The lost art of leaving the ball

Shikhar Dhawan was guilty of playing poor shots to get out in the first Test at Birmingham.

The great Sachin Tendulkar retired with 51 Test centuries, many of them being masterpieces. Even compiling a top-10 list could be a task in itself. Among those classics, a knock that showed a different personality of him is the epochal 241 not out he scored in the fourth Test against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 2004.

The Aussies, who had often been at the receiving end of his vicious blade, managed to counter the Little Master with an old-fashioned strategy. They kept bowling consistently around the off-stump, often luring the Mumbaikar into his doom. Tendulkar was dismissed on a quite a few occasions trying to drive. Heading into the deciding Test of a hard-fought series, Tendulkar’s scores read 0, DNB, 1, 37, 0, 44.

It was one of the worst returns in his career. Used to often battering the best of bowlers even in trying conditions, Tendulkar had no choice but to buckle down and get back to basics. He had to swallow his ego and he did so stunningly, cutting off his patented cover drive.

It was an innings of pure concentration and bloody-mindedness. He barely touched a ball outside the off-stump during his marathon 436-ball, 613-minute stay. He made the Aussies, a pace attack comprising Brett Lee, Jason Gillespie and Nathan Bracken, bowl to his body. He only played the drives when the ball was in the off and middle-stump channel.

Cut to the current generation and the concept of leaving the ball and giving the bowler the respect is totally lost. Take the first Test in Edgbaston as a case in point. Opener Shikhar Dhawan perished in both innings while trying to play the expansive drive when caution, not aggression, was the need of the hour. One-drop KL Rahul, despite edging the first ball he faced, inside-edged the ball onto his stumps of the next delivery. He was caught by wicketkeeper Jonny Bairstow in the second innings.

Ajinkya Rahane, normally India’s Mr Dependable in non-Asian conditions, was also dismissed, flashing outside the off-stump in both innings. Whether he did so because of the pressure to score runs or was it a genuine rare double error from the Mumbaikar is a question only he can answer.

Murali Vijay is one batsman who loves to leave the ball alone which has played an integral part in his recent success. He did that quite effectively in the opening Test too only to be undone by slow feet movement that saw him trapped leg-before the wicket twice.

The problem of trying to play too many balls — some of which can be safely left alone — was seen in young England batsmen too. In fact, that’s a problem plaguing many teams in world cricket. While the attacking mindset has added spice to Test cricket, which has seen more results than draws in recent times, it has robbed the old world charm of seeing a fascinating battle of a batsman defending against a bowler steaming in.

England skipper Joe Root pinpointed the urgency in batsmen’s mind to most of them playing all three formats. “Without trying to get too much in depth into the way the world has changed, people want things more quickly now. People want things now all the time. I think that creeps into everything else that you do. Naturally, the game has gotten quicker. T20 has come in and guys playing all three formats, it’s always going to have some impact on your game. It’s not just our team and India’s team that are wanting to hit the ball a lot more. It’s a general rule in world cricket. It’s the way that the game has moved forward.”

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