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.