It’s about the space between the ears

Speaking at a sports-themed lit-fest in Pune earlier this week, VVS Laxman unlocked the mystery of cricket performance with one crisp comment.

“It is not about how difficult it looks from the outside, or even to others in the dressing room,” he said, referring to his iconic 281 against Australia in 2001. “It is the state of your own mind, your confidence. Everyone talks of that knock, but it wasn’t at all difficult for me because at that point in time, I was totally confident. There were other times, easier conditions, when I didn’t play as well because I wasn’t so confident then.”

Laxman that day pushed us into looking beyond the usual tropes of cricket analysis, and to see the performance in this Test of the likes of Renshaw, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Steve O’Keefe, Ravi Jadeja and Umesh Yadav in a whole new light.

Smith compiled his 10th Test century as captain, to go with 10 fifties, in a span of 22 Tests and 37 innings; it was also his fifth in succession against India in Tests to go with his four in four on the 2014 India tour of Oz. It was rarely pretty – Smith at the crease, with his hyper fidgets and the strokes that cause dyspepsia among the purists, never is. But it was smart batting organised around a simple principle.

Before the start of the Test, Smith said the Australian strategy was to give the Indian spinners only one edge to work at, and he walked that talk in the middle. Batting with bat in front of body and playing well inside the line of the ball, Smith allowed the telegenic turn and bounce to take the ball well past his outer edge, ensured that his inner edge was never in play, and used his bat only when the ball was coming in or straightening on line.

He hit hard (11 fours) when the bowler afforded him the slightest opening, he nudged the ball around (51 singles) to rotate strike, and he left with remarkable patience any ball that did not force him to play. He left 38 of the 67 deliveries he faced from Ashwin while still managing 45 runs (21 singles, four twos and four fours). Against Jadeja this was even more pronounced – 64 of 81 balls faced were left alone, and off the rest he scored 31 runs including 11 singles and four fours.

Smith was reprieved thrice on day two, then again once today India’s remarkable prodigality with their DRS reviews meant there was none available to take a Jadeja appeal for LBW up to cricket’s appellate court. That is more than half a cat’s lifespan, but what mattered was the calm assurance with which he shrugged, smiled, fiddled with his pads even more frenetically, and settled in to face the next ball.

Steven O’Keefe came into this game as everyone’s ‘why him’ choice and his bland opening spell on the second morning reinforced that view. But he did his homework during the lunch break, worked with consultant Sridharan Sriram to practise the fuller length, and ripped the guts out of India’s first innings in the second session en route to a remarkable six wicket haul, before returning in the second innings to reel in six more including the always vital scalp of the Indian captain.

He accomplished this by, like Smith, reducing his craft to its simplest essence. On a track where turn was measured in feet, O’Keefe focussed on a metronomic line around off, quickness through the air, length on the better side of good, turn measured in centimetres, and a smart use of the occasional big-turning ball to keep the batsman off balance.

Ravi Jadeja is another who is supposed to be in this Test team on sufferance, the one-trick bowler best deployed to bottle an end up while the stars did the job at the other. And yet, through this extended home season, he has wheeled away for a remarkable 561 overs for 51 wickets. In the Australian second innings, he kept it up for 33 overs, buying his three wickets at just over 21 apiece and going at 1.9 runs per over in an innings where the Aussies were scoring at 3.3. What was most remarkable about his performance was a buoyant confidence that contrasted remarkably against the drooping shoulders and general flatness of his mates.

On similar lines, you saw that sense of calm confidence in the batting of the tyro Renshaw on the Australian side, and the experienced Umesh Yadav for India — two players plainly confident in their craft and at ease in their skins, able to perform without reference to the nature of the wicket or the match situation. You also saw it in the catching and ground fielding of the Australians, who performed not as the underdogs hype suggested but as a team at home with their game and in the conditions.

The corollary is equally true. Virat Kohli, faced with the prospect of a first home defeat after a 17-Test streak, collected a zero and a 13 in his two knocks and never looked like he had his head in the game – a fact best exemplified in the horrific misjudgement of line, length and direction that saw him leave an O’Keefe delivery that straightened to hit off. Similarly with Ravi Ashwin, who in conditions he should have revelled in took seven wickets across two innings, but went strangely off the boil about halfway through that marathon opening spell of 16 overs in the Australian second innings.

The mechanics of India’s second innings collapse is unimportant, really – everything that could go wrong, did. Vijay played for turn that wasn’t there, as did KL Rahul, as did Kohli; Rahane skipped down the track and chipped a gentle catch to mid-off, Ashwin failed to pick the ball straightening in to him and, as in the case of his batting betters, played for non-existent turn, Pujara got tangled up playing around his front foot – it was, briefly, the story of inept batting against disciplined, thoughtful bowling by two spinners who, without the weight of starry expectation, buckled down to their job with rigorous professionalism.

