For six months after the Delhi Test, India don’t play any Test cricket. It means white balls, flat pitches, smaller boundaries. It means bat bullying ball again. And that is just another reason why I am hoping to see a long Test match because I do enjoy seeing batsmen with doubt in their mind looking at a bowler through uncertain eyes wondering, occasionally fearing, what’s coming their way. I hope we don’t get another Nagpur kind of pitch because ball bullying bat is as bad as bat bullying ball but I do hope we get a challenging pitch.
Among the many joys of Test cricket is to see the balance between bat and ball, between batsman and bowler, shift slowly. For the first couple of days the batsman knows it is his game, he looks the bowler in the eye, scampers a second to keep strike.
Then like the seasons change, the pitch starts giving way, the bowler gets a twinkle in his eye, a skip in his stride. He gives a sideways glance to the batsman as if to say “Winter’s here!” The hunter becomes the hunted, in a wonderfully sporting sense of course, and at the end of the game, he that harvests the good times and keeps the bad at bay emerges winner.
Fifty and twenty overs cricket have their own thrill. But most days it is like the tiger and the deer. The deer’s success lies in evading the tiger not butting him with those pretty horns. As I have often said, it is a different skill but one that could lull batsmen into thinking that is the way of the world. It is, in the jungle, but when cricket is played in three forms, the bowler always has Test cricket for his moment in the sun.
And I wonder, and to be fair it is a debate that is rightfully taking place, if the batsmen have lost their survival instinct through never having to defend their way out of adversity. It can last an hour (as Sunil Gavaskar famously used to say: Give the first hour to the bowlers and take the next five from them……not a bad investment idea!) or it could last a session or a day. But you survive to see the calm only if you weather the storm.
Denial outside the off-stump
And so, in batting as in life itself, defence is paramount. It was defence, and denial outside the off stump, that paved the way for Murali Vijay’s return to top cricket. And it was a reminder that he could defend that took Kevin Pietersen away from the naivete and batting horror of Ahmedabad to the thrilling exhibition of batsmanship in Mumbai in 2012. Defending, and nurturing the skill to defend, is being undermined by the easy runs available on the flat pitches of limited overs cricket. It is something that even a mighty modern great like AB de Villiers has struggled with.
His first twenty balls in Mohali were a tortured existence and it looked like every ball could be his last. He survived that period, he didn’t overcome it, and treated us to strokeplay that could warm the heart irrespective of which side you supported. We saw the same thing in Nagpur. He came out with a spear but there was no shield. Maybe he thought, and great men armed as they are with remarkable confidence can think that way, that he could demolish the opposition rather than respect them and take them apart one by one. Or maybe the ability to defend has left him briefly.
I would like to see India’s batsmen defend well too before they let go for the next six months. They can, they have in the past, but a habit not practised is no longer a habit. I am, for example, very eager to see how Ajinkya Rahane and Virat Kohli bat in Delhi; to see whether they embrace resilience before they unfurl aggression.
That is why I am hoping for a good wicket in Delhi; one that will allow the essence of Test cricket to emerge. If it throttles one skill, if it kills batsmen then the crime it commits is no different from the ghastly 400 run wickets that 50 overs cricket throws up.
Hopefully we will all enjoy Test cricket before it goes on vacation.