Forget James Anderson. Forget Stuart Broad. Forget even Ben Stokes. For the moment, we are concerned with Chris Woakes, and specifically concerned with the delivery he bowled to dismiss Virat Kohli three years ago at Lord’s.
Angled in full on off stump, headed towards middle and leg, bread-and-butter for a man who wrists such balls between mid-on and mid-wicket with the power of a drive. Inches before pitching, though, the ball begins to curve away. Inches after pitching, it has changed direction so much it is now headed towards first slip, which is where it would have gone had Kohli not edged it to second slip.
Possibly everything that could have conspired against a batsman in England has come together. Tight line and angle that you have to play. Latest possible movement. The uphill Lord’s slope from the Nursery End accentuating the beautiful outswinger release: almost-upright seam pointing to first slip, shiny side facing the batsman.
This, essentially, is the principal challenge awaiting India’s batsmen across six Tests in England, starting with the ICC World Test Championship final against New Zealand in Southampton this week. Not pace, not bounce, but the combination of movement and accuracy, according to former India opener Wasim Jaffer.
Challenge around off stump
“The majority of English bowlers – with the exception of Mark Wood and Jofra Archer who bowl 90mph+ – will bowl around 82-85mph and pose problems on the front foot, test your edge on the drive, get lbws,” Jaffer told Scroll.in. “Even in county cricket, you will not find express bowlers, because it is very hard to bowl 90mph for five months through the season.”
India have defeated Australia in Australia twice, so pace and bounce by themselves should not really trouble them, Jaffer said. “This team is not worried about pace and bounce. They have played well in Australia, our sidearmers such as Raghu bowl very fast (in the nets). They are used to playing 140-145kph regularly.
“Bounce is also not a big worry in England, (the injured) Archer is unlikely to play, so it is only Wood who is capable of the big bouncer.
“The only thing is sideways movement. In England, the challenge will remain around off stump. Anderson and Broad will keep testing you in the same areas, trying to get you to nick off. The Dukes ball remains hard and keeps swinging, and aids reverse swing as well with its upright seam.”
Jaffer opened for India in England in 2002 and 2007 and played league cricket across the country for years. He considered batting there a unique challenge, unlike any in the rest of the cricket world.
“From April to September, and from the south of the country to the north, conditions vary a lot. If you are playing at Lord’s or The Oval, you will generally get good wickets,” said Jaffer. “But if you go up to Headingley or Old Trafford or Durham, conditions are cold.
“I don’t think conditions vary as much in any other country. Even during a Test match, it will be very overcast, bowlers will dominate and suddenly the sun comes out and then batsmen will dominate.”
Former India captain Dilip Vengsarkar pointed out another variable that confronts batsmen in England. “The wickets are also a bit damp at times. They are not as hard as what you get in the subcontinent or in Australia. You do not get enough sunshine in England, so you have to be very careful,” Vengsarkar told Scroll.in.
Preparing to leave
You have to be clear in your mind as to what shots to play and what shots to avoid, reckoned Jaffer. Primarily, you have to be ready to leave a lot of deliveries, something that does not come naturally to Indian batsmen, who are more used to feeling ball on bat.
“You need to know where your off stump is. You need to have the mental discipline to keep leaving balls on fifth and sixth stumps and make the bowlers bowl in your areas,” said Jaffer.
He cited the example of Kohli’s century at Edgbaston. After his famously horrid 2014 tour, Kohli started the 2018 tour with 149 in Birmingham, and went on score nearly 600 runs in the series. He was dropped twice in the slips, but also showed uncharacteristic restraint against Anderson, with just 10 scoring shots off 74 deliveries from his 2014 nemesis.
“Virat kept on leaving the ball. Anderson bowled an extended spell, and somebody like Virat who is known to dominate bowling and likes to cover-drive, even he brought the discipline to keep his ego aside,” said Jaffer. “That is necessary to play in England: keeping your ego aside.”
Both Jaffer and Vengsarkar believe it is crucial for a batsman to not get opened up in his stance by the moving ball. “You have to be sure about your footwork, that once you commit to front foot, you commit really full and similarly on the back foot. You should not get squared up otherwise you will nick a lot of balls,” said Jaffer. Which is what kept happening to England opener Dom Sibley in the Birmingham Test against New Zealand.
According to Vengsarkar, one should be ready to sacrifice a few runs for survival. “It helps if you can stay more side-on and look to score more on the off side. Initially, don’t try to score much on the leg side,” said Vengsarkar. “If you open up, you are in trouble. And if you play across, you are gone.”
No matter how much the batsman sets himself up, though, he also has to try to judge which way it is going to go. It is not easy, as masters such as Anderson are adept at hiding the ball right until they are about to deliver it.
“When the ball is new, it is obviously difficult because the shine is on both sides. When it gets older, around 15 or 20 overs, then you can watch the bowler’s hand as to how he is holding the ball,” said Jaffer. “But nowadays lots of bowlers hide the ball. Then you are likely to get confused.
“You’d rather watch it from the point of delivery then. If you can pick up some cue from it, fine, else you have to play it as it comes. You can’t do anything else if the bowler is hiding it.”
Creating your luck
In four Tests at Lord’s, Vengsarkar made three centuries and a fifty. He says he shut out all talk about the slope. “I never thought about the slope. I never allowed it to create doubts in my mind that, you know, there is a slope and the ball might do this and do that. I just thought about scoring runs… it is not necessary that the ball will go out from one end because of the slope… to some extent yes, but not always.”
Eventually, said Jaffer, practice will make you luckier, if not perfect. “Apart from the hard work, you need a bit of luck too, where you play and miss a lot of balls, when you could easily nick them as well. But if you are in a good frame of mind and have prepared well, then luck is also more often on your side.”