India’s pace unit needs to have a long, hard look at that one television grab from this year’s World Cup before they leave Australia. The pitch map from their semi-final defeat to Australia can be a reliable navigation tool as they try to chart a new course for themselves Down Under. It was the former international VVS Laxman, speaking at a promotional event, who pointed out that the reason Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav and Mohit Sharma were ineffective in the last-four game was because they bowled too short to Australian batsman. It was a tactic that worked against teams like Pakistan and West Indies but not against the hosts, who grew up playing pulling and hooking.
“You can bowl short to other teams, which are not used to playing in Australian conditions. But if you bowl short to the Australians they will cut and pull you. That is what happened during the semifinal,” Laxman said. Sitting alongside Laxman was Kapil Dev. It was a panel discussion which focussed on the upcoming tour to Australia. Both players have experienced the highs and lows of touring cricket’s toughest terrain.
Giving an example, Laxman said that bowling short to someone like Aussie opener David Warner would not work. “Warner is most dangerous batsman in the line-up and you cannot bowl defensive lines to him. There is a formula to get him out and I am sure Ishant Sharma knows that because when he was in (Hyderabad) Sunrisers, we realised what shots he likes to play and what he doesn’t. It is important to make him play the cover drive, and once you do that you always have a chance to dismiss him early on. But don’t bowl short deliveries to him, because he will cut and pull,” Laxman said.
He went on to say that Warner would prove to be prized scalp. With Steve Smith injured, Warner would be Australia’s main batsman. By targetting the skipper early on, the Indians can make inroads into a vulnerable Australian batting line-up which is without Michael Clarke (retired) and Steve Smith (injured).
Kapil believed that the current squad has the pace to succeed in Australia but like Laxman did stress on the need to take wickets early. “I think if you have somebody who can bowl close to 140, it helps because the ball does a little bit off the wicket. If you have fast bowlers who can pick up wickets and are hungry to succeed then you will be successful. All three fast bowlers (Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami) have to click and put pressure for India to win matches,” Kapil said.
When it comes to batting in Australia, both Laxman and Kapil agreed — even while accounting for the bounce and pace — it could be a pleasure because the wickets are true and the ball comes onto the bat. “Not just me even others who I played with enjoyed batting there,” Laxman, who has made over 1200 runs in Australia, said. However, unlike in the sub-continent where a batsman can look untroubled once he is set, in Australia he can never let his guard down.
“In Australia or even South Africa, the ball does something even after 35 overs. There is bounce and nip for a fast bowler. I think that is the best part. After 35 overs, I hit the deck and the wicket-keeper holds it up very nicely. So if the batsman loses concentration you can get a wicket,” Kapil said.
The ‘bounce-factor’ means, a batsman has to make small but significant changes to his technique while playing on Australian wickets. Sachin Tendulkar, during an interview with Harsha Bhogle — the host of the panel discussion organised by Star Sports — which was aired on a screen, said he used to train by facing rubber balls and used to stay up on his toes while on the back-foot to generate more power and control. Laxman honed his technique against plastic balls on a cement wicket. It is during one of these practice sessions, prior to the Australia tour of 1999, when Laxman realised how important it is to use an angled bat to counter the bounce.
“I used to train with the plastic ball on a cement wicket because before going to Australia in 1999, I remember watching Pakistan play a Test series there and I was really surprised with the steep bounce. I trained on a shiny and smooth cement wicket. I realised because of the extra bounce, it is important when you are playing on backfoot that you should not show a straight bat. When you are playing in the sub-continent, you can show the full face, but in Australia because there is extra bounce and pace, it will go to slip or gully if you show the full face. Instead you must play with an angled bat,” Laxman said.
Another word of caution from the Laxman method of batting in Australia was not to get too caught up with the short-ball tactic. “It is very important to look for the full ball, because whenever you are looking for the short ball, which you think is the wicket-taking ball in Australia, it is the full ball which will pick up more wickets. The moment you are looking to play the full ball, automatically you are on the back foot. But the angled bat is very important.”