Willing, and able

All sport represents the collision of wills: people or teams that want the same thing, and have to cause somebody pain in order to get it. The more it matters to the athlete, the more vivid the experience is for the spectator, and the writer.

Simon Barnes, The Meaning of Sport

UNTIL I got unwittingly dragged into cricket writing in 1996, I watched cricket purely as a fan — for the spectacle of it. Flying stumps, swinging deliveries, spitting turn, gorgeous stroke-play… It is what I remember from all those years of watching — discrete incidents, but never the larger narrative.

Now, it is all about the story, the narrative — and even given the compelling, occasionally noir narratives of international cricket in recent months, the one that unfolded today was one to savour.

In the first innings Virat Kohli (and later, his counterpart Joe Root) came out looking to get their retaliation in first; to dominate in inimical conditions. Kohli’s knock today was the antithesis — a subsuming of the ego, a willingness to acknowledge his batting mortality, to be prepared to look ordinary, if he must, to bat deep, as the situation dictated he must.

England played on his ego in the early passages. For Moeen Ali, they put a short cover in place besides an orthodox cover and mid-off. For Jack Leach, there was a short mid-wicket and a short mid-on. It was a gauntlet flung in the face — drive, if you think you are good enough.

Kohli put on a masterclass in which self-denial was paramount. He cut out his favourite shot; he defended with an almost monkish determination. He went tight — bat close to the body, bat face pedantically facing the bowler, pads in tight next to the bat, either full stretch forward or fully back in the crease, very respectful of the conditions and the way the bowlers were using them, very willing to be human, to acknowledge that even he could not dominate at will.

What was impressive was the way he thought his game through. Against Moeen, turning the ball into him, Kohli got his front leg right across so he could cover the turn and play with it. To Leach, turning away from him, he stayed leg side and played beside the ball — giving himself the space to play, or leave, depending on the length and extent of turn.

Kohli took 20 deliveries to get off the mark, and 53 deliveries to score his first 20 runs; he was content to let Ravichandran Ashwin outscore him during their 7th wicket partnership; his 50, which came off 107 deliveries, contained 85 dot balls — a testament to his willingness to defend, to deny himself the shots he normally indulges himself and his fans. When he unfurled that trademark cover drive — the one where he reaches well away from his body, and seems to let the ball “sit” on his bat for an instant before he snaps his wrists into the shot — it was after lunch, with his personal score on 38. And having played it perfectly, with the air of one on a strict diet indulging himself with an ice-cream cheat, he put it back in his kitbag for more favourable conditions, and settled back into the grind.

It was an innings shorn of the usual spectacle you expect from him — but it is a knock that, I suspect, will stick in the memory long after more barnstorming performances are forgotten. This was not the collision of wills that Barnes wrote about, so much as a matter of a batsman in search of redemption putting his skill, and importantly his will, on the line.

The end — rapped high on the pads to a Moeen Ali off break bowled from around the wicket, the decision depending on the on-field umpire’s call — came as the kind of anti-climax that underlines everything that went before.

THERE is an air of surprise — a bit of patronage, even — in the tone with which commentators talk of Ashwin’s batting. What is routinely forgotten is that Ashwin started out as a batsman; that batting is all he ever wanted to do; that he opened the batting for his state — on this very ground, what is more — and that off-spin bowling was in the early part of his career almost an afterthought. Given his origin story, what should really be a surprise is that he became one of the best off-spinners of this or any era (hold off on the pushback till you’ve taken a look at the numbers) — not that “Ashwin can bat”.

He can. And on the day, he batted on bowling-friendly conditions with the class of a top order player. The start, as in the first innings, was slightly skittish — a fairly wild swipe at a ball outside his off-stump came early in his essay. But this time, he had his captain as partner — and Kohli was quickly down the pitch for a chat every time Ash seemed to lose focus. It is a mark of Ashwin’s innings that as it prospered, Kohli had increasingly fewer opportunities — or need — for those chats.

