If it swings, you will play and miss. That much is a given. You will play and miss but then as the greats do, put the ball out of your mind, take guard again and concentrate on the next ball. For when the ball is swinging, you need to give your full concentration to every delivery. The ball never stops swinging and the batsman can never stop concentrating.
Of course, the odd unplayable delivery will still get you. But that, as they say, is the rub of the green. It’s harder to judge a swinging delivery than it looks – no one is saying it is easy. But somehow it looks like the way Indians play swing has regressed in this generation of cricketers.
It wasn’t always a given that Indian batsmen will struggle badly against swing bowling. Yes, India still lost a few series but some might reckon that it was because their bowling wasn’t as good as it is now. The batting, however, was something India could always fall back on.
That comfort now seems to be gone. The 0-2 loss against New Zealand was the latest in a long line of struggles against swing bowling that have haunted this generation of Indian batsmen.
India’s all-time greats in England and New Zealand
Playing swing bowling is not an exact science. There is a lot of guessing involved – how much the ball will swing, which way it will swing and how you’ll cope with it. And the batsman won’t always get it right. But the key to surviving or even flourishing against swing bowling was constant practice; practice to the point where the right batting technique gets laid down in the subconscious mind.
In an interview with Scroll.in, former India opener Sunil Gavaskar had, for instance, spoken about the importance of the right guard.
“The guard you took was to make sure that when you took your stance, your right eye was in line with the off-stump,” said Gavaskar. “Some people took middle stump guard because they were taller and stood a little more upright. And that was the marker. Your right eye was actually the one telling you that this is the one to play and this is one to leave.”
Gavaskar had added: “And often – it is a situation that not a lot of batsmen pay attention to – the difference is very, very slight – your head moves just that little bit. When your head moves towards mid-off and cover is the time when you play at deliveries outside the off-stump and get caught. You want the head to be exactly where the bowler is going to be delivering the ball. If your head and your right eye is there, you are more likely to know which ball to play and which to leave. The moment it is aligned towards mid-off, you will play at balls outside the off-stump. So that was the thing you always wanted to do.”
Here’s a table that lists India’s finest batsmen in England and New Zealand (the two countries have been clubbed together because the conditions are usually very similar i.e. conducive for swing bowling):
Most runs in England and New Zealand
The golden generation
Sourav Ganguly, much like current skipper Virat Kohli, wanted to win away from home. So he had gone about building a team that played an aggressive brand of cricket that many Indian teams had played before them.
In essence, Ganguly had at his disposal the golden generation of Indian batsmen. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Ganguly himself. This group stayed together for a long time and they put all that experience to use, first under Ganguly, then under Dravid and Kumble before finally ending their careers under Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Most striking in this stellar group is Dravid. He faced 3824 balls over 16 matches in England and New Zealand – but he also did them at an average of 62.84. The next best, both in terms of balls faced and runs scored is Sachin Tendulkar (2484 balls, 1346 runs).
But before we move to the next table, keep in mind the base average. Dravid’s average is in the sixties. Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dhoni and Gambhir are in the forties. Laxman comes in at 36. Sehwag is the worst of the regulars, averaging 24.10.
From 2000 to 2013 (In ENG and NZ)
The current generation
It can be said that Sehwag and Laxman struggled in swinging conditions. But the previous generation of Indian cricketers still had five players averaging over 40 in England and New Zealand.
Now, we come to this generation of Indian cricketers. There is not a single cricketer – Kohli included, who is averaging more than 37 in these conditions. Remember how everyone thinks Dhoni was bad away from home? Well, his average of 35.84 is just a few points off Kohli at 36.25.
And Kohli is the best of the pack. That, in a nutshell, is the problem. When the base averages of this generation are so low, can they really win in England or New Zealand?
One might argue that this team has been competitive but that is largely due to the bowlers. In fact, one might counter that argument by saying that if the batting had been better, India would have come away with a few more series wins.
From 2014-2020 (In ENG and NZ)
So, what is the problem?
Gavaskar thinks the problem of the current generation is the bat speed – they go at the ball too hard. Laxman thinks it is technique – the position of the head and the footwork. Kohli, himself, thinks it is the mindset. Dilip Vengsarkar thinks the selection policies are poor. Others will point to India’s lack of preparation against the red ball (just one tour game in NZ and Kohli chose to sit that out). Clearly, one thing leads to another and unfortunately for India, there is no quick fix.
The next away tour for India is Australia at the end of the year and India’s numbers there are good. Kohli averages 64, Pujara 55, Rahane 44, Pant 58, Agarwal 65, Rohit Sharma 31. So the team is expected to compete better, but this problem against swing bowling won’t go away by sweeping it under the carpet.
“The thing to take away from here is to not shy away from things that have gone wrong and instead address them straight up, and not be in denial,” said Kohli after the defeat in the second Test against New Zealand.
It will be interesting to see how India does address this failing. Will they play more county cricket? Will they hold camps to prepare for such tours? Will they rest their best players ahead of the tours to give them time to prepare or will they continue to ‘believe’ they are the best and not do anything about this?
There clearly is a problem and India’s response to it will go a long way towards defining how the current generation will be remembered.
(All statistics via ESPNCricinfo)