As a cricket nation, we can’t help but let emotions influence our judgements. Loss in the World Test Championship (WTC) final after two years of hard grind has brought this characteristic instinct of the Indian fanbase to the fore.
With angst and anger in play, there are calls to drop players – the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, in particular – and even suggestions as drastic as to remove Virat Kohli from captaincy (you would have seen a few of such tweets in the past few days).
Indian team has “choked” another world final, they say, with the history repeating itself in another ICC knock-out! And so, all it probably requires is a change of personnel at the helm and India, who “fail when it matters”, will start dominating such games, won’t they?
Sarcasm aside, you gotta feel for Indian fans when they emphasize on such things. They only want their team to win and feel deeply hurt when it loses. Cricket, however, doesn’t work on emotions. It’s a logic-based sport where, barring the odd exception here and there, the logic ultimately prevails and reflects in the outcome.
The word ‘logic’ plays itself out on one basic aspect on a cricket field: skill. Why do teams with a losing record concede more ‘crucial passages’ in a Test match to the opposition? And why do those who win games most regularly, achieve a sense of superiority in these passages, besides overcoming the troublesome ones? Skill. It is skill that decides cricket matches.
Yes, you can outlast the opposition on occasions with a solid temperament and mentality, but if the strong headspace is not backed by the skill level required, you’ll remain more a losing team than a winning one. The nature of ‘skill’ or skills required varies from conditions to conditions. But it is what matters the most.
After losing in Southampton, Kohli talked up the need for Indian batsmen to be “a bit more brave” at the crease. There are no “technical deficiencies” in his batter’s game, Kohli said, and “unless it’s absolutely overcast, we should be able to take the game forward and put the opposition under pressure.”
While one can expect and understand why Kohli being a skipper would come in defence of his troops, it is fair to say that no level of bravery and “intent”, as he calls it, was going to make a difference to India’s fortunes against New Zealand. Neither it would when they take on England next.
India in England: Selection changes? No, futile. Tweaks? Yes but they won’t make a huge difference
Skill. That’s the word, Virat. In play, when New Zealand inched past India at various stages and ultimately won, were skills that your team isn’t as good at as the opposition. Your team would beat (or dominate) this New Zealand team in most other countries of the world. But in England, Virat, you were always the second favourites. Why? Because your team isn’t as good at two basic skill-based things for ‘English conditions’: batting against the swinging ball and delivering the swinging ball. Consistently.
While it is always easy to focus on what the batsmen are doing, it is the bowlers who initiate and influence play. And it is in the bowling front where the difference was most obvious. New Zealand got significantly more swing than India, according to Cricviz data. And though the Indian pacers got it to seam quite consistently, the insufficiency of the full length (or the potency of the balls delivered at it) meant that India beat the bat more often than they got the deflection.
Interestingly, as per Cricviz on Day 3, India got 63% of their deliveries in the good length area, which is historically the most productive in England. But, due to the combination of underprepared bowlers, Tom Latham (easily the world’s best at leaving balls) and the lack of swing imparted on the ball from India’s ‘hit-the-deck’ seamers, the wickets didn’t follow. Perhaps, Indian fast bowlers can divide the ‘good length’ area in England between two patches: one, a fullish good length and the other, just short enough to not make the batsman drive or induce the edge.
While Ishant has added more ‘swing’ to his kitty and Bumrah can – as he did in West Indies – employ that pivot of the wrist-position to get it to swing conventionally, Shami is an out and out seam bowler. At heart, all three of them are seam bowlers.
New Zealand didn’t just have a quartet beating Indian batsmen with swing, and seam, they had two physical anomalies for Indians to encounter at the crease. They have height – in Kyle Jamieson’s case, the world’s steepest release points – and the left-arm angle – while Boult swings it into and across you, Wagner uses the awkward bounce to mentally disintegrate you and drive at balls not full enough or pull those that jump-off. There is no window to breathe comfortably and score easy runs against this attack in English conditions.
And there won’t be a window when you replace those names with Anderson, Broad, Woakes and Wood either. Not for Indian batsmen, who have shown a tendency to play predominantly of the frontfoot and almost never use the width of the crease if the length permits. Barring the exception of Kohli, this contagious method of standing outside the crease and looking to go at the ball hasn’t worked for those who have practised it. Outside Rohit Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin, who still go back and forward as batting was traditionally meant to be, all Indian batsmen are frontfoot players these days.
The idea is to force the bowler to drop it short and cut down the swing, but in the process, Indian batsmen are foregoing a number of backfoot strokes that shall get the runs flowing and make their life a touch easy. Kohli plays right under his eyes despite this method. He can because he is good enough to not let the pace off the track defeat him. But others aren’t as exceptional at handling the limiting reaction time with their frontfoot stances. Here’s former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar giving a shrewd masterclass on this for ESPNcricinfo.
The one that got Pujara out, for instance, in the first innings wasn’t as much a matter of him being dismissed by some sharp inswing as it was of him being stuck at the crease. Today Pujara is a frontfoot batsman. The Pujara of old – the one that first went to England in 2014 – would’ve gotten slightly back to the ball, allow it to do its bit and flick it off his pads through mid-wicket. Batting has changed over the years (and there is a place for different methods ), but this age-old guiding principle hasn’t: you go back when it’s short, push forward when it’s full. Keep it simple.
But these are at best, tweaks. India can get back to batting more traditionally and ask their bowlers to watch videos of English bowlers and try to adopt their method in the nets. It might make them more competitive. But to truly succeed at the swing-based game, India need to make winning in England their priority and make decisions – at first-class and Test level both – aimed at improving their record in English conditions. Better planning their calendar around the next England tour and preparing earnestly for it will help. It might not bear immediate fruits, but will over time.
You don’t need to completely abandon the SG ball and play at green, moist tracks for the entire season – that will have an adverse effect – but some rounds of the Ranji Trophy can be played with the red Dukes ball. India can look to exploit its geographical advantage as well and plan some pre-tour camps in places up north, say Dharamshala. The ‘overcast conditions’ have no scientific relation to ‘swing’, but, as a friend of mine never fails to remind me, it does work on the mental space of batsmen who have grown up hearing this age-old misconception and bowlers who might start floating the ball too full when they would be better off holding it back.
You can have more ‘A’ tours in England, encourage your Test specialists to sign county deals, travel to Ireland a year before or a month before for shadow practice. Basically, play more and more of first-class cricket that aids horning of skills required for English conditions. And that’s what it is ultimately about. Skills. Dropping a player here and there would be serving to the mass’s voice. It would be scratching the surface. You would rather do nothing. If you really want to make a difference, focus on skills or the lack of them.