The pitch can’t be blamed for India losing their top three batsmen in the first session. Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and KL Rahul also didn’t fall to unplayable balls. The reason for their early departure to the hut was their failure to read off-spinner Nathan Lyon’s stock ball that spun just that wee bit from round-the-wicket.
The pitch was dry, it wasn’t crumbling. The balls were keeping low but not shooting straight at the base of stumps after pitching. There was no alarming amount of bounce too. Even Lyon had kept it simple. He didn’t bowl a puzzling combination of variation to them, there was no elaborate web of deceit. Actually, he didn’t even change his angle. The top three wickets on Saturday fell because of the Indian batsmen’s inability to deal with a moderate amount of spin on a pitch that wasn’t quite diabolical.
Over-eager pundits might check the grip, the release, and sweat about over and side spin, pore over the balls other than the dismissal deliveries to imagine a pattern of set up —not needed really. All that happened were regular off breaks, bowled from round the stumps, and Indians succumbed all too meekly.
Like many contemporary batsmen, KL Rahul can be all arms in his defence. Firm forearms as he leans forward, without the manoeuvrability in the wrists and arms to work the ball in angles. It was a gentle off break that landed on middle line and turned towards leg stump from round the stumps. And yet he had pressed a touch across and from there it was a losing battle, trying to get the bat around the pad in line of the advancing leather. The eventual lbw wasn’t a surprise.
Rohit Sharma was also tentative. This one turned in towards the middle and off line. He seemingly froze a touch, neither forward nor back, and didn’t have the hands/wrists to bail out in time. A rushed flail followed, the bat-face shutting too quickly and the timbre behind him fell.
Cheteshwar Pujara has made an art form of the forward thrust with bat ever so behind the pad. On his good days, he would have done it after skipping down the track. Here, a slight stutter on front foot which he opened up down the pitch nicely but couldn’t get his bat ahead of the pad in time. Pad-first and yet another regular off-break had claimed a man.
Then possibly India’s most intent-full batsman against spin Shreyas Iyer fell. Unlike the rest, he used his feet, hands, and played with the bat. But he was a touch weak with the flick, and the ball didn’t have much power to elude the short-leg. Peter Handscomb nearly dropped it but managed to hold on.
With four wickets in his bag, Lyon would get his fifth with a nothing ball. Pitched outside leg-stump and drifting further away, wicket-keeper Srikar Bharat would go for a hard swing sweep. Again it was the turn that beat him. He failed to read the length, the ball came to him much after he was through with the shot. It hit the gloves and ballooned behind the stumps where Steve Smith held the catch.
For some time now, the Indians have been moaning about lack of quality Gennext spinners. But playing slow bowling too has been an equally serious but less-discussed problem for Indian cricket. Busy international schedule often gets blamed for the batsmen missing out on playing domestic cricket, where most overs are still bowled by the spinners.
Few years back, speaking to The Indian Express, Praveen Amre, a very good batsman against spin, had spoken about the reasons behind the dying art of playing spin. “They don’t have the confidence in their defence against spin. Without that confidence, you can’t go down the track or go on the back foot. The fear of being stumped or lbw (respectively) makes them nervous. They are not willing to take that risk, they just play from the crease, pushing the bat around,” Amre had said.
“It’s important to understand that my generation of batsmen had better quality spinners. If you just stood at the crease, those bowlers would just eat you up. You had to go forward or back, else you had no chance.” he went on to add.
This was some time back, now India has the best spin attack in the world. It’s surprising how playing the world’s leading offie Ravichandran Ashwin at the short camp and subsequent nets didn’t prepare India’s top batters to play Lyon. Maybe, the problem could be more fundamental.
Our National Sports Editor Sandeep Dwivedi is at the venue to cover the second Test.