Kohli, Rohit and Co. sweep in the nets as India polish their counter-attacking options on turners

Removing his helmet and wiping the sweat dripping off his temple, Virat Kohli vigorously scraped a part of the pitch with his studs and instructed left-arm spinner Saurabh Kumar to land the ball in the stud-dented rough. Kumar, a loopy spinner, landed the next ball on the exact spot, whereupon Kohli executed a reverse sweep that trickled off his under-edge. Dissatisfied at his attempt, he told Kumar to hit the area again, and in his third try he sweet-spotted the reverse sweep that cracked ferociously onto an iron pole to which the nets are tied.

A visibly content Kohli then walked upto Ishan Kishan, who was in the adjoining nets and trying the exact shot, and made a point about Kishan’s collapsing front knee, before the pair rolled in peels of laughter. “Dikha do, dikha do, tere front foot kaise ja raha hain,” and Kohli would impersonate Kishan’s front-foot stride. After the short break, Kohli resumed his batting hit-downs, though the reverse sweep did not resurface. Flowed a flurry of his staple strokes, the swat-flicks, but this time against the turn of the left-arm spinners, wispy drives down the ground and in the air, stepping out to the pitch of the ball each time, and back-cuts off spinners’ short-of-good-length.

Throughout the 90-odd-minute session, he rarely defended, or looked to defend, off either foot. Kumar beat him in the air a few times, but Kohli was unhindered. Anything slightly short, he pulled, or short of length onto his body, he rode the bounce and drove with the angle. It seemed as though he was inclined to hit himself back into his pristine touch rather than grind and graft or look to survive. Looking to survive on a turner, to just go blocking could be a self-destructive strategy on a viciously spitting and spinning surface, as the past spin-masters would advise. Attack them, dishevel the lines, throw their best-laid plans off-kilter, like the good’ol subcontinental batsmen did. That seemed to have been the brief to India’s batsmen—to attack spinners and wear them to submission, as all Indian batsmen were in a mood to attack in their four-hour training session in Nagpur.

Indian batter Virat Kohli walking for a net session in Nagpur.

Beside Kohli’s nets was Kishan, who would hang back and cut or slash the spinners or sweep, slog-sweep or reverse-sweep them. Behind him, KL Rahul unpacked a couple of cute paddle sweeps. The sweep—all its variants—is not one of the preferred tools in the kit of most modern-day Indian Test batsmen. But effective as the shot is against spinners on a turning surface—and one that some of the most successful overseas batsmen in the subcontinent have employed—India batsmen were making a concerted effort to master it.

The virtues are many, if the sweeps are indeed executed robustly. A) Spinners can immediately pull the lengths back; B) they would be tempted to bowling at the stumps in the hope that the batsman misses and is trapped in front; C) It nullifies turn as well as bounce, which is an equally significant factor on spinning tracks; D) It is an attacking shot and could despatch the close-in fielders on the leg-side to distant outposts, thus killing the pressure. There are drawbacks too, as you have to kneel, work with as well as defy gravity, but at the same time not lose shape, balance and stillness of head. You should also not telegraph your intent even a split-second early, though the sweep is essentially a premeditated shot, lest the bowler shifts his length.

One of the finest executioners of the shot in the team is Rohit Sharma, who was in sweep-mode throughout the session. Batting in the open nets beside the centre pitch of the stadium, he unleashed a torrent of sweeps. Unlike Kohli, he was not looking to keep the ball down the ground, but hitting meatily in the air. One of his strikes was so meaty that the ball could not be retrieved from the stands where he had smeared it. He would reverse sweep too, balls on end, until he was utterly satisfied with a stroke that he rarely summons.

Indian team training in Nagpur.

The Indian captain was in a cheery mood and gave a running commentary of his shots. He edged a lifter from Mohammed Siraj and self-admonished, shaking his head and yelling: “Yeh kya hua yaar?” He would self-congratulate too, as when he danced down the track and almost lifted R Sai Kishore over to the railway track through the gap between the stands. “Shabaash!!” he would scream. He would naughtily ask Ravi Ashwin, who kept on batting, reeling out sumptuous drives against the turn of Kuldeep Yadav: “Tujhe, sirf batting karna hain? Karo, karo.” Ashwin, too, would sweep and slog-sweep to glory.

Equally keen to bat were his spin bowling colleagues, Jadeja and Yadav especially. But Sharma would often plead, “Ek aur over dalo!” and then knock the daylights out of them. And it was not until the last hour that either got their wish granted. Jadeja hammered away all his impatience, slashing and slog-sweeping with all his characteristic gusto.

Beside the nets, watched on by Kohli, almost hypnotised, Suryakumar Yadav furnished a masterclass on sweeping. His perch was almost always perfect, never too back or too forward, always in control, never shaking or staggering, his head statue-still, always picking the ball from under his head, covering the line of the ball, always hitting the ball along the ground (not that he can’t hit aerially, as you are all well aware of), and always in with a lot of time at his disposal, as though he could afford a few yawns before sweeping the ball.

Though sweep was the runaway winner for the shot of the day contest, there were other spin-destroying shots too on the show. Shubman Gill, while he played a clutch of sweeps and reverse sweeps, was keener on honing his defensive bearings.

Cheteshwar Pujara, too, barely swept but intensely drove the spinners. Certainly, sweep alone cannot neuter spinners on turners, a robust defensive technique, the adeptness to step out and proficiency to work them for singles and twos with nudges, tickles and drives are as essential. But sweep it was that whirled in the hazy dust of the Jamtha stadium.

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