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.


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.