Where Kohli looked primarily to defend, and took the scoring opportunity only when he was sure it was free of all risk, Ashwin went the other way — he attacked, initially with the sweep to knock the two main spinners off their lengths, then with the drives off front or back foot once the bowlers had pulled their lengths back. The story of their contrasting styles is embedded in the statistics of their association: 96 off 177, with Ashwin contributing 56 off 81 while Kohli’s contribution was 40 off 96.

It was also a good example of batting in partnerships, with each complementing the other — Ashwin was willing and able to play his shots, and Kohli was content to be the junior partner and turn the strike over.

Kohli fell in the 66th over; Ashwin, at the time, was batting 56 (81 deliveries). And given the propensity of India’s tail to fold, what followed was an absolute delight — from the point of view of sports fan and writer both. Taking nine, ten and jack along like an expert sheepdog, Ashwin changed gears — he farmed the strike, he talked his partners through their stints, in the early part of every over he looked for the opportunity to go big and, with his home crowd providing the wind beneath his wings, he powered through to his 5th Test century — the 47 runs after Kohli’s dismissal took just 54 balls.

And then — in the face of the second new ball — he and Siraj buckled right back down to the job. They chatted between overs, they passed on information to each other, they continued to play the ball on merit. When, in the 86th over, Ashwin checked with the umpire to see how many balls were left, and tried to hoik a single onto the onside for Olly Stone to peg back off stump, the pair had added 49 runs for the last wicket and, equally notably, played out 55 balls.

That last is worth underlining: Between them, Ashwin, Kuldeep, Ishant and Siraj batted out 121 deliveries and added 84 to India’s total, which finished up on 286 — more than double what England managed in its first innings, on a pitch that has been the subject of much chatter just the day prior.

The Indian second innings put all that talk into perspective. It also showed up the Indian top order which, this morning, appeared to have a collective brain-fade. Pujara managed to get his bat stuck short of the crease, lost his grip on it, and was stumped. Rohit, who was reprieved on a stumping in the first innings by a third umpire who saw a chimera where there was nothing behind the stumps, dragged his foot forward again, had his toe on the line again for Foakes to pull off the quick stumping again, and this time the decision was given. Rishabh Pant, promoted up the order, went down the track to Leach and, for once, lost the line, the length and the plot and was stumped. Rahane was the proverbial cat on the hot tin roof — a long way down and still a long way short of the pitch of a ball that was inches short of being a half-tracker, ending up in no position to play any cricketing shot and fending to short leg.

Two wickets with the score of 55, one at 65, another at 86 — there was that about the Indian batting in the first hour that made you believe they too had bought into the chatter, and decided to perish by the sword rather than trust to their skill to survive and thrive. It took the Kohli-Ashwin association to restore sanity — and for the ebullient Mohammad Siraj to drive the point home in his little cameo of 16 off 21 balls, in the course of which he took Broad straight back over his head for a six, and then played as neat a slog sweep as you’d like to see, off Leach, to put the ball in the bleachers behind wide mid-wicket.

A word on the way England bowled — much better than in the first innings, but the marked difference between the two teams was lack of consistency, of discipline. If you give away a four every ten balls or so, you can’t keep applying the pressure — and for the second time in two innings, England bowlers kept releasing the pressure they had sweated to build.

The day was full of moments to cherish, but for me the best, the one that will live longest in memory, was this: the fifth ball of the 82nd over, Ashwin steps out to a flighted ball outside off and has a swing; off the edge, the ball flies wide of the slip and down to third man for four.

And on the screen, you saw Mohammad Siraj, running down from the non-striker’s end, leap high and punch the air in an orgasm of ecstatic celebration. He didn’t celebrate his two big hits with half the fervour — heck, Ashwin didn’t celebrate his century with half that vim.

ENGLAND began far more positively than in the first innings, but Dom Sibley — who impressed in the first Test with his ability to pick length and go either fully forward or fully back to counter turn — forgot his best game, and went back to a ball of good length from Axar. It was clever bowling for all that: Axar had produced a couple of big-turning leg breaks to prime the pump; he then bowled one straight, and quicker through the air, to pin the batsman in front.

