additional expense is a problem.

India closed out a frenetic day, which saw 15 wickets fall, on 54/1, ahead by 241. I’d be hugely surprised if they are not looking to bat till at least an hour after tea tomorrow.

RISHABH Pant deserves a word or three, in passing. He continues to be seen as “mindless”, a “slogger”. And he continues to provide evidence to the contrary — if you had eyes to see. As he was last evening, he was judicious in his choice of what ball to hit during India’s brief morning session with the bat. He picked lines and lengths early; left what he could, defended what he should, and when the ball was within his hitting zone, he was swift, decisive, and lethal. His wagon-wheel was worth inspection: 26 of his runs came in the V, demonstrating the admirably straight lines he used to combat spin; a further 15 came through the midwicket region — mostly when the bowlers, put off their natural lengths, pitched short.

India made 29 runs this morning; Pant made 25 of those (worth pointing out in context that England lost three wickets before it crossed 25). 24 of those runs came in a 24-run partnership with number 10 Kuldeep Yadav; with Pant cleverly farming strike, the partnership lasted 35 balls, and Yadav’s contribution was zero.

He took two outstanding catches — the first, to get rid of Ollie Pope, and then an even better one when, standing closer to the stumps than he normally would to Ishant Sharma, he went airborne on his wrong side to hold a nick off Jack Leach’s outer edge that was really traveling.

But the moment that made me sit up and take notice came in the 11th over of the England innings, bowled by Axar Patel. The first ball was on a good length, on off; Joe Root played the controlled sweep to the line, and got a brace. Pant immediately gave voice: “Thoda aage… thoda sa bahar.. wohi khelega..” (A tad further up, a little outside off, he will play the same shot). Axar’s third ball was exactly that: Held back a fraction, the length a couple of inches shorter, the line just a little bit further outside off. Root swept, got the top edge, and that was that.

Pant will disappoint fans who expect him to play blinders every single time out. He will miss chances behind the stumps, particularly to spin. He will annoy the heck out of everyone with his non-stop chatter. But for all that, he is a young lad with loads of talent, a sharp mind capable of reading the game, and the ability to turn games on its head at will.

What he is, is a find. What he isn’t, is “mindless”.

PS: (Because someone called to ask me this): No, I am not “accusing” the umpires of bias. Anil Chaudhary is just into his second Test overall, and his first as third umpire. Nitin Menon has had a good couple of games. And Virender Sharma, the other on-field umpire, is debuting at this level. Before this, he has stood in two ODIs and one T20. So it could well be incompetence.

But that does not negate the point, it merely raises another question: Do we not have umpires in India with experience? Two debutants, in a series as crucial as this, is a bit much, surely? And that is besides the other question — what stops boards from bringing in neutrals? As Harsha Bhogle pointed out to me a while earlier, even Bangladesh managed to bring Richard Illingworth in as a neutral for the ongoing series against the West Indies.

And there is also this: the principle of Caesar’s wife applies. Even the suspicion of bias can taint a good performance at home — and that alone is sufficient reason to ensure proactive steps to guard against it.

Rohit is at home, and in the house

THERE are times when you wish you could insert the tropes of fiction into factual narrative. Imagine what you could do with the concept of survivor’s guilt preying on the minds of two batsmen, Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane, who in the span of four overs were exonerated by a third umpire who, in the case of Rohit, saw a sliver of foot behind the crease which wasn’t there, and in the case of Rahane did not see the brush of ball on glove that was there.

Both batsmen were out. Both, in these days of multiple replays on the giant screen, would have known it. And both promptly gave their wickets away — Rohit, for once, sweeping without real power behind the shot and finding deep midwicket, and Rahane aiming a wild sweep at a delivery way too full for the shot. Rohit added two after the reprieve; Rahane added one. Cue a noir-style paragraph about survivor’s guilt weighing heavily on the two batsmen, inhibiting their minds, weighing down their bats… Damn!

One aspect of third umpire Anil Chaudhary’s twin faux pas merits a what-if. In the 75th over, Jack Leach got one to straighten, missing Rahane’s inside edge, hitting the pad, and bouncing high for Ollie Pope at short leg to hold. The appeal was turned down; England reviewed; the umpire did not find any contact with the bat; he upheld the on-field decision. Joe Root immediately spoke to the on-field umpire, to point out that the ball had brushed Rahane’s glove after striking the ball, and that the replay for the review should roll through till the ball was caught.

