CRICKET is a series of discrete incidents — a truism repeated so often it has been elevated to cliche.
That statement is most true of the shorter versions of the game, more particularly of T20. In a format where the objective is to maximise runs off every ball, a bowler sending down say a perfect yorker forces a defensive shot. Incident. Next ball, the batsman to the same sort of delivery ramps it over the keeper’s head. Incident. Neither connected to the other, except via the scoreboard.
The beauty of Tests lies in the fact that while the truism still applies, there is an overarching narrative, an evolving storyline held together by an extended contest of skill and will. Day one of the third Test was highlighted by two such moments.
The 22nd over of the England innings. Joe Root, whose mastery of spin was a talking point until the Indian spinners sorted him out in the second Test at Chennai, on strike to Ashwin, taking the first ball on length and working it for the single to mid on standing deep. Ball two, an attempted reverse sweep by Zak Crawley ends up with the ball dribbling to backward point for a single. Ball three, Root goes deep in his crease to work Ashwin with the turn to midwicket. Ball four, Ashwin goes a fraction fuller, bringing Root forward in defense.
Three deliveries — good length, back of length, good length. All bowled from around the wicket to bring both edges and the LBW into play. And then the deception — more air on the ball, less dip, the ball landing on a full length. Root, set up by the previous three deliveries, misreads it, reckons it will dip and land just back of length, and goes back to try and work it on the onside again. The ball beats the inside edge and raps the pad. A short story with a twist ending — and Root’s attempt to mount a rescue after Dom Sibley and Jonny Bairstow had been dismissed without scoring comes to an abrupt end.
The 25th over. Axar Patel to the hugely impressive Zak Crawley. Ball one is on length — Crawley goes on the back foot to defend, playing as late as possible to account for turn, or lack of it. Ball two — the arm ball, landing on the shiny side, skidding past Crawley’s forward defensive push and missing the off stump by the thickness of a coat of lacquer. Two balls bowled round arm, flat, and quick. Ball three is tossed up, plenty of flight, on the fuller length — it draws Crawley forward, turns sharply and beats the outside edge. Ball four: Axar goes a bit wider on the crease, bowls the arm ball, quick through the air. Crawley, with the turn on the previous ball still haunting him, plays for the turn where there is none, and is pinned in front.
Each wicket was a “discrete incident” — but they were also a continuum, the deliveries prior playing a vital role in the batsman’s downfall. And therein, the real pleasure of watching Test cricket — as in chess, it is not just the move itself, but the distant possibilities that one move opens up.
I tend to watch limited overs cricket — when I watch it at all — while multi-tasking; I look up at the screen when the noise of the crowd alerts me to some event. Tests, though, suck me in; each ball making me recall the one that went before, and teasing me into trying to figure out what the bowler is doing, how the batsman is responding, and how this duel between the two is shaping up towards a denouement.
THERE is precious little worth writing about an England innings that was over in the mind before it began in the middle. Joe Root, after calling correctly and deciding to bat, said at the toss that he expected the track to turn — and then handed over a team sheet that was heavily biased in favour of pace, with three full-time quicks and a seam bowling all-rounder in Stokes against a solitary spinner in Jack Leach — a decision even more baffling when you realize that if the game runs its full course, England will be bowling last on a track most conducive to spin. Cognitive dissonance, much?
One after the other, batsmen came out and went back again without making an impression, victims as much of the demons in the mind as of the quality bowlers they were facing, each complicit in his own dismissal. The honorable exception was Crawley — who scored 53 (84 balls) in a team score of 112. The quality of his batting — the composure at the crease, the minimal set up, the clean back-lift, the decisive movement forward or back — was impressive; what was even more notable was his choice of strokes. On a wicket where playing with the bat beside the body was fraught, he played in front. His first scoring shot, a four, was a firm push with the full face of the bat to long on, the ball traveling across the outfield as smoothly as a puck on ice. Eight of his ten fours were drives — initially straight on either side of the wicket, then through the covers and wide mid on once his eye was in. Of the other two, one was a flick off the pads through midwicket when the bowler overpitched; the other, a back foot square drive to a ball that was served up short and wide.
His play contrasted with that of his mates, who appeared to have hypnotised themselves into the belief that the only viable scoring shot was the sweep and its reverse variant, alternating ill-judged attempts at such shots with a grim occupation of the top of the batting crease, unable or unwilling to commit either forward or back.
