IN COURSE of his post-match comments, Joe Root said (emphasis mine): “We have to learn from this and find ways to score in these conditions and bowl six balls to one better.”
When we watch cricket, what catches our attention is the deliveries that do dramatic things: Spit and turn off the deck, banana-swing both ways, the toe-crunching yorker… What we don’t truly appreciate is the “boring” stuff — the limpet-like adherence to line and length, and how that ramifies over the course of a session, or a Test. Here is an example:
Ashwin got the wicket of Dan Lawrence with the first ball of his first over of the day (the 26th of the innings). There was clearly a plan in place, based on how the England number three had batted in the first knock. Ashwin and Pant had an extended chat before he began to bowl. The first ball was fired down the leg side — Lawrence did himself no favours by signalling his intent to come down; it nutmegged the batsman and Pant, gathering way down the leg side, reversed himself, dived, and pulled off a great stumping. (Given all the pre-match speculation of whether Pant could keep on this track, and whether he would let his bowlers down, it’s worth noting that Pant kept as brilliantly as the far better keeper, more accomplished Ben Foakes did).
Ashwin’s next strike was off the last ball of the 38th over. It is what happened in between that was key: Ashwin bowled 41 deliveries in the intervening period, and 39 of those were to Ben Stokes. Through that phase of play, Ashwin prodded and poked at the batsman’s technique, probing his muscle memory, his shape — he bowled over the wicket and around; from close to the stumps and from wide on the crease; high arm, round-ish arm; quicker, slower; with drift and without; the big turning off-break and the one that holds its line… He even tried the same ball that got Stokes out in the first innings, the one that drifted across the left-hander, hit middle and turned sharply to top of off; Stokes was beaten again this time, but the ball bounced a bit higher and went over the top of off.
Having worked on him and set him up, Ashwin then bowled one much fuller, giving it more overspin, getting it to slide through quicker. Stokes, set up for the turning ball, poked at this one and edged to slip.
A couple of related points: Shortly after Lawrence was out, Rishabh Pant was heard yelling to his field: “Single mat deiyo”, don’t give away the single. And, secondly, Ishant Sharma bowling from the other end once Axar began to bleed a few runs kept the pressure up with two tight overs while Ashwin was working on Stokes.
That is really the key for spinners in Indian conditions — they need the support in the field, and from the other end, to be able to work things out. Strike rotation negates that ability, and that was the one thing that England really got wrong with the ball: they just were not tight enough.
ALSO from the post-match comments: Axar Patel, on the back of his five-for on debut, was asked how vital the toss was. His response was immediate, and emphatic: “Not particularly. The wicket was assisting spin from the first over; if we had to bowl first on this, we would have done as well.” (Update: Virat Kohli has similar thoughts though Joe Root mildly demurs)
The debate about the quality of the wicket should never have happened in the first instance; it had been pretty much put to rest by the way India batted in the second innings (if you argue that the first innings was down to the toss advantage — which is specious in itself, but still). And Axar finally made the point worth making: The toss did not matter here; what you did, or didn’t do, with the ball mattered.
Axar’s bowling colleague Ashwin, while accepting the Man of the Match, nailed it (emphasis mine): “Look actually, this wicket is very different to the first game. Those balls which were doing much didn’t get wickets, it was the mind doing things.”
Exactly — which brings up England’s woeful batting in the second innings particularly. Surely, you thought, after the way they played in the first innings, and by then having watched the Indian batsmen play on this track across two innings, they would have rethought their reflexive, predetermined game-plans. But, no.
Lawrence, as pointed out previously, charged down the wicket so often, and so often irrespective of length, that he might as well have taken the bowler into his confidence ahead of play. Stokes, who has played enough to know better, played determinedly from within the crease, his front foot sliding along the crease, going neither fully forward nor deep back — which allowed Ashwin the time and space to work him out. Pope came out sweeping and went out sweeping, almost every one of them premeditated — and his top edge off Axar Patel mirrored the way Root had gotten himself out in the first innings, sweeping at the ball turning away from him without being able to get close enough to the pitch to keep the ball from turning and bouncing.
Root popped up the ball off the sweep once, and then reverse swept Kuldeep Yadav and was lucky to be dropped, off a sitter, by Siraj at point — by now, the Indian bowlers have figured out not only that Root will sweep, but have watched how he sweeps, and you can see them beginning to see the stroke not as Root’s strength, but as a vulnerability to be exploited. Foakes, who batted so correctly in the first innings, fell sweeping at a Kuldeep delivery that was way too full for the sweep (and which, ironically, was full enough for the drive through the untenanted outfield on either side of the wicket). Olly Stone, out sweeping at Axar Patel…
Here’s the thing: Thus far, the England batsmen have clearly indicated to India’s bowlers that they believe the sweep is their ‘get out of jail free’ card. Any bowler worth his salt, with that kind of information, will work out ways to turn asset into liability. The sweep, used judiciously, is a potent weapon — but if you look back at the two England innings here and count the number of batsmen who fell sweeping reflexively rather than as part of an overall strategy, you’d weep.
Ironically, it was Moeen Ali at number ten who finally showed what was possible on this wicket. Sure, the argument could go that he was batting with nothing at stake — but the trick lay in the how of it. In the same over in which Patel got Stone, Moeen thrice danced down the wicket and deposited the spinner into the stands — the first two over long on, with Moeen coming close enough to negate the turn, and the third straight back over the bowler’s head.
‘Straight’ was the operative word. Rishabh Pant showed the way to bat on a spinning track in the first innings, with his gunbarrel-straight hitting; Moeen showed what England’s more lauded batsmen could have done. And he wasn’t done: When Ashwin took over from Patel, Ali stepped out and lofted the four, against the turn, to long off. The very next ball, Ashwin tossed it wider to force the miscue, and Ali finally went down on one knee to slog-sweep the six — the sweep being on this time because the ball was wide enough outside off. It was brief, but the 43 runs Moeen made off just 18 deliveries was worth a ton of video analysis and coaching drills, if the rest of the England batsmen were watching.
THERE are some numbers England might want to look at. For one, its second innings didn’t last even as long as its first innings — and this was after India had batted out 85.5 overs in its second knock. Two, for all the talk of the importance of batting partnerships, England had no partnerships in the second innings that lasted as long as the one between Foakes and Pope in the first dig. And finally, this: England’s best partnership of the entire match in terms of runs scored was the one for the last wicket between Broad and Ali, which yielded 38 runs in 19 deliveries.
38 runs was the highest partnership of the match for England. Surely — even if you buy the minefield argument — this was an indication of a team that did not apply itself? Surely England’s batsmen are way better than that — as in fact they had demonstrated just recently in Sri Lanka? This was a clear case of what Ashwin was talking about, when he said it was in the mind: India’s batsmen showed application when they needed to and were willing to grind out the tough periods; England’s collective attitude was a shrug of the shoulders and an “Oh what’s the use?” Which cues up one final, chastening number: In its two innings put together, England did not score as much as India did in its first knock. Not that they couldn’t — just that they didn’t.
“We have to find ways to score runs in such conditions, learn from the opposition,” Root said after the match.
Here is today’s match thread — with some points about Pant’s utility and his interventions that are worth noting. And, below, in tribute to man of the match Ashwin via his wife Prithi, this:
PS: Before you mention, in comments, that I haven’t spoken of Axar’s pitch perfect use of conditions to nail a five-for on debut, and a couple of other things, I will. Later.
PPS: A statistic I just picked up from the Clubhouse post-match chat: This is the first time since the eighties that England has failed to cross 200 in two innings in a Test.