March 28, 2020
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Of Mind Games And Brain Fade

In this season of trial by spin, India tweaks an emphatic comeback in Bangalore, even as the Australians’ DRS gamesmanship raises a stink

Of Mind Games And Brain Fade
Photograph by PTI
Of Mind Games And Brain Fade

In no other sport do ‘home conditions’ weigh as much materially as in cricket. When it comes to Indian pitches they, almost as a rule, are prepared to suit spinners, the home team’s long-standing strength. So, the pitches dished out for the first two Tests against Australia in the ongoing series were no different, though the first one in Pune looked utterly underprepared. Successive Indian captains have supported the theory that Indian pitches should be made to assist slow bowlers; in that respect, Virat Kohli is no different. Kohli, armed with those slow-shooting ‘Kalashnikovs’—Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, is happy that these two have played prominent roles in winning the second Test in Bangalore, levelling the series 1-1. So, he said, there was no need to change this gameplan. “Yes, spinners have been outstanding, and they will look to back their strengths and dominate the home season as they have done so far. If guys are picking six-wicket hauls why would you change anything?” he said, when Outlook asked him about spinners’ domination this season.

Kohli has good reasons to back his words. The statistics, too, support his policy. Spinners—particularly Indians—have dominated batsmen in the 11 Tests played so far this home season. A total of 371 wickets have fallen till the end of the Bangalore Test; 235 have been captured by spinners—a 63.34 per cent share. Leading the charge down the wicket are, of course, Ashwin and Jadeja. So, Kohli’s reliance on them is unsurprising. Toge­ther, Indian spinners—the rampaging duo and others—have bagged 141 of the 213 wickets of all opponent teams this season. Of these 141 wickets, Ashwin (76 scalps) and Jadeja’s (58) share is an overwhelming 134 wickets, or 95.03 per cent.

India is a haven of turn, and so the four teams to have visited India—New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia—this winter-spring have heavily banked on their spinners too. For INS­tance, Aussie left-armer Steve O’Keefe and offie Nathan Lyon have snared 15 and 13 wickets, respectively, in the first two Tests in the ongoing series. Ashwin, on the other hand, has 15 and Jadeja 12. After the second Test, Jadeja climbed to a career-best No.1 position on the ICC Test rankings. Their absolute dominance is reflected by this miraculous fact—Ashwin and Jadeja now jointly occ­upy the perch.

Former India wicket-keeper-batsman Farokh Engineer says spinners are always expected to lead the onslaught on opposition batsmen. “Ashwin got a five-wicket haul in the second innings of the Bangalore Test (6/41), but we would expect that spinners would do the maximum damage,” Engineer tells Outlook. Simon Katich, the former Australia batsman, says Australia’s main concern was how their batsmen would tackle Indian spinners. He points out that the 0-3 drubbing in the three-Test series in Sri Lanka last year shook the Austra­lian team, whose highest second innings total in Lanka was a puny 183. “Our biggest challenge was how we batted in these [Indian] conditions, given what had happened in Sri Lanka last year, when the batsmen really struggled. We bowled pretty well in Sri Lanka; Mitchell Starc was the standout. But we didn’t get enough runs to put pressure on the opposition,” says Katich, now ass­istant coach of Kolkata Knight Riders.

The pitch, naturally, became the focal point of attention at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. But, fortunately, after the initial scare, it played true—barring the occasional ball that kept low—till the end. That the Test got over well inside four days couldn’t be attributed to a poor pitch; it was due to batsmen’s inability to tackle the web of spin adeptly, as  also spinners’ varied skills. Engineer is not happy with the overall pitch policy. “I think we should prepare more sporting pitches. Sporting pitches give a batsman and a bowler even chances, not like the wicket in Pune; it was disgraceful, not fit for a Test. But this was a more sporty wicket; it gave both sides an edge. Although it finished inside four days, it was a very absorbing Test where both teams had a good chance of winning,” he says.

India’s rank turners are the handiwork of pitch curators who, as a lengthy home season approaches, have to tackle the immense pressure bearing down upon them. A member of the BCCI’s pitches and grounds committee puts the matter in perspective: “India is playing 13 Test matches this season at home. They have won nine and one was drawn. So what if they lost one match?”

Of the 141 scalps Indian spinners have taken this season, Ashwin and Jadeja have got 134. They now occupy ICC’s No 1 bowler slot jointly.

