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.