Root was right; the third umpire was wrong, and his error was rectified by the match referee, who reinstated the review England had lost. Enter the what-if: What if Rahane hadn’t gotten out five balls and one run later? Since the match referee was in a position to confirm that the third umpire had gotten it wrong, could he have intervened and given Rahane out with retrospective effect? What about the balls that were sent down between the reprieve and the course correction? Is there even a provision, in such a case, to declare a batsman out with retrospective effect? Shouldn’t there be — because after all, Rahane could well have gone on to a century and more, which on a wicket like this could prove decisive?

On a related note, I remember my sister once calling me on the phone and without even a hi-hello, going “You know, it is absolutely pointless spending money to child-proof a house — the little devils still manage to find a way to hurt themselves.” On similar lines, you introduce tech to idiot-proof on-field decisions and what happens? Off-field idiocy.

WHEN Rohit Sharma made his Test debut, Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan were opening for India and Sachin Tendulkar was batting at #4. In the seven-plus intervening years, Sharma has managed a grand total of 36 Tests, including this one — which is poor return for a career that started with two successive centuries in his first two Test innings.

What has weighed against him is his overseas record — averaging 80+ at home versus a tick over 20 abroad is a glaring anomaly, the kind that raises doubt. That said, it is only now, starting in Australia, that he is getting to open — so a mea culpa is due from my side for writing him off in the preview post yesterday.

That said: Rohit has the talent, for sure. In fact, it is almost an unwritten rule that you cannot name Rohit without the prefix “talented”, as though he were cricket’s version of Tom Ripley. So when he bats, the bar is set far higher than for lesser mortals. Today he lived up to that billing, playing an innings of splendour and, more importantly, being willing to be human, to err, to take the chances fated to him — an outside edge dropping short, an inner edge missing the stump, a bunt into the straight field when the ball stopped on his drive, and a half dozen other such near mishaps — and to keep doing his thing, regardless.

His thing is sublime stroke-play — and on the day, he added patience to his arsenal, and looked an entirely different player, playing on a planet far removed from the one on which lesser mortals, to wit all his team mates, found the going heavy. It was all there — the languid drives through covers and mid off; the almost casual pulls, both to and over the boundary, when Ben Stokes had the temerity to drop short on a pitch where the bounce was merely chest-high at best, and pace off the deck was almost non-existent; the square cuts and drives played so late they almost seem like afterthoughts. To these potent weapons, he added a context specific one: the sweep, fetching the ball from well outside the off stump, which he used repeatedly to put both Jack Leach and Moeen Ali off their lengths.

What made this innings worth its weight in bitcoins was context. Shubhman Gill, whose USP is an assured judgment of line and length, erred in horrendous fashion when he padded up to the third ball of the impressive Olly Stone’s first over, and was nailed in front. Cheteshwar Pujara flattered with quicksilver footwork against spin, and deceived with a hard-handed push to a Leach delivery well wide of off stump that put Stokes in business at slip. Virat Kohli came out, saw off four deliveries from Mooen and then, without getting to the pitch or into position, aimed a cover drive at a classic off-spinner’s delivery, landing outside off and turning in to hit top of off through the wide gate the batsman’s heave-ho had created. India was reduced to 86/3 within the second hour of play — and Rohit had scored 65 of those runs. In the morning session he attacked at every opportunity, going through to lunch on 80 off 78 balls, with 13 fours and a six as exclamation points.

With Rahane putting aside his recent run of low scores, and a few initial scares against the turning ball, behind him, Rohit found his ally, and pulled India into relatively safe harbour with a partnership of 162 off 310 deliveries (Rohit 96/169; Rahane 66/141) before the baffling passage of play that saw both batsmen saved from the gallows by the third umpire, only to immediately jump off the nearest cliff. Rishabh Pant — whose batting is deceptive in that it looks so mindless but in fact features a thoughtful selection of those shots he backs himself to play — and debutant Axar Patel saw India through to close on a level 300/6.

THE passage of play between Rahane’s dismissal and Axar’s arrival produced a point worth mentioning. Ravichandran Ashwin, batting ahead of Axar in order to keep the two left-handers apart, played an uncharacteristically fidgety knock of 13 off 19 balls, and fell running down the pitch at Joe Root only to poke the ball off his pads to short square leg. It was odd, from Ashwin, who has of late displayed both ability and inclination to put his head down and bat time.

The only explanation that makes sense is that the team management has decided India is in a good place runs-wise; that any and all additional runs from there were bonus; that batting time and overs was not an issue.

This is extrapolation on my part, but if I am reading this right, it is short-sighted thinking, for a plenitude of reasons. One: the longer you can bat on this, the more the pitch will wear, and make batting fraught for the team batting second. Second: If the deterioration continues, and there is no reason to suppose it won’t, then the third day onwards will be even tougher for batsmen.

