It was fascinating to watch India opener Mayank Agarwal cruise to his second Test double hundred on day two of the first Test against Bangladesh in Indore on Friday.
It was interesting for a couple of major reasons. First, the old fashioned charm that one can associate with watching Agarwal bat. He gives the first hour to the bowlers, bats in a rather unhurried manner for major portions of the innings, the stroke-making is proper, takes fresh guard after reaching a milestone and shadow bats defensive strokes after reaching 200.
The second reason is the manner he plays spin. The years spent waiting for a breakthrough at the international level, playing spinners on dusty tracks, have given Agarwal a lot of confidence when it comes to taking on spinners. He was constantly down the track and forcing their hand by being positive. And when they tried to anticipate his forays down the wicket, he would rock back and pull them or play the delicate late cut.
Each of his eight sixes — a record for sixes in one innings by an Indian, equalling Navjot Singh Sidhu’s tally against Sri Lanka in 1994 — came against spin. Off-spinner Mehidy Hasan was carted for five of those while left-arm orthodox spinner Taijul Islam was hit for two and one came off part-timer Mahmudullah. He simply didn’t let the spinners settle.
When asked about his six-hitting after played ended, Agarwal said, “ I back myself and was watching the ball well and picking it. There is bounce on this wicket and there is full value for shots. I went after anything that I felt was in my half.”
Taking on the spinners
Foreign spinners often come to India thinking they will be able to exploit the conditions and go back home with a bag full of wickets but instead they are now being smashed out of the attack. We saw it happen against South Africa and now a repeat of it against Bangladesh.
In the series against South Africa, Keshav Maharaj’s economy rate was 4.04, Dane Piedt 5.74, Senuran Muthusamy 4.90 and George Linde 4.29. Today, against Bangladesh, Hasan gave away runs at 4.63, Islam at 4.29 and Mahmudullah, in his three overs, at 8.00.
These numbers perhaps reflect how India have decided to be positive again spin and it marks a clear departure from the indecisive plans that had plagued their battles against the tweakers in recent years.
According to ESPNCricinfo, between 1990 and 2011, India averaged 45 against spin. In the five-year period between 2006 and 2011, India averaged 46.43 against spin, the highest among the seven Test-playing nations. Then, came the fall. Between 2012 and 2016, India’s batsmen were among the worst players of spin among the top seven Test playing nations with their average against spin slipping to 34.22.
Between 1990 and 2011, some of the game’s greatest spinners were playing. From Muthiah Muralitharan to Shane Warne but India found a way to counter them all. But in the period immediately after that, they were even troubled by non-elite bowlers like Moeen Ali. In the last series India lost at home, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar were brilliant while Nathan Lyon has had a good time on turners, but other than that few of the bowlers would go down as spin greats.
Defend well to attack well
While watching India’s struggles against spin in 2015, former India cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar had pointed out how their defensive technique was poor.
“Every time an Indian batsman decides to get on to the front foot to defend against spin, I cringe. They leave far too much distance between the bat and the spot where the ball has pitched. This is a recipe for disaster on a turning pitch. By leaving this space between the bat and the spot where the ball has pitched, you are allowing the ball to spin and bounce or straighten. You are giving the ball the space to behave mischievously,” wrote Manjrekar.
But in the last three years, only Nathan Lyon with his high-quality off-spin has had their number in a certain sense. The rest of the spinners are all being punished. Part of it could be attributed to the pitches not being rank turners any more but the calculated risks being taken are unmissable.
It is almost as if Virat Kohli and his side are signalling their intent to their opponents.
And this isn’t being done by just being blindly aggressive. The batsmen are rotating the strike and taking enough singles to not let the bowlers settle on a line of attack against any one batsman.
Agarwal used his feet to the spinners but wasn’t averse to using the depth of the crease either. The same is true of Rohit Sharma who must be giving nightmares still for Proteas spinners Piedt and Maharaj. Cheteshwar Pujara, who plays a fair amount of domestic cricket as well, jumps out to almost every delivery. Virat Kohli prefers to use the depth of the crease. Ajinkya Rahane also prefers to do the same. Hanuma Vihari is more than comfortable against spin.
And between them, they are slowly starting to dominate spin in the manner one has always associated with Indian batsmen. If you are coming to India, just bowling spin isn’t good enough, you better be very good at it if you want to make an impact.
Former Australian captain Ian Chappell once wrote in a column that playing spin well, is a “state of mind.”
Chappell wrote, “To succeed, a batsman has to be decisive, look to dominate, have a plan and not fear the turning delivery.”
And Agarwal did all that and more during his innings. This was India turning the clock back and playing spin the way they always have. It was heartening to watch in more ways than one.