RAVICHANDRAN Ashwin, whose YouTube channel has become a go-to resource, called the England innings as early as a week ago. In an episode following the second Test in Chennai, he made two points worth recalling:
One, he said England has been talking — and thinking — of dustbowls and dramatically turning deliveries so much that when they got to the middle, they were playing their own hype more than the actual ball being bowled to them.
And, two: On a track with turn and bounce, it is the ball that doesn’t turn that poses the real danger. This point goes with something Anil Kumble once pointed out when he was asked why he wouldn’t turn the ball. “The difference between the middle of the bat and the edge is two and a half inches — and that is all the ball has to turn”.
Consider these dismissals: Jonny Bairstow LBW to Axar Patel’s first ball of the game, pinned in front by a straight ball that beats the edge as the batsman played for the turn that wasn’t there. Joe Root, LBW to an Ashwin delivery that straightened — not turned — with the arm on the line of middle and leg. The impressive Crawley, LBW to an Axar Patel arm ball that went through straight. Stokes, LBW to a quicker, flatter, fuller ball from Axar Patel. Archer, looking to force Axar with the turn that wasn’t there, bowled by the straight ball. Foakes, bowled playing back to a full, straight ball that did not turn. That is
five six out of ten wickets to the straight ball; five six batsmen out playing for turn that only existed in their traumatised minds.
This Test is just one day old, but already England — after, it needs emphasising, volunteering to bat first — have handed the initiative over to India. And to make matters worse, the visiting team has bought wholesale into its own hype about the pink ball “swinging around corners”, as Ben Stokes said after a session in the nets, and gone in on what Root said was a spinning track without a second spinner. Such a pity the game is not being played in the nets.
One passing thought: Is Jofra Archer still nursing an injury, does anyone know? The premier quick has bowled just five of the 33 overs in India’s innings — and barring one delivery that got onto an attempted Rohit Sharma pull quicker than the batsman anticipated, has been bowling in the mid-to-high 130s throughout and looking totally underwhelming. Did England — with the likes of Stone and Wood to call on if in fact it thought a seamer should be picked over a spinner — put a half-fit Archer, his right arm literally swaddled in Kinesio tape, on the park?
ONE word on the umpiring — particularly that of the third umpire Shamsuddin: disgraceful. Not so much because at least a couple of his decisions were dodgy — a grassed catch by Stokes, which looked not out; a reprieve to Rohit Sharma on a Foakes stumping off Leach, which looked iffy — but because he seemed in too much of a hurry to reprieve the Indian batsmen.
Umpires need to follow the Caesar’s wife principle: Not only do they need to make the right call with the benefit of technology, they need to be seen to be making the right call. A rush to judgment is antithetical to that — and in both of those instances, and others, Shamsuddin did not call for different camera angles to confirm his initial impressions.
That raises two questions: One — why on earth did the BCCI not provide for neutral umpires for this series? It can’t be the expense; it can’t be Covid either — after all, between the two teams there are about 80 players and staff accommodated in secure bubbles; then there are the commentators, the production teams etc. How hard could it be to add two more?
Second, if the BCCI must use home umpires — inexperienced ones, at that — surely they could, before the series, have ensured that these umpires were given training in the use of technology, briefed on all available angles for each mode of dismissal, and instructed to call for the most logical angles before making a final decision?
And finally, one thought on the newly built Motera ground, renamed after the prime minister, bookended by the Adani End and the Reliance End: The facilities may be world class, but the ground is a disgrace. That is not a comment on the fact that the wicket is turning — this is India, it is hot, wickets will go quick. It is not even a comment on the swimming pool sized craters opening up where the quick bowler’s front foot lands, making bowling positively hazardous.
What is truly disgraceful is the outfield. Take a look at the bowlers’ run ups at either end. It is usual to see the impression of boots on turf — but I have never before seen little craters forming to mark each step of the run up. There was a moment, late in the third session, when Ben Stokes ran in gingerly, looking to plant his boots on safe ground in between two parallel tracks of gouged-out footmarks — rather like the game of avoiding the cracks that little children play on our pavements.
Surely, given all the money that has been spent on state-of-the-art facilities inside the structure, a little care could have been taken to ensure that the ground — which, after all, is the most important part of any stadium — was up to standard?
PostScript: No surprise that the England captain and head coach have formally complained about the umpiring. I thought they were being a bit precious, arguing with the on-field umpire over decisions taken by the third umpire — but this is absolutely justified. And Crawley makes the point, clearly and well.