When foreign teams visit India their batsmen apparently start with a handicap. They seemed to be bothered by two factors: Indian pitches and Indian spinners. In that context, the Pune def­eat would be regarded as an aberration for India—fatigue and complacency could be cited as reasons for the reversal. Why, Ashwin and Jadeja once again showed their class in Bangalore! And Kohli has already dropped hints that for the next Test in Ranchi, starting March 16, the pitch could again assist spinners. “We can’t do much about the Ranchi pitch. It has always been slow and low. They know exactly what to expect there and we know how the wicket will play as well. It’s how you mentally prepare and what kind of zone you are in as a team. This was the kind of game that we needed to forget that hiccup in Pune and then move forward as a pack,” Kohli said after the win in Bangalore.

So far as India’s spin arsenal is concerned, it is not limited to Ashwin and Jadeja. The bench strength too is enviable. This is evident from a quality leg-spinner like Amit Mishra not fitting into Kohli’s horses-for-courses policy. Off-spinner Jayant Yadav, who played the first Test in Pune and earned kudos from Kohli and uncapped Chinaman bowler Kuldeep Yadav are also in the squad. Among the KKR youngsters he has worked with during last year’s IPL, Katich picked Kuldeep for praise. And among the tweakers knocking at the doors of the sel­ection committee are Shahbaz Nadeem, a left-armer from Jharkhand who was the top spinner, with 61 wickets, in this domestic season. Then, leg-spinner Karn Sharma, who has already played Test and ODI cricket, left-armer Shadab Jakati and off-spinner Parveez Rasool are also on the selectors’ radar. All three are among the top wicket takers of this first-class season, with over 40 scalps each.

While all seems well on the spin front, the Decision Review System (DRS) is again a debating point. Kohli would like to use the DRS more judiciously and successfully. “There are loopholes in every technology and system; there’re no two ways about it. People are bound to make mistakes. At the moment, the call that’s made on the field stays, and that’s what everyone is playing with, and there’ve been a few instances where it has been a little tricky. Benefit of doubt used to go to the batsman before, but now that seems to have gone out of the window and we have also not been that consistent with taking the right DRS calls,” he feels. Eng­ineer said

India should use the DRS option carefully. “Virat was plumb LBW (off pacer Josh Hazlewood in the second innings in Bangalore); I don’t know why he wasted it. We should learn not to waste it. You don’t get many chances. You’ve got to make the best of it.”

Interestingly, it was the use of DRS that raised a storm on the fourth and final day of the Bangalore Test. When umpire Nig­el Llong acted swiftly and stopped Australia captain Steve Smith from seeking assistance from the team’s dressing room, all hell broke loose. Kohli said in his post-match press conference that Llong, a former English first-class cricketer-turned-umpire, knew the reason of Smith delaying his departure after being given out as he (Kohli) had informed the umpires and the ICC match referee Chris Broad about Australians unfai­rly taking help from their dressing room vis-a-vis the DRS. Smith chose to desc­ribe his unlawful act as a “brain fade”. But Kohli was not impressed. “I saw that happening twice when I was batting out there. I pointed it out to the umpire as well—that it’s happened twice, that I’ve seen their players looking upstairs for con­­firmation, and that’s why the umpire was at him (Smith).” When an Austra­lian reporter asked Kohli if he intended to use the word ‘cheating’, he shot back archly: “I didn’t say that. You did.”

The BCCI posted the video of Smith’s dismissal and his ‘act’ on its official website and facebook wall, and as if to rub salt into his wounds titled it the ‘Dressing Room Review System’. The 2.36 minute video has so far been watched and liked by thousands. The Board issued a statement fully backing the Indian captain.

Just Not Fair

A series of TV grabs shows the scene after Steve Smith was given out LBW, where he looks up to the dressing room even as the umpire interferes, Kohli protests, and puts his case across to the umpires

The ICC introduced DRS for more acc­uracy in decisions that umpires make. The BCCI, under former president N. Srinivasan and till recently under Anurag Thakur, has been reluctant to acc­ept the DRS for home matches, as home boards have the option to not adopt it. But bef­ore the start of the 2016-17 home series against England, the BCCI ann­ounced that it would use the DRS on a “trial basis to evaluate the improvements made to the system over a period of time”. This season, the BCCI decided to embrace the DRS, though without the Hot Spot technology, and it has been used in the series England, Bangladesh and Australia. India has obv­iously not fared well with DRS so far and Kohli has no qualms in admitting his weakness.

Apart from that irritant, the Indian team has been in such supreme form this season that Pune can be regarded as an aberration, albeit a striking one. And now with two Tests left in the series, Kohli would like to finish off the home season with wins in Ranchi and Dharamshala. And with Smith cornered over the unsavoury incident, India will start with an added psychological advantage in Ranchi. Millions of Indian fans are licking their chops, expecting to send a beaten Australia down under.

By Qaiser Mohammad Ali in Bangalore

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