One of the big drawbacks for India in the first Test in Chennai, as captain Virat Kohli pointed out after that match, was the pressure released by their bowlers which allowed the English batsmen to feel comfortable at the crease. The loose deliveries undid the good work done by some of the bowlers and enabled the visitors to post a mammoth, match-winning total in the first innings.
But that wasn’t the case in the second Test. India’s bowling attack, led by Ashwin Ravichandran and Axar Patel, was on the money throughout and persisted with a tight line and length. The pitch was, of course, much more conducive to spin but the bowlers played their part by being patient. India bowled a total of 114.1 overs in the match, out of which Ashwin and Axar bowled a combined 82.5 overs and they were relentless.
However, there was one other factor that led to England managing just 298 across their two innings in the second Test: their passivity with the bat. Again, India had favourable conditions and their spinners did what was expected of them, but as far as England were concerned, their batsmen didn’t do much to help themselves either.
There was a time when India would travel to countries like England, New Zealand and South Africa, see a green top, and lose the match in their heads even before a ball was bowled. They knew their batsmen didn’t have the technique to survive on such pitches and their bowling didn’t have enough skill to exploit the conditions.
In the second Test in Chennai, England betrayed a similar complex. They seemed spooked after looking at the pitch on day one and once they lost the toss, they seemed resigned to their fate, much like touring Indian teams of the past. The battle was lost in their minds before the match began.
Ashwin, too, spoke about this at the end of the second Test. Reflecting on the criticism directed at the pitch, the off-spinner said: “As much as people were predicting things from the outside, I thought the balls that were doing much weren’t the ones getting the wickets. It was the mind of the batsmen that got us wickets.”
In fact, while talking about his approach in the superb century he got in India’s second innings, Ashwin made an important point that England might want to make a note of.
“Having intent was key. It is very important to put the pressure on the bowlers because if you allow them to dictate terms, it is not going to get easier for you at the crease,” said the all-rounder.
On a bowler-friendly pitch such as the one we saw in the second Test, getting runs, and not merely surviving, is vital. The half-centuries by Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane were indeed crucial but the three knocks that drove India forward were the positive ones – by Rohit Sharma and Rishabh Pant in the first innings and by Ashwin in the second.
Rohit searched for runs in the first innings and kept the scoreboard ticking despite the fall of wickets around him. His knock of 161, along with Pant’s aggressive 77-ball 58, helped India post a formidable total of 329 which set the game up for them. Between them, they scored 219 runs in 308 balls on a rank turner.
And in the second innings, with India struggling at 106/6, it was Ashwin’s counterattack that swung the momentum firmly in the hosts’ favour.
England, on the other hand, were just too passive. They had nobody attempting what Rohit, Pant and Ashwin did. At no point did their batsmen make India’s bowlers lose patience or change their length. Former India opener and one of the most aggressive players ever seen in Test cricket Virender Sehwag would attack spinners and make them bowl to his own strength.
On such turners, it is imperative for a team to also have batsmen who try and dominate. Kevin Peitersen did that job in 2012 with his masterful 186 off 233 in Mumbai, which triggered England’s series-clinching run after they had been thrashed in the first Test.
England’s plan in the second Test in Chennai was to simply survive but the thing about such pitches is that sooner or later, one ball will do something extra and have your number on it. They didn’t even take into account that Axar was making his debut or that Kuldeep was playing his first Test in two years.
Ben Stokes, for instance, made an important contribution for England in their first innings of the first Test. He scored 82 off 118 in a characteristically aggressive knock and didn’t let India’s bowlers settle into a rhythm. But in his second innings of the second Test, he laboured his way to 8 off 51 before falling to Ashwin while attempting another forward defense.
It is also worth remembering that attempting aggressive strokes on turners needs to be a calculated risk. Rohit and Pant stuck to their strengths and made sure they punished loose balls, while Ashwin said he had practiced the sweep shot extensively before employing it in the match.
It could also be argued that some of England’s batsmen did try to show intent, but their attempts were ill-conceived. In England’s second innings: Rory Burns was dismissed after closing the face of his bat, Dan Lawrence stepping out of the crease was predetermined, while Ollie Pope and Ben Foakes, who showed good application in the first innings, got out playing half-hearted sweep shots.
To unsettle bowlers, you need to have a plan and not miss out on scoring opportunities. You also need to be consistent. That’s far from what the English batsmen did.
England are by no means a weak team. They had won six consecutive overseas Test before this defeat and showed in the first Test in Chennai that they’re up for a fight. But if they encounter spinner-friendly pitches in the upcoming Tests in the series, which could happen, they will need to show more intent with the bat. You will get results on turners, but you have to be brave enough to wrest the initiative from the opposition. Being passive has never helped, it never will.