Taken together, what India needs is a big first innings, firstly to give the bowlers cushion to attack (and remember, other than Ash, one spinner is a debutant and the other is returning to the playing eleven after a long spell on the bench) and, secondly, to reduce the burden on the third innings.

There is such a thing as too much of back-room premeditation and pre-determined game-plans.

Then again, Ash could have played as he did because it was just one of those days. I hope that’s it. And the way Pant and Axar Patel bat tomorrow morning will tell, one way or other.

For England, Leach has been the standout bowler, alongside Olly Stone with his considerable velocities. Root, on a wicket aiding turn, has been the surprise package; Stokes, who appears to be nursing some niggle, is a non-factor; Broad is there and thereabouts, and Moeen Ali, thus far, is the weak link, going in excess of 4.3 per over for his two wickets.

PS: Nope, not a word about the pitch. Not as yet. I’d rather wait to see both teams bat — and bowl. For now, it is dusty; it has grip and turn for the spinners; it is particularly difficult to bat on when a spinner, of any time, bowls flatter, quicker and fuller, taking out reaction time. Against that, once the ball gets soft — around the 35-over mark and later — the turn on offer markedly slows down, allowing batsmen more time to adjust. On the pace front, there is no sign of swing, conventional or reverse; there is no appreciable bounce either. Stuart Broad was reduced to a trundler, pretty much, once the shine was off; Olly Stone looked impressive, but only because he took the pitch out of play and focussed on pace on a very full length.

On that note, you can understand the “workload management” that made India rest Bumrah (though, unlike Anderson, Boom is young and you would think that the six days between Tests 2 and 3 is sufficient recovery time), but I can’t help thinking how lethal he could be, with his ability to target the stumps and the pads, on a pitch where the ball stays low.

Luck is not a strategy

Should they lose the toss again and find the pitch to be similar – the latter is less likely to happen – India will ask for better control from their bowlers and a little bit more luck when they bat in the first innings. 

Via this piece in Cricinfo

That line stopped me in my tracks. “Luck” for batsmen, “control” for bowlers? In other words, batsmen have no agency, no responsibility?

This is not to diss Sid Monga, whose writing I like, but merely to register my growing annoyance with an emerging trend in cricket analysis that puts “percentage of out of control shots… number of out of control shots per wicket…” and such front and centre.

It is fairly obvious that if you are not in control of your stroke, the chances of your getting out increase. What the statistics leave out is why you were not in control. Was it a combination of great bowling on a helpful pitch — like, say, Adelaide? Or was it a factor of the batsman’s form, craft and state of mind — as, to cite one example, Rahane’s dismissal in the first innings in Chennai, or Rohit’s nick-off in that same innings? None of this is to deny that luck plays a role — it does, in every sport, in every encounter between individuals and teams. But if India is to turn things around, it will need more than the rub of the green, or the favourable fall of the coin.

Team selection is going to be key — and I suspect that form or no — particularly in the case of Rohit and Ajinkya — India will likely retain its top six. And that will mean additional pressure right at the top: If Rohit cannot find a semblance of form, an early wicket is always on the cards, and that transfers the pressure onto #3 Pujara. Similarly, if Rahane is unable to turn his recent run of poor form around, the pressure is on Kohli, who has to bat knowing there is a huge vulnerability if he falls early. But it is what it is, and the point of interest here is to see if those two batsmen can get their heads in order and pull their weight.

The key will be the bowling — and the fielding. Bumrah will likely get picked because, with India behind, it cannot afford to rest its star strike bowler. Ishant — for his ability to bowl dry spells and put pressure at one end — will likewise make it, as will Ashwin on his home ground, bodily niggles or no. So the selection hinges on two slots: Sundar and Nadeem.

The former played arguably the best batsman-like knock in the Indian first innings — and India is evidently none too confident about its batting, so they will want him in the XI. That leaves Nadeem — and the question of who to swap him out for. The consensus coming out of Chennai seems to be that the team is thinking of bringing Axar Patel in for Nadeem — giving the orthodox left-arm spinner a debut in red ball cricket. Again, such a selection is likely to be on the basis of his batting, not a perception of his ability to take wickets with the red ball.

