In hindsight, everything now seems like a set-up. A scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie. The long shots of idyllic small-town life. The sights, the sounds, the white chapel before an auditory cry of destruction rings out. Boom … a shootout or a knife-fest breaks out and blood flows.
On a clear warm gorgeous day in an idyllic city of churches, the players streamed into an exquisitely pretty stadium with a gentle brook gurgling not far away. It was Day Three, the mildest pitch-day traditionally. It wasn’t supposed to stir out in anger like this. It wasn’t the much-fussed-over night session either where apparitions are seen by the batsmen. What could happen? Runs and some good old toil against Nathan Lyon? Instead, mayhem exploded.
It was a morning when Indian batsmen might make a passionate plea for short-term memory loss. Not a day when they will seek performance analysts either. Even if approached, they will be justified to say, “chal chhod na, leave it baba” and walk away to some iced drinks. Unless they are masochists. Unless they have the penchant for dissociation, as traumas can sometimes trigger, and can see the sequence of play for what it was: an awe-tinged ode to dreamy crafty goose-bumpy fast bowling.
Could the Indians have done anything different? Barring Virat Kohli, no one chased a ball away from their body. Not one. Their hands didn’t betray them. Their minds didn’t give up; not one threw away his wicket. They didn’t push out at balls, they didn’t play an airy-fairy shot, they didn’t get into awful tangles with their feet either, you can’t say they were ‘exposed’ – just that they were brutally brushed aside by two craftsmen at the peak of their powers, with a little bit of something beyond the mortals on the green.
How did this happen? Nearly every good ball produced an edge. Every nick carried. Even when the Hotspot missed, the snickometer showed the edge. Every catch was held – and for the biggest one of them, of Kohli’s, Cameron Green was seemingly ready to spill his guts out but wouldn’t let the ball roll out.
But of course, there must be some sort of explanation for this to have transpired. Something other than supernormal performances from Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood. Two reasons trickle out in the wondrous aftermath. The batsmen played from the crease, and curiously what could have been a great strength was made out to feel like a weakness. None of them pushed out at the ball but instead, most played well inside the line. A technique that Cheteshwar Pujara works on a lot in particular, so that if the ball seams away a touch or straightens, it will rush past the edge. But the balls didn’t straighten, they sort of just about held their line, with a slightly inward tilt, which was enough to catch the edge.
As if they were specially designed edge-seeking missiles, crafted to do the improbable art of making the ball thread through a trajectory and arc specially made for the Indians’ technique. As if somewhere a nerd was shouting through his mouthpiece at the ball. ‘Move in the air, but don’t cut in or cut out or even straighten – just about wink in a little inside, yes, yes a little bit more inward movement, please. Stop now. Hold the line, please. Don’t move away, just ease through this corridor. Thank you very much. That’s the edge.’
As unreal as it sounds, that’s how good Cummins and Hazlewood were. Perhaps, even they can’t replicate the wizardry of this morning again.
It will be interesting to see if this makes Indians question their method of playing inside the line. Hopefully, panic doesn’t set in and force a change. Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari – all were done in like that. A truly unreal morning.
The eyes and the mind turned to Kohli. Could he pull off a heist here? Something to crow about after his last knock in Australia this summer. On air, Glenn McGrath, who was barely able to contain his laughter at the incredulity of it all, pointed out, “he hasn’t hit a hundred all year”. Never mind, the pandemic.
The ball was wide-ish. Kohli had been out twice to such Cummings deliveries in the past. We know what Cummins does to Kohli, usually. The nip-backers come out in succession and Kohli would defend, adjust his tiny wrist-band, and get back to more defence. Slowly, Cummins would shift the line of action across the stumps to somewhere outside. Like a windscreen wiper slowly dragged the other way. Kohli has repeatedly left such deliveries from James Anderson in England. Perhaps, it’s the swing in the air that makes him more circumspect against Anderson. With Cummins, the threat usually is off the pitch. Perhaps, Kohli feels he can control his downward bat swing to meet the ball, even if it dinks away late. And he ends up chasing, bat away from the body, the mind away from the present, and invites trouble.
With him gone, a mild curiosity bubbled whether Vihari or Ashwin could stitch together something that the mind couldn’t conceive. They didn’t. India went down.
THE BOWLING ART OF THE AUSTRALIANS
Shoved by the Australians, of course. Starc hurls the ball and it’s his natural left-arm sling that makes the ball do what it does. He doesn’t even need a batsman at times, or so it feels, as his art is about getting his action, his rhythm right, his feel and intentions right. With Starc, it’s all about how he overcomes himself.
Hazlewood’s is a superior art of mind games. With Starc, if no one is sure what to expect, everyone knows what to expect from Hazlewood. He doesn’t do you in by surprise; that would be too cheap for a bowler of his calibre, he does you after telling you what he’s going to do. “Try to hit the off with the occasional bumper” is his mantra.
Invariably, he triggers claustrophobia in batsmen. The hands begin to itch, they almost threaten to jerk out of control. Self-destructive urges kick in. You somehow manage to stop the hands from betraying, but then Hazlewood cuts one back in to test the loyalty of your feet.
When you think you still possess free will over the movements of your feet and hands, he will suddenly go for your throat with a bouncer. An inescapable sense of suffocation keeps escalating. When Hazlewood was a boy his first coach, a popular jazz-band musician and cricket coach John Muller told him what to do with a cricket ball. “Take it nice and easy when you run, keep your arm by your side, and don’t throw your arm around.” Even after nearly two decades, nothing much has changed. He kept his arm to his side, didn’t throw them around, ran in nice and easy and knocked the wind out of India.
Of the three, Cummins has the most skillful fingers. They cut the ball in. They rip it out. They make it kick up to the throat. With Hazlewood, the trouble creeps up on you without a soundtrack, silently, eerily, almost with a sense of Hitchcockian atmosphere about it. Cummins’ art screams at the batsmen, at you the watcher, with a sense of choral conductor about him, with the cymbals crashing in the ears. He doesn’t have the calm soul of Hazlewood; he is always doing something, always up to some trick.
He will dramatically whip the ball if he reckons the batsman has covered the outside-off corridor. Unlike Hazlewood, he doesn’t usually just straighten the ball. He has to viciously leg-cut, make it deviate away, a la Dennis Lillee. Little deviations don’t satiate his soul. Dramatic cymbals need to crash. High notes have to be hit. Even the final effort at release is markedly more striking than the smooth silken well-oiled machinery of Hazlewood.
Individually, they couldn’t be more different. As a pack, they couldn’t be more in sync. They come at you, pit themselves against you with everything they have got. That’s why Indians’ triumph in 2018-19 was historic. That’s why their collapse now feels so blameless, and beyond their control.