Bengaluru: This is an Indian cricket team that has the resources not only to dominate visiting teams on spin tracks at home but also to win in seamy England and New Zealand as well as bouncy South Africa and Australia. Which brings us to a closer inspection of how India let slip a great opportunity to beat a vulnerable England side that has lost Tests at home in recent times to Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies, apart from Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. So there’s more to the No.1 Test side losing this series 3-1 than being “blown away” at the crunch, as coach Ravi Shastri put it. Here are seven deadly sins that made India pay.
Too little prep time
England has unique conditions for cricket which make visiting teams struggle to adjust. Green tops are a rarity these days but there’s live grass on the pitches nevertheless. The pronounced seam of the English Duke ball, delivered at sufficient pace, grips the tufts of grass and deviates away or in. Held cross-seam, it can hold its line or kick up awkwardly. Cloudy skies add swing in the air to complicate the equation further.
The ball hoops about for as many as 30 to 40 overs, before it gets softer and the seam goes limp. Virat Kohli succeeded in this challenging scenario by altering his style. He stood outside the crease to force the bowler to shorten his length and lose some swing, ready to pounce on anything overpitched for his trademark drive through extra-cover or clip through mid-wicket. His middle and off stump guard put his pad outside off stump while playing forward, so that he would not be LBW if the ball jagged back and eluded the bat. It also put him in a good position to leave away-going balls that were not pitched up in line with the stumps. And his sharp reflexes and quick eye were good enough to counter in-swing targeted at middle and leg most of the time.
As long as the conditions are in the bowler’s favour, a top order batsman is better off in England leaving any ball that will not hit the stumps, if he can judge the line, length, and movement in that split second after it’s delivered. At around 140 kph, there’s no time to make that decision after the ball pitches, unless it’s short enough. That’s why you often see a batsman offering a defensive blade even when the ball seams away. The trick here is not to push through the line, as batsmen do on subcontinent pitches that offer little seam movement. In England, as Shikhar Dhawan is learning, it’s better to wait for the ball to come to the bat close to the body under the batsman’s eye, or leave it well alone. Since the bowler cannot control the amount of seam movement, the ball will usually miss the edge if the bat is not thrust out.
You might think such experienced cricketers should be able to make this adjustment. True, but it’s not enough just to think about how to bat in alien conditions. It takes time for the body, eyes, hands, and feet to react differently to a ball hurled at you than you would back home. And this is where India let itself down big time, with only one measly practice match with the red ball before the Test series. And even that was curtailed to three days because India found the weather too warm and chose to have an extra rest day.
Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar who excelled in England honed their batting in county cricket. They would also play a string of practice games against county sides before and during a Test series. You might argue that today’s cricket schedule is too crowded for such practice, but India has actually been in England for over two months now. Surely they could have planned more prep time before the series as well as between Tests.
We’ve seen from the way Ajinkya Rahane has progressed that India’s batting could have made a better fist of it with a little more practice. Virat Kohli is a class apart and he learnt to cope on the job as it were, drawing upon his experience on the previous tour when he scored a total of 134 runs in 10 innings. But the other batsmen are only beginning to find their feet now when the series is already lost. The pace bowlers needed time to adjust too. They’ve bowled on a fuller length and better line than in the first Test at Edgbaston which India lost narrowly. It was the same story in South Africa where an underprepared India won a Test only after losing the first two narrowly.
Apart from batting and bowling, team planning also takes time to come to terms with the fluctuating weather in England. India was lucky to open the series at Edgbaston where the porous, sandy ground has made it one of the best venues for spin in England. In Kuldeep Yadav, India had a left-arm leg-spinner that batsmen rarely encounter. England is vulnerable to leg spin because they’re not used to picking the googly from the hand. This was palpably evident in the first One Day International (ODI) and the first T20 game where they collapsed in a heap to Kuldeep Yadav. Pakistan’s Yasir Shah had earlier shown England’s weakness.
But a few showers before the first Test prompted the Indian think tank to go in with Ashwin as lone spinner. The turn he got and his seven wickets showed up the folly of leaving out Kuldeep Yadav on a track where he could have been dangerous. India then reacted by picking him for an overcast, rainy second Test at Lord’s at the expense of pacer Umesh Yadav who might have been more effective there. Kuldeep bowled just nine overs on a pitch with no turn and was packed off home after that.
Even more galling was the omission of Cheteshwar Pujara from the first Test. Here was a man with a proven approach and record in Test cricket who had been batting for Yorkshire, the county side for which Sachin Tendulkar had chosen to play because it has the trickiest conditions. England’s best batsman Joe Root is a product of Yorkshire.