Rory Burns looked good in counter-attacking mode — until the 17th over. Rishabh Pant, from behind the stumps, called it: “Another outside edge, Ash”, he yelled. Two balls later, Ashwin reprised the ball he had bowled to Stokes — from wide of the crease, getting a lot of drift across the batsman and then turning sharply the other way. Burns made the cardinal mistake of playing it against the turn to the leg side, got the outside edge, and slip was in business.

What the logic was in sending out a left-hander, Jack Leach, with Ashwin bowling with his tail up is best left to Root to explain. In the event, Pant, again: Bowl it on the stumps, he yelled. Axar did — on off, turning sharply in across the left-hander to find the outside edge to leg slip.

Another horrendous piece of umpiring — this time, a duet involving the on-field and third umpires in tandem — saw Root reprieved on the LBW shout off Ashwin. The initial appeal was for caught behind, which Nitin Menon ruled not out. On the referral, there was no touch — but the ball was hitting the middle of middle stump; “umpire’s call” was the verdict. Oh well — one of these days someone will explain referrals to me. (Actually, before that, someone will hopefully explain referrals to the umpires themselves).

Dan Lawrence in more watchful mode (barring a foray down the track to loft Ashwin, bowling around the wicket, high and long behind long-on), and Root took England in at 53/3, trailing India by 429 runs.

That Lawrence shot merits mention: In the first innings, he came down, realised he was not to the pitch of the ball, and poked at it. Here, he wasn’t to the pitch either — but having decided to come down, he went through with the shot and nailed it out of the middle. It is all in the mind, really.

But are they, really? Can England chase this down? The odds are heavily in favour of India. And precedent says not — not against this attack, on this track. But this England team was recently celebrated — justly — for twice losing the toss and going on to win the match on sharp-turning tracks in Sri Lanka. And if there is one thing to takeaway from India’s recent showing in Australia, it is that “precedent” is worth bupkis. Remember fortress Gabba?

The question for England is, how badly do they want this? And how willing are they to put their skill and will on the line to get it?

That is equally going to be the trick for India: Can the bowlers trust in their basic skills, and have the patience to go back and do the same thing, over after over, working away on the batsmen? Eagerness to get a wicket with every other ball is the surefire way to ensure that you don’t get wickets at all.

It’s set up for a fascinating day four — and the fact that there is a day four, and even possibly a day five (I am fairly certain England will play far better this time around), is the best response to the doomsday prophets who went into full bore panic mode yesterday.

Post-Script: Given all the noise surrounding the pitch, a couple of points: This game has already lasted way more than the one between Australia and India at Adelaide. Where, on day two, one team lost four wickets, then the other team got bowled out, then the first team lost a wicket before close — 15 in the day, exactly the same as day two here in Chennai.

And then there is Brisbane. Where Tim Paine, on winning the toss and opting to bat, said (emphasis mine):

Very good toss to win. Looks a fair bit harder than it normally does and there’s a crack down the middle.

You rate pitches on the potential for danger — not on the basis of whether a particular team has the requisite skill set. And surely a crack running the length of the pitch is surely more fraught than dust off the surface?

Just to underline the point, Labuschagne at the end of the first day’s play said “The crack is widening already”.

Remember anyone having a word to say then?

Here, FWIW, is today’s thread.

Post-PS: Spare a thought for Stuart Broad. A man with over 500 Test wickets, left to graze in the outfield until 45 overs had been bowled — and then he came in, found Ashwin’s edge when the batsman was on 28, and saw Ben Stokes spill the chance at slip. His first spell was 2-1-5-0, and he was promptly put out to pasture again. When he was brought back — after nearly twenty more overs had been bowled — he found the edge again, and saw the chance go down again, this time dropped by Ben Foakes, whose effortless keeping on a turning track has been a pure joy to watch. His final analysis reads 9-3-25-two-drops, which sadly for him don’t show up on the scorecard.

This is the problem with too much analysis. It was as if England had, before play started, decided that this wicket was for spinners, and persisted with them without even once considering the possibility that the two quick bowlers they picked were in the XI for a reason. (Just to underline that, England persisted with spin throughout that last wicket partnership between Ashwin and Siraj, until Olly Stone finally knocked Ashwin over).