The numbers underlying Australia’s totally unexpected 333-run win are eye-opening. A batting line-up that scored over 600 in its last three outings lasted a mere 76 overs across its two outings here; and they managed a combined 212 across both innings – 73 short of what Australia managed in its first innings alone. Five of India’s second innings wickets fell to the LBW and a further two were bowled – a remarkable statistic testifying to the efficacy of the straight ball on a track whose square turn was the most talked about feature.

With the story of sustained dominance fresh in memory, you have to excavate the record books sedulously to remember the last time the side has been so thoroughly outplayed across all three disciplines. We have seen and enjoyed the dominance; it’s going to be illuminating to see just how this team reacts to the unfamiliar position of having to play catch-up.

Of spin and other demons

Back when I had just turned teen, I saw a scary movie scene that played out under a full moon hanging low in the sky. I was in Sultan’s Battery, in the Wynad region in Kerala, at the time. At movie’s end, I set out on the walk home — and saw an enormous moon hanging low over the hills.

I ran. I didn’t stop to think, to rationalise — I ran from I knew not what. And for a couple of years after, I wouldn’t go out when the moon was full. Fear is irrational, and fear makes you do stupid things, as a ridiculous procession of batsmen showed today at the Maharashtra Cricket Association ground in Pune today.

Some 48 hours or so before this Test began, someone got a look at the wicket and went ooo! Everyone began quoting everyone else, then trying to go one better. ‘This looks like a day five pitch’, goes one. ‘More like a day eight pitch’, goes the next one. If none got to the ‘It looks like last year’s pitch’ mark, it’s probably because there wasn’t enough time to work up to it.

Sure the wicket is dry. So is most of India at this time of year. And sure there is turn on the track. In India, ‘doctoring a wicket’ is not when you try to put spin in, it is when you try to take spin out of the pitch. So to keep harping on that the pitch is dry and dusty and turning is to overstate the obvious.

Instead, take a look though at today’s bizarre procession: Josh Hazelwood adhered to that line around off, set Murali Vijay up beautifully with two deliveries leaving him before going a bit wider on the crease to change the angle and then straightening one at the batsman, forcing Vijay to play and finding the edge — the sort of dismissal you’d expect to see on any track in Australia and South Africa.

Josh Hazelwood set Murali Vijay up with two deliveries leaving him before going a bit wider on the crease and straightening one, forcing Vijay to play at it and nick off. Starc played Virat Kohli for a sucker, angling the ball at pace across the right hander and luring him into reaching for it as Kohli is prone to do early on. The Indian skipper lasted two balls and walked off on his first duck in a 104-inning stretch extending back to 2014. Starc then bowled a ripper at Pujara, lifting the ball at pace around middle and off from just a shade short of length after bowling the previous ball full at the base of the stumps. Three top Indian wickets went inside 15 overs for just 44 runs, all to pace, and the pitch played no role in any of those.

All along, KL Rahul had played with an ease that belied a wrenched shoulder and a dodgy tummy, driving and flicking both pace and spin with easy grace. He seemed to be moving up through the gears after lunch when, for some reason best known to himself, he opted to dance out and swat at Steve O’Keefe despite there being a man out for the shot. A pity — Rahul was working the ball around with fluid ease at the time, and no one could have been as surprised by his suicidal stroke than the pitch itself.

Ajinkya Rahane never looked settled during his tenure, but the O’Keefe ball that got him was angling across the right hander towards the leg side. Rahane shut the bat face too early as he looked to work to leg; he got the leading edge and Peter Handscomb, partially blinded at second slip by the batsman’s body, anticipated brilliantly and took a blinder. Saha came in and immediately poked blindly at an O’Keefe ball angling in on middle and got the outside edge for a catch to Steve Smith at first slip via Matt Wade’s glove. Ashwin pushed defensively with a high, angled bat at Lyon, got the ball onto the boot, and gave Handscomb a chance to show he could catch just as well at short square as at slip. Jayant Yadav stretched theatrically a long way forward in defence and fell to lightning fast glove work by Wade. Jadeja ran at O’keefe and holed out to deep midwicket.

And when Australia batted again, David Warner reverse swept, then swept, then played down the wrong line and got nailed in front by a regulation off break – all this in the very first over. Shaun Marsh defended, not the ball itself but the line he thought the ball might take if it turned – and was nailed by a straight ball that did nothing at all. Peter Handscomb tried to turn a bouncing Ashwin off break around the corner, having misread the length and gone well back to a ball that wasn’t short in length. And Renshaw, whose tenures at the crease seem to be accompanied by health crisis of some sort or other (here he was rapped on the forearm by Umesh Yadav and had to take a barf-break) slogged at Jayant Yadav and got caught in the deep.

In all of this, any attempt to incriminate the pitch would have been laughed out of court.