The number three is just as vital as the openers to see off the hard ball and let the middle order capitalize when conditions become easier. That’s how India won a Test at Yorkshire cricket ground Headingley when Rahul Dravid and Sanjay Bangar survived some of the most testing seam and swing bowling on the first day to set up centuries for Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly later. Leaving out Pujara probably cost India the Edgbaston Test.
The ‘utility’ man
Virat Kohli likes to keep changing his playing eleven, but Hardik Pandya has been a constant fixture in all seven Tests India has played in South Africa and England this year. He turned in a match-winning burst of five wickets at Trent Bridge, one of the best venues in the world for seam and swing, but one wonders if his inclusion is costing India in conditions less favourable to medium pace. He got a half century too at Trent Bridge but that was after India had already piled on a big lead, thanks to Pujara and Kohli. His contributions with the bat, despite coming in when conditions are easier for batting, pale in comparison with England’s late order bowler-batsmen Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, and Sam Curren.
We saw in Southampton that it requires the pace of Bumrah and Shami and Ishant’s height to make life difficult for batsmen. In these conditions, Pandya’s odd wicket here and there compares poorly with England’s fourth bowler Ben Stokes who winkles batsmen out with his pace even with the old ball. India could have been better served by Kuldeep Yadav in Edgbaston and either Kuldeep or Umesh Yadav in Southampton. Alternatively, India could have played a sixth specialist batsman in place of Pandya.
Vulnerability to spin
A team can’t win a Test series abroad if its batting proves vulnerable to spin in addition to seam and swing. Off-spinner Moeen Ali, who is more of a batting all-rounder, destroyed India in Southampton just as he had done on the previous tour in 2014. Too little domestic cricket and too much T20 has led to a decline in the classic arts of being nimble on one’s feet to get to the pitch of the ball or using the depth of the crease to play off the back foot. Most disappointing of all was Indian Premier League (IPL) hero Rishabh Pant, a destroyer of spinners, falling twice to Ali, once after an ultra defensive approach and the second time after over-aggression. Was that his own game plan or suggested by the think tank? We don’t know.
Ravichandran Ashwin is one of the most intelligent cricketers around, but he’s trying too many things instead of having a clear plan. The decline of finger-spinners made him desperate enough to try leg spin in the last IPL, but he still played second fiddle to Afghanistan’s Mujibur Rahman in the Punjab team. In Southampton, he bowled too defensive a line for long stretches, unlike Moeen Ali who kept things simple, concentrating on exploiting the rough, and letting the odd ball go through straight. He also bowled at the right pace for the wicket to do its bit. Ashwin has struggled this year in all but the most helpful conditions, such as in Edgbaston. This is all the more reason for India to develop its young leg-spinners for Test cricket instead of limiting them to ODIs and T20s.
The only two times India crossed 300 in the series came in Trent Bridge, when openers Dhawan and Rahul put on 60 runs for the first wicket in both innings. The importance of seeing off the new ball lies in having enough batsmen left to exploit overs 40 to 80 before the second new ball is taken. It underlines why Sunil Gavaskar is arguably the best batsman India has ever produced. He made all those tons of runs as an opener in all conditions. England’s openers have struggled as much as the Indians, but its superior late order batting compared to Pandya and Ashwin has made the difference. India’s lack of penetration with spin or the fourth seamer was also a telling factor in Southampton where England got off the hook after being 86 for 6 in the 35th over of the first innings.
For all his greatness as a player, Virat Kohli is still a work in progress as a captain. It gets papered over to some extent at home where recent visiting teams have been no match. But his captaincy of the Royal Challengers Bangalore in IPL has raised questions.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s an inspirational and strong leader. In time, he could become one of India’s best captains. He’s highly charged, and an intelligent learner like he showed with his batting in England. Most of all, he seems to play fair with his players. It’s in pre-match planning and on-field decision-making that he appears to be mostly reactive. Don’t forget that Pandya got the ball for that match-winning spell in Trent Bridge only because Ashwin was injured. In Southampton, the persistence with Ashwin in a defensive mode for so long, even carrying on after the new ball became due, was odd.
On the eve of the first Test at Edgbaston, Kohli spoke about how he goes by instinct. “It all boils down to your gut feel. If five people on the table agree that this is the right thing to do for the team, then we go ahead with that, there are no ifs and buts. There’s no looking back,” he said. So Pujara got dropped and India played three openers. Accepted that a strong leader can’t have too much second-guessing. At the same time, he needs critical inputs from people who aren’t afraid to question dubious gut feelings. As an astute former England captain Mike Brearley put it, “You can have gut feelings of all sorts and you can be completely right or completely wrong.” Tactical logic usually comes from thinking things through. If Kohli takes as studious an approach with his captaincy as he did with his batting in England, he could tick that final box to be a superman.
Sumit Chakraberty is an author and freelance writer based in Bengaluru.