Even as debates rage on over correct cricket pitches and the disadvantages of the pink ball, an undeniable aspect of the second and third Test between India and England was the batsmen’s ineptitude against the turning ball.
After the third Test in Ahmedabad, India captain Virat Kohli had no hesitation in admitting that both the teams had batted poorly. And that struggle, of course, was against spin bowling as Axar Patel, Ashwin Ravichandran, Jack Leach and Joe Root accounted for 28 of the 30 wickets that fell in the match.
For England, especially, surviving on the spinner-friendly pitches, that India were quick to turn to after their defeat in the series opener, has been an impossible challenge over the past two Tests, in which they lost 40 wickets for a total of 491 runs. While the hosts have managed to find enough run-scorers to edge ahead in the series, the visitors have had just one half-centurion in their last four innings.
What would worry England the most is that despite all the puffs of dust and expert opinion on the quality of the pitches, the fact remains that most of their dismissals have been to deliveries that didn’t get any extra assistance from the surface. It has simply been a case of their batsman not having answers to quality spin bowling on turning pitches.
From captain Root, who was in splendid form heading into the second Test, to Ben Stokes, one of the most accomplished batsmen in world cricket, to others like Dom Sibley, Jonny Bairstow and Ollie Pope, England’s batsmen have struggled to pick up length, play the right line, find the gaps, and read Ashwin and Axar’s variations in general.
To understand what a batsman needs to do to perform on turning pitches, Scroll.in spoke with three of the most prolific run-scorers in Indian domestic cricket in recent times: Wasim Jaffer and Amol Muzumdar, the two highest run-scorers in Ranji Trophy history, and Sitanhsu Kotak, a former Saurashtra left-hander who was known for his superb technique against spin bowling and the volume of runs he scored on tough pitches.
Here’s what they had to say:
“Firstly, you need to have a lot of trust in your defence. There will be fielders around the bat – slip, leg-slip, short-leg, silly point – and you can’t attack every ball, so you need to be very sure of your defence. You need to go either completely forward or go right back, you can’t simply play from the crease against a turning ball. That’s a skill you need to develop. Secondly, you need to have scoring shots. Your aim has to be to put the fielders on the back foot as your inning progresses. Try and put pressure on the bowler so that he removes the close-in fielders. You need to mix your defence and attack really well.
“The intent has to be to score runs. Once you’re sure of your defence, the next step is to impose yourself on the bowler. Don’t let him bowl the way he wants to bowl, try and take him on a bit. If the ball is turning square and you let the bowler dictate terms, he’s going to get you sooner or later. So you need to take risks and look for runs. Spinners need to be scared bowling to you.”
“Realistically, you need to play a lot more shots than you would normally. Because if you keep defending, there will be that one ball which will have your name on it. You need to mix things up – try and step out, stay low and commit to the back foot, use the sweep shot, play some unconventional shots... anything to put the bowler off. The bowler needs to feel the pressure.
“Any spinner who bowls within the stumps is dangerous, because that way LBW and bowled are always in play. So you can’t play with the pad in such situations and you have to commit with the bat. The important thing is to play the line, if it spins from there then so be it. But you’ll be in trouble each time if you play for the turn and it goes straight. It’s a fine line, sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t. But the idea is to play with the bat and be sure of your defence.”
“On a turning pitch, the approach should be simple – play the correct line of the ball. Look to play more squarer on the wicket rather than straighter. You need to always look for runs. Defend with solidity but look for runs. Having said that, if your game is naturally aggressive, that doesn’t mean you need to attack every ball. You need to be smart.
“I would’ve preferred Joe Root facing more of R Ashwin and Ben Stokes tackling Axar Patel. That would’ve made things a little more simpler for them. On turners, you have no choice but to find a balance between attack and defence.”
“The the arm ball will get the wickets but it’s the sharp turner that puts doubts in a batsman’s mind. Which is why when a ball turns a mile and beats you, it’s imperative to delete that ball from your memory immediately. Somehow find the temperament to do that. The ones who can do that are the ones who score runs on such pitches. The ball has beaten me completely but that’s fine, I’m still here – that’s the kind of mindset you need to have. Just keep focusing on playing the line and remain unperturbed if you’re beaten.
“This, of course, is very hard to do. It’s easy for us to say from the outside but when you’re out in the middle on your own, and you have bowlers operating with the relentlessness of Ashwin and Axar, it’s a tough, tough proposition. You won’t survive unless you’re extremely tough mentally.”
“The Ahmedabad pitch had turn but it wasn’t that bad. I think because of all the white-ball cricket these days, the batsmen’s belief in their defence isn’t strong enough.
“What happens on a turning pitch is that when batsmen go in, they see wickets falling around them and they thinks it’s a deadly wicket. But in my experience, I’ve seen that if you have a 30-40 run partnership you start feeling that the ball is not spinning that much... suddenly the bowlers start bowling loose deliveries because they’re trying too much. But how do you get to this point if you don’t spend time on the pitch?
“If you keep defending or playing wild shots, you’re either going to get out or the score will not move ahead. The bowlers won’t need to try anything and they can keep pitching it at one spot. So trusting your defence and looking for runs is very important on turning pitches, because the conditions look a lot less threatening when you’re batting on 30 rather than 3.”
“People mistake having a positive mindset with hitting aerial shots. That’s not what a positive mindset is about. You need to have the courage to play with control and look for gaps to keep rotating the strike. Believing in yourself that you can find ways to score runs is what I would call a positive mindset. Playing to the merit of the ball is often considered a cliched term but on turning pitches, for me, that’s exactly the right approach for a batsman to have. Defend if you have to and attack if there’s an opportunity, don’t let the pitch and the sharp turn and the close-in fielders cloud your judgement.
“Like I said, you spend time on the pitch and suddenly things start seeming a lot simpler. Whenever there’s a partnership, you feel the ball has stopped turning, the intensity of the opposition has dropped, and the ball has become softer. But actually that is just the batsmen batting well, nothing else. And if at that point a wicket falls, you see a couple more falling in quick succession because the next batsmen is again starting with doubts.”