A common counter is that when the ball is turning square, it puts gremlins in batsmen’s minds and forces an inordinate number of errors in judgment – as above. That is equally true on a fast, bouncy pitch or under the overcast skies of England, but never mind that – what the proponents of that argument are really saying is, when you believe the pitch has devils, you end up playing those devils, and not the actual ball that has been bowled at you. Steve O’Keefe would smile – his post-lunch spell, after a change of ends, was 6.1-1-12-6. Superhuman figures those, for doing little more than bowling tight lines on and around off, and letting the batsmen think themselves out.

India’s innings of 105 all out, spanning all of 40.1 overs, was totally contrary to recent type. For one thing, they lost wickets in a heap – two to Starc in the 15th over, an astonishing three to O’Keefe in the 33rd over (that second slide triggered by the Rahul brain fade). Batsmen who, throughout the overlong home season, had shown an ability to play the waiting game, to suss out the conditions and to bat big and long, here showed all the adherent ability of cats on the proverbial hot tin roofs.

And when they fielded, they dropped catches with a prodigality that suggested their minds were a mess, that a long run of successes had leeched them of the stomach for a back-to-the-wall fight. Smith was reprieved thrice – by Vijay at leg slip, by Abhinav Mukund at midwicket, then Mukund again at short square. And just to round it off, Vijay at second slip grabbed at a catch off Renshaw that was a sitter for Rahane at first slip, and deflected the ball for four to rub salt in a steaming Kohli’s wounds.

India compounded its sins in the field with captaincy by the numbers. It was no surprise that Ashwin and Jadeja opened the bowling, and if Vijay had done his bit Australia could well have been four down for not much. But that said, India persisted with the spin duo for way too long, waiting till the 28th over before trying something different in the form of Umesh Yadav.

While India found ways to shoot themselves in the foot with the bat, the ball and in the field, Australia did almost everything right. The bowlers, both quicks and spinners, bowled the right, tight lines and never erred on the side of trying too hard. They caught brilliantly and piled on the pressure with sharp ground fielding, and when it was their turn to bat again they took every opportunity to attack, sweeping and reverse sweeping with vigour, driving when the length afforded the chance, and pushing the ball around the field to work the singles and mess with the bowling lines.

At stumps on the worst Test day India has had all year, the home team is behind the pump, Australia leading by 298 with Smith, working cat-like on his fourth life, leading with an unbeaten 59 and Mitchell Marsh doing well alongside him on 21.

Silver linings for India are thin on the ground – and KL Rahul being off the field with a dodgy shoulder adds to the home side’s problems. But if you look hard enough, there is this – the day is over, the team has a chance to mentally regroup, and this wicket is not minefield it is made out to be. No team can bat out time and force a draw here, but a determined batting effort by a team that knows how to could still spring a surprise in a Test that has already had a surfeit of surprises.

Kwetching about pitches? Enough already.

Sir Richard Hadlee once said he thought of an over as a revolver loaded with six bullets.

For a bowler to work the six-strike plan though, the batsman has to be standing still. It’s a hard thought to adjust to in this age of hyper-gratification, but that is why the single still remains the most crucial scoring option in cricket. When you are getting them with ease and frequency, everything else falls into place. And when you are not, not.

The drying up of singles did Australia in today, forcing batsmen to remain in the gunsight of the bowler for long periods of time, and allowing bowlers to work to bowling plans that push and pull at batting mechanics, eroding muscle memory and opening up chinks to exploit.

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Eye on the ball?

For all the soul-searching after November 8, all the angst, and the clearly voiced determination to keep its eye on the ball and not get distracted, the media continues to go chasing every shiny object the Trump team throws in its way, wittingly or otherwise.

The latest example is this:

WASHINGTON — President Trump loves to set the day’s narrative at dawn, but the deeper story of his White House is best told at night.

Aides confer in the dark because they cannot figure out how to operate the light switches in the cabinet room. Visitors conclude their meetings and then wander around, testing doorknobs until finding one that leads to an exit. In a darkened, mostly empty West Wing, Mr. Trump’s provocative chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, finishes another 16-hour day planning new lines of attack.

Usually around 6:30 p.m., or sometimes later, Mr. Trump retires upstairs to the residence to recharge, vent and intermittently use Twitter. With his wife, Melania, and young son, Barron, staying in New York, he is almost always by himself, sometimes in the protective presence of his imposing longtime aide and former security chief, Keith Schiller. When Mr. Trump is not watching television in his bathrobe or on his phone reaching out to old campaign hands and advisers, he will sometimes set off to explore the unfamiliar surroundings of his new home.

That clip from an NYT story has the media in an orgiastic frenzy. The staffers stumbling around in the dark because they don’t know where the light switches are? A metaphor, we are told, for the Trump Administration itself. A lonely Trump wandering around the unfamiliar rooms of the White House, clad in a bathrobe? Again, typical of the chaotically disorganised accidental president.

Meanwhile, the real smoking gun lies buried in paras 19 onwards, when the story talks of how the stream of Executive Orders were signed. Here is para 23:

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