So if that happens, India will again go into a Test with two wicket-taking bowlers, one “dry” bowler, and two relative tyros picked not primarily for bowling ability but for their batting. And that, for very obvious reasons, will be a big mistake. A better more logical option would be to say that the onus is on the six batsmen to score runs, and that the bowling unit must be capable of taking wickets under any conditions: Kuldeep in for Nadeem, giving India two attacking spinners, and Siraj in for Sundar, which gives India a bowler capable of taking the pitch out of the equation because he relies on swing and seam. (Not a like for like comparison, but think of a James Anderson — if England were picking for pace, Mark Wood and even Stuart Broad would have gotten the nod ahead of the veteran, but Anderson’s sub-140k speeds didn’t matter because he can swing the ball both ways, and move it off the seam, as witness the cutter he bowled to Pant in the second innings).

That “weakens” the batting, sure, but if five top order batsmen plus a wicket-keeper who has been picked primarily for his batting can’t get you runs, then logically it is the batsmen who should be changed, no? Pant picked because he can bat; Sundar picked because he can bat; Axar picked because he can bat — in other words, three of the bottom six picked not for their primary skill, and then the blame for defeat put on the second string bowlers? How does that work?

Picking the right team is half the story. The other half is how you support your bowlers. A couple of days ago, some of us happened to find ourselves at the local tea-shop — a neighbourhood adda for long discussions on everything from politics to cricket and all else in-between. And on the subject of captaincy, an old cricketing maxim came up: In Tests, you attack with the field and defend with the ball. And I found myself having to explain that. Here goes, FWIW:

Unlike in overs-limit games, in Tests bowlers need to bowl longer spells. This means a greater reliance on the stock ball — whereas in limited over games, variety is what keeps the batsman guessing and unable to predetermine shots.

If you accept that reliance on the stock ball is fundamental to Test cricket, where is your wicket going to come from? That is where “attack with the field” comes into play. Take, as one example, the case of an off-spinner. The field set is slip, silly point, leg slip, forward short-leg, and a square leg fielder well inside the ring to stop the batsman working the ball in that direction to get off strike. All of this abetted by a short mid on.

Now the off-spinner, merely using his stock ball most of the time, gets to put all forms of dismissals in play. By pulling his length back he has silly point and short leg in the game for the bat-pad off the inside edge. By bowling the stock off-spinner around the 4th stump line turning in, he has the option of straightening the odd one and bringing the outside edge into the game. If there is turn and/or bounce, varying the line of the stock ball to off, turning to middle and leg, forces the batsman to go back and play from waist-level or higher, which puts leg slip in the game. Driving with the spin takes the ball to short mid-on. And there is always the fuller ball on the stumps to set up the LBW/bowled dismissals. All of this, using the stock off-spinner most of the time, and the variations in use of the crease and length to create questions — all possible, because the field backs him.

If, on the other hand, you dilute the field and go in-out, the stock ball can’t be relied on as much, because you open up areas where the batsman can work the single and get off strike. This, in turn, forces the bowler to try more variations, which opens up the risk of waywardness and consequently, more runs. Kohli, after the first Test, complained that Sundar and Nadeem weren’t able to “keep the pressure on”; what was missed there was that in Tests, a bowler needs fielding support if he has to maintain pressure. If, when tossing the ball to a Sundar, you act on the assumption that the goal is run-limitation, and spread the field, it forces the bowler to also bowl defensive lines. And — cliche alert — the best form of defence in Tests is to take wickets.

Just one thing worth keeping an eye on when India takes the field. Oh, and FWIW, my personal pick, from available personnel, for the second Test: KL Rahul, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane (or Rohit in the middle if there is a serious issue with Ajinkya’s form), Rishabh Pant, Ravichandran Ashwin, Kuldeep Yadav, Mohd Siraj, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah. I’d love to have Shardul Thakur in there, but Siraj is easily the better swing/seam bowler of the two.

In that lineup, Rohit is the one I dropped — so now waiting for the short-form legend to prove me wrong in the longer form.

Comments?

PS: What would we be without our “escape-goats“, as someone called it? The curator has been sacked, says this report. Question for the masterminds: (A) On what basis did you appoint a tyro for a key series in the first place? and (B) What is the use of sacking the curator now? The pitch for the second Test was prepared alongside the first, so sacking him now makes no difference, right?

PPS: After I wrote this, England has announced its team. Which, just for the record, reads: Dom Sibley, Rory Burns, Dan Lawrence, Joe Root (capt), Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Ben Foakes (wk), Moeen Ali, Stuart Broad, Chris Woakes, Jack Leach, Olly Stone.

