India V Australia, Test 4 Day 1

(My preview, written for First Post Friday evening)

C7hHt8wVwAAGBnm“MY GOD” reads a tweet from cricket writer and radio commentator Geoff Lemon, “LOOK AT THIS INDIAN PITCH oh no wait that is just some bread”. Judging by that post and others, Lemon is mildly annoyed with this cricket season’s version of the Great Indian Dope Trick.

There is an art to this. You say the following: It is hard. There is some grass on it but it is dead grass rolled in “as makeup”. There is a bit of moisture beneath the surface (duh!). In the first hour, it will give you some bounce and carry. It will become progressively lower and slower. It will crack up as the sun beats down on it and it will turn sharply. The turn, if any, will only be out of any rough created by the bowlers’ footmarks. The turn will become slower and the ball will keep lower as the game progresses…

You can say the above in whatever order you like, but you have to say all of it, with a suitably portentous expression. (To get the face right, pretend you have to go to the loo urgently).

Not kidding. Here’s Josh Hazlewood, mildly edited, on the wicket: “I think the wicket will determine a result. They need to win so the wicket they serve up will bring a result into the game. We played New Zealand here in the T20 World Cup nearly 12 months ago. It spun quite a bit that game. They can make it however they want, really. It sometimes has pace and bounce and sometimes has spin. Guess we’ll find out.”

That is 68 words worth of ‘God knows’. So here’s the FirstPost pitch report: We don’t know how it’s going to behave, nor how its behavior will change over the course of the next five days.

Happy now? Okay then, for our next trick we are about to reveal the winning number for the Bhutan Super Duper Bumper Lottery.

The teams:

It is hard to see the Aussies making a change, unless they find that the split callus on Nathan Lyon’s spinning finger hasn’t yielded to treatment. The injury prevented Lyon from giving the ball a rip, with the result that he got neither the drift, the bounce nor the sharp turn he had found in the first innings in Bengaluru. In Ranchi he bowled 46 unimpressive overs, just two less than Hazlewood and 31 overs less than the overworked Steve O’Keefe, buying the wicket of Cheteswar Pujara for a total of 163 runs while leaking @ 3.54 per over in an innings where India’s overall run rate was a mere 2.8.

If not him, though, who? If the Aussie reading of the wicket and conditions is that it will have sustained pace, bounce and swing over the course of the game, then it could be Jackson Bird for Lyon, with Glenn Maxwell having to do a lot of off-spin as SOK’s partner. But it’s hard to see that happen – an unchanged lineup looks the most logical option.

India, likewise, will at best exchange a dodgy right shoulder for a fit one – the first belonging to Virat Kohli, the second to Shreyas Iyer. Kohli avoided batting in the nets, his sleeveless T-shirt and heavy strapping on the injured finger shoulder giving him the impression of a shop-window mannequin the display guys haven’t finished dressing up yet. How much of this is mind fakery and how much is for real, no one knows – in a press conference on Thursday Kohli said he felt his injury “during reactive moments” in Ranchi, which is to say during any serious cricketing activity, and that he would play only if 100 percent fit.

If he is deemed not fully fit when a final call is taken on Saturday morning, then it will be 22-year-old Iyer getting a Test cap and batting at number four. The free-stroking Mumbai right-hander smacked 202 off 306 balls laced with 27 fours and seven sixes when India A took on the visitors in a warm-up game at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium. That attack had Bird and Mitchell Marsh fronting it, and Lyon and O’Keefe doing spin duty and getting taken apart by Iyer, who incidentally also bowls okay leg-breaks and googlies.

A good case could be made for India choosing the more attacking option and benching Karun Nair in favor Mohammad Shami, who to all appearances seems to have gotten over the injury sustained in the third Test against England earlier in the season. His inclusion makes sense – Shami’s ability to skid the ball through and seam/swing it both ways works as well with the old ball as with the new, and his presence as a fifth bowler will allow the home side to use the two frontline pacers in shorter, sharper bursts.

Will India make the punt? Unlikely, with the series on the line and the scars of four batting collapses (plus an almost-collapse before Pujara and Wriddhiman Saha did their double act in Ranchi) still fresh.

The Ashwin conundrum:

‘What is wrong with Ravichandran Ashwin?’ seems to be, judged on the unscientific evidence of email queries and Twitter mentions, the question exercising Indian cricket’s amateur out-patient wing, to wit, the fans.

The symptoms are fairly obvious; the ‘disease’, if indeed there is one, is not. A country used to its talismanic off-spinner running through sides on even concrete tracks and taking five-fors for fun is understandably bemused after Ranchi, where he bowled 74 overs across two innings, taking two wickets in toto for a combined cost of 185 runs. What makes it harder to take is that in the second innings, with India sniffing a possible win, Ashwin seemed totally ineffective on what the experts decreed a “spinning track”.

Watch a replay of the Test (I did, on fast forward) and you realize there is nothing visibly wrong with the individual balls he has bowled – the issue, if in fact it is one, seems to have more to do with approach rather than mechanics.

