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India batters in a spin

Even as Aus are doing everything in their control to counter Indian spinners, there is unease about the Indian batters' ability to tackle the visiting tweakers
Last Updated : 04 February 2023, 08:06 IST
Last Updated : 04 February 2023, 08:06 IST
Last Updated : 04 February 2023, 08:06 IST
Last Updated : 04 February 2023, 08:06 IST

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The pitch for the second T20I against New Zealand in Lucknow may not have been ideal for white-ball cricket, especially for the shortest format, with the ball turning square right from the start. New Zealand laboured to 99/8 in 20 overs while India huffed and puffed their way to 101/4 in 19.5 overs, forcing stand-in skipper Hardik Pandya to term the surface "a shocker of a pitch." Hardik's remarks even cost the curator his job.

While you don't want to see one set of skills enjoying undue advantage over the other (bowling over batting and vice versa), the Lucknow game also exposed the lack of technical acumen and temperament among modern-day batters to negotiate the turning ball. This isn't a one-off example and not restricted to one format. In fact, it's more concerning in red-ball cricket. In the last Test series against Bangladesh, top Indian batters struggled against home spinners and the tourists barely managed to win the second Test.

Even as Australia are doing everything in their control to give themselves the best chance to counter Indian spinners, there is unease about the Indian batters' ability to tackle the visiting tweakers, should the pitches help the slower bowlers.

There has been a noticeable drop in both quantity and quality of spinners in India even as their pace stock has risen appreciably. What, however, isn't spoken about as loudly is young batters' inability to handle the turning ball as effectively as their predecessors did. Are these two developments mutually exclusive or has one led to the other? It's much like a chicken and egg situation which can't be settled, but the twin issues have persisted for far too long to be left unaddressed.

"I understand nowadays the batters find their way out by hitting the spinners out of the attack," observed Wasim Jaffer, one of India's finest players of spin, in an ESPNCricnfo show. "It's not what it used to be in our time. We were trained or told to play out spin bowling. Even in seaming conditions, nowadays, the batter will probably try to get the bowler out of the attack by being more aggressive or proactive. In our time, we were told to play out that spell."

Jaffer believes T20 cricket has a lot to do with the way batters approach spin bowling and the manner in which spinners bowl.

"...But T20 cricket doesn't allow you to do that (grinding the attack). Even the Indian batters... I don't think they play spin as well as players in my time did. So that is definitely a concern but it's just the upbringing. The focus is more on fast bowling, the bowlers bowling 140-145 clicks and you don't get real quality spin to play in the first-class circuit.

"So that's the reason why the bowlers don't bowl in the same manner that the bowlers in the 1990s or early 2000s did. That flight and guile is missing because the batters are more brave now. They don't mind going for sixes even if there's long on and long off. That's probably the reason why you feel batters don't tackle spin that well."

When he started out, Virat Kohli was one of the best players of spin. With his nimble footwork and supple wrists, the right-hander had all the time against the turning ball. In the last few years, though, he has been repeatedly dismissed by spinners, especially by the finger-spin variety. At 34, Kohli may not have the same response time or reflexes of the past, but his travails don't seem to be related to his advancing age.

"Tell me how many of our top-order batsmen play in domestic cricket? Why don't they play and why does the team management not insist on top players playing in domestic cricket? This is where the problem lies," says former India left-arm spinner Sunil Joshi, who till recently served as a senior national selector.

"When was the last time Virat Kohli played a domestic first-class game? He was one of our best players of spin, but in the last three-four years, he hasn't been the same. Whether it's off-spinner, left-arm spinner or leg-spinner, he has struggled against all sorts (of spin). That's purely because of not playing domestic cricket. Till the time our top 5-6 batsmen go and play domestic cricket, the problem is going to persist."

Mayank Agarwal's debut Test innings in Melbourne best buttresses Joshi's point.

Nathan Lyon had taken a whopping 16 wickets in the first two Tests of India's tour Down Under in 2018-19. In the first at Adelaide, he had nearly pulled it off for Australia before India scraped through for a 1-0 lead. In the second, on what was a green top in Perth, he was the player of the match, having fashioned Australia's series-equalling win.

Lyon was thought to be a bigger threat on the MCG surface but he was surprisingly ineffective. One of the primary reasons for that was the way Agarwal, who was handed his debut, dealt with the off-spinner. Coming into the series on the back of thousands of runs in domestic cricket and for India A at home, where he had faced a lot of spin, the opener betrayed few nerves against Lyon and went on the offensive in an effort to not to allow the veteran bowler to slip into a rhythm. Mission accomplished as Lyon could bag just one wicket in the match.

India batting great GR Vishwanath, writing a piece for DH, had explained how playing EAS Prasanna and BS Chandrasekhar in the Karnataka 'nets' had made him the batsman he was. "... Of course, we played for the country a lot together, but the best part about playing for the same State was that we learnt a lot from Pras and Chandra, and we also learnt how to play top-class spin bowling. After playing these two greats, we faced other spinners with a lot of confidence. I, therefore, credit our practice sessions, where we had a chance to face these two, for the batsman I became," he had written.

Kohli's last Ranji game was in the 2012 season against Uttar Pradesh. Rohit Sharma last appeared in a domestic first-class game for India Blue in Duleep Trophy in September 2016 while KL Rahul's last red-ball match for Karnataka was the Ranji semifinal against Bengal in March 2019.

There's no doubt that players are overworked due to hectic international and IPL schedules and it would be a bit harsh to expect them to stretch themselves any further.

But, as Ravi Shastri pointed out recently, they can be a bit smart with their choice of internationals. Instead of playing in meaningless bilateral white-ball contests, some of these batters could have played in the ongoing Ranji Trophy, ahead of an important series against Australia, which has a good spin attack in Lyon, Ashton Agar, Mitchell Swepson and the uncapped Todd Murphy.

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Published 03 February 2023, 16:05 IST

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