The batting stays unchanged (despite Lawrence’s twin failures); in the bowling department, Archer and Anderson sitting out had been foreshadowed, once England said before the tour that workload management was an important priority. It makes sense for England to rest Anderson ahead of the money games in Ahmedabad, rather than giving him an extended workload in Chennai where he becomes effective only once the ball begins to reverse. On balance, the experience of Chris Woakes should see him in the XI ahead of the much quicker Olly Stone (though I’d personally love to see Stone play ahead of Woakes), and overall, this selection means England come into the Test with four of five bowlers fresh, rested, and ready to go.

Enter, left, the man with the gun

WHEN in doubt,” noir master Raymond Chandler once said while dispensing writing advice, “have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” James Anderson was that man with the gun for England, at a point in the game when the game was in equipoise.

How do you explain to a Martian that a game that lasts five days / 450 overs can really be decided in the space of four minutes and six deliveries? Or how a 38-year-old, well past any logical use-by date — notionally the team’s strike bowler, who gets his first bowl in the 28th over of an innings — can produce a first over of such lethal quality as the one James Anderson bowled to completely change the narrative?

India lost Pujara in the 7th over of the day’s play, against the run of play — because there was nothing in Pujara’s play either in the first innings or for the duration of his second to suggest he was particularly vulnerable to spin. His ability to come out to the in-between length, and go deep for the slightly shorter one, has worked for him through his career — until the fatal delivery just back of length, with inward drift before turning the other way, that the number three played from a rooted position at the top of the crease and a shut bat face to give Leach an outer edge.

Gill, though, was batting with his trademark languid grace and Virat Kohli, who hasn’t had an innings of real distinction since his century against Bangladesh in 2019, settled in quickly. With both batsmen stroking fluently and stealing singles almost at will, India appeared to have weathered the loss of two of the top three and brought the game back into balance.

Enter the man with the gun — with an over as devastating as a landslide. What was most impressive was the way he called it before he played it — in pre-game comments, he had said that the ball would reverse appreciably around the 25th over. He got it in the 28th, and it took him just one delivery to line things up before he delivered.

Gill’s batting has no discernible chinks. His footwork is very organised, his read of line and length close to perfection, his bat has so much time get in position it is almost as if the ball slows down to accommodate him. And here he was truly on song – until Anderson got him in his sights, and took him out with an example of swing bowling that deserves to go down in song. The ball started off on a fourth stump line, began drifting in towards off, hit the deck on that perfect length just back of good, and moved sharply in to find a gap between bat and pad where there seemed to be none. You can watch the clip endless times without ever figuring out what any batsman — including the very best in the world — could have done to survive it.

And then it got better. One ball later, another perfect example of reverse swing nailed Ajinkya Rahane, who was lucky to get the benefit of the umpire. So the following ball, Anderson took the umpire out of the game, repeated the exact same delivery he had bowled to Gill, and found India’s vice-captain, already woefully out of form, a sitting duck in his personal shooting gallery.

Four deliveries, one let off, two instances of the off stump cartwheeling towards the keeper — game over. But brilliant as those dismissals were, I have a preference for the way he out-thought Rishabh Pant. The diminutive number six looked quite comfortable even against Anderson around the wicket, so the bowler set him up with reverse swinging deliveries that came into him, then took him out with a cutter that went the other way. Pant played for the one coming in, looked to work it off his pads, and got the outer edge to cover.

That spell, of 7-4-8-3, is the story of the Indian second innings collapse — the rest, including an extended spell by Jack Leach where he showcased the much-hyped, rarely understood ‘character’ more than anything else — had an air of inevitability, once Anderson set the dominoes tumbling.

There is an end of Test ritual fetishised by management-speak — “take away the positives” is how it goes. But barring the continued form of Shubman Gill, a better outing for Virat Kohli, the batting ability of Washington Sundar (which should not come as a surprise to anyone following his career) and the bowling of Ishant Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin, there is nothing to take away no matter how hard you scrape the bottom of the barrel.

India’s number one and number five are iffy. Number four is struggling to overcome what for him is an extended run drought. On the bowling front, one number tells the story: Ashwin bowled more than 72 overs across days one, two and four. That he had to shoulder — on a dodgy shoulder — such a marathon effort tells you the story of a bowling attack that was not even a decent bowling defence.

In post-match comments, Kohli suggested that the two support bowlers — Nadeem and Sundar — didn’t live up to expectations. He did not explain what the expectations were based on. What India lacks — and what India can do — is a subject for another day, though.

For now: Jimmy Anderson. In a different day and age, they would be writing about him in iambic pentameter. All you can do, in the age of 240-character Twitter posts, is watch clips of his three dismissals on loop. And marvel, at a man who seems to get better each time someone writes finis to his career.