Ashwin is the sort of bowler who settles smoothly into his work – he has an idea of his preferred lengths and lines for each pitch and in fact for each spell, and he goes steadily to work on those plans, grooving himself nicely and fine-tuning his approach before he begins to try out his variations.

In Ranchi, however, he seemed more often than not to bowl all-sorts, particularly in the second innings – each ball in an over was different from the other, a sign of a bowler trying too hard too often to make things happen.

Psycho-babble is an irresistible temptation when doing these previews. Succumbing momentarily, I wonder if Ravindra Jadeja overshadowing him as India’s leading strike bowler, first in Bengaluru and then in the first innings in Ranchi, has had the unintended effect of getting the always competitive Ashwin trying much too much to reclaim the pole position.

A day earlier, the BCCI Twitter stream featured a lovely shot of him bowling in the nets at Dharamshala. It is an immaculate freeze frame of an off spinner plying his trade – left toe pointing straight down the pitch at the batsman, body perfectly in line, right shoulder driving through, lovely looping flight, with the side-on seam indicating the potential for drift in the air and turn off the pitch.

It’s a picture of a spinner at the top of his craft. It is a picture of the Ashwin we did not see in Ranchi.

(My report at close of play on day one is here)

PostScript: Previews, in common with military strategies, rarely survive contact with reality. The one above is no different, particularly as regards the Indian team selection.

Bhuvaneshwar Kumar for Ishant Sharma is interesting, merely. The tall Ishant should have gotten good lift off the Dharamshala track, but the Indian think tank — which has the benefit of watching its bowlers closely in the nets — likely saw Bhuvi get impressive swing in the relatively rarefied atmosphere of a venue over 1300 meters above sea level and decided to go with him. And the pick proved good, in retrospective — the tall, quick Umesh rarely if ever got any swing on day one whereas Bhuvi swung the ball consistently, both ways, with both new balls and was unlucky not to start with the wicket of David Warner off the first ball of the day.

The real stunner though was the call to go a batsman light. Shreyas looked the natural replacement for Kohli, but India sprang a surprise that seemed to fly in the face of all logic, bringing in left-arm chinaman/googly bowler Kuldeep Yadav in for the injured captain.

That meant three spinners to go with the two quicks. It meant a debutant coming into a team that already has the two top-ranked ICC spinners in it. It meant a debutant coming into a high-pressure game — the first time in 11 years that a Test series at home has gone into the final game with the result on the line. It meant additional pressure on Karun Nair, who after his triple century has consistently looked good without ever managing to make it count. It meant that India, which started this series with four underwhelming batting displays on the trot before finally coming good in Ranchi, was prepared to risk being light with the bat in a must-win game.

Even by the standards of this team management, it was a bold — almost foolhardy — call to make. It was certainly one that no one, including me, saw coming; it was a move that clearly caught the Australian team off guard. And it has already paid off, magnificently, irrespective of the final outcome, for which the coach, the captain, and the management deserve high praise.

PPS: Collectors of pitch punditry had a rich day today. Before the game, it was all about pace and bounce. After the end of the first session, which featured a rollicking partnership between Steve Smith and David Warner, it was about the unwisdom of picking a third spinner who, it was felt, would be largely redundant on a track which would not turn till at least late on day three.

By the end of the second session, mercifully, everyone just shut the hell up about the wicket. About time, too.

But equally worth noting is punditry that gets it right. At lunch, with Australia seemingly having everything going for it, Aakash Chopra posted this tweet:

Kuldeep is my man for this innings. Hopefully he starts after lunch and gets an extended spell.

That was a class call by an astute reader of the game. At the time, Kuldeep had bowled just one over, having waited in the outfield till just before lunch for his first feel. It was neat but nothing extraordinary; definitely nothing to suggest what was to come. Judged by precedent, you would expect India to have resumed with a quick at one end and one of its senior spinners, Ashwin or Jadeja, at the other. Rahane instead turned to the debutant, who in a post-lunch spell of 13-1-41-3 turned the game on its head.

And here, for those who are interested in craft, is a beautiful Aakash Chopra breakdown of Kuldeep’s bowling. Key passage:

At the outset, there are two things that work in his favour – his short stature, which allows him natural dip. Taller bowlers find it difficult to create the parabola loop and therefore, have to work really hard to get the ball to dip on the batsman. Some of Kuldeep’s deliveries land a touch shorter than where the batsman expects them to fall. The other key difference is his unique angle from over the stumps. He forces right-handed batsmen to open their stance – to take care of the blind spot outside the leg stump – and that in turn is testing the batsman’s footwork more. Now, they have to plant the foot a little straighter and play inside the line for deliveries pitching within the stumps, and yet be mindful that they don’t go too straight as some might hold the line and go across with the angle. Also, there’s a demand to have a bigger front-foot stride going across to the ones that pitch a little wider outside off.

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