A couple of senior members sat at Zapp, a small restaurant in Nottingham designed like those famous culinary streets of Thailand. It’s cramped with the usual Thai landmarks: two tuk-tuks jostle for space, a cycle hangs from the ceiling, and over some masamaan curry, the two guys had a frank talk. Assess the mess in front of them. A near-run thing at Edgbaston and a tame surrender at Lord’s had already kicked up speculations of a possible influx of kids from Under-19 team, an idea that didn’t go too well with these two. It meant panic, it meant the team’s nucleus nurtured for a while will be disrupted. There were still three days to go for the Nottingham Test. Something had to be done.
“If we had won that first Test, inki aisey maarte na, mazaa aa jaata. But wait and watch, we shall win this Test. And the series. All the nonsense will stop. England’s batting isn’t good; if our batsmen can put up a decent score, we will win this,” a member of the Indian thinktank would say two days before the Test.
By then it was already decided that the team would push for a return to a more aggressive mindset. It’s learnt that Ravi Shastri went easy on the players about the Lord’s Test. Instead, he talked about the second day’s play when the sun had come out but England’s top order had still collapsed. The team knew they could crack England’s batting; it was their own that was the concern.
It was decided that if they are to come out swinging, they had to revert to the players who could do the job. M Vijay, who was clearly struggling, was left out, Shikhar Dhawan came in. “Vijay was struggling with his footwork, he couldn’t get that left leg out at all. He tried hard in the nets but sometimes things don’t work,” was the view. They got in Dhawan, who too had been working on a couple of things. Sanjay Bangar, the batting coach, has talked about two in particular: slowing down the bat speed and playing late, close to the body.
How does one even slow the bat speed? Wouldn’t it create more problems and mess with the head? It turns out he has been working at it for a while now. You dial out Simon Helmot, the Australian coach of Sunrisers Hyderabad and a good friend of the Dhawans. The families know each other well and Bangar has trained with Helmot at Melbourne in the past.
“We haven’t had specific drills recently but I understand where Sanjay and Shikhar are coming from. You aren’t thinking about slowing down the bat swing but focussing on watching the ball closely and playing it as late as possible. When you don’t pick up the length, you tend to rush and then the bat-speed can appear all too quick. You can end up pushing out. It must be about that, early in his innings how to play late and not push out. When you see the ball well and play late, you can alter the bat-speed pace, which helps in you not pushing out.”
On Friday, a day before the game, even as Dhawan finished his stint at the nets, Shastri would come over and give him a couple of pats on the back. Meanwhile, Vijay was standing at the main pitch and for nearly 15 minutes, involved in a serious discussion with Hardik Pandya about batting. Vijay would talk and Pandya would take a batting stance and do this and that.
One man who has steadily improved through the nets sessions from Edgbaston onwards was Cheteshwar Pujara. It’s learnt that Pujara has been working on two adjustments: Be it standing more upright in the stance and tucking his right arm, so that he doesn’t push out the bat. It took a lot of time at the nets, but he kept at it to turn things around.
There has been much talk about the schedule of the tour and about the lack of practice matches. The opinion outside the team has almost been consistent. Inside the camp, it was felt that they didn’t have much space to work out much. The calendar was decided three years ago by the board, and one could just tweak very little. Also, the quality of the oppositions wasn’t great that it could have given a proper workout to the batsmen. It’s debatable. The likes of Kumar Sangakkara have talked about how the quality of opposition bowling doesn’t matter as long as the batsmen get time out in the middle against swing, even if its gentle and not James Anderson quality.
The team’s point of view was they had done what was possible in the time. “We would have loved to have more matches but since that was out of our control, we tried to do the next best thing. Work on sorting out the specific flaws; everyone is working out on what they need to sort out. None of us have offered any excuse, have we? No one talked about the pitches or conditions or moaned about anything, no?” said a senior member.
A tough question about Ajinkya Rahane came up at a press conference before the game, and Shastri would say that “he remains one of the pillars of our team”. Bangar would later refer to that quote to say that vote of confidence in public helped Rahane. That only Rahane can validate, but suffice here to mention the wish that some in the team management had for him. “We all know his problem: his hands go too far away from the body at times. What we would like is for him to focus on playing only in the V. Or play square if the balls are shorter. No need to push out for those drives.”
Two days later, Rahane had granted them that wish: for two hours in the post-lunch session, he played just one cover drive. A monumental effort considering he is a batsman who likes to feel the ball on bat. Similarly, it had come down to KL Rahul’s forward stride and he managed to do it better at Nottingham.
Bharat Arun was at a better space than the likes of Bangar and Shastri. His bowling unit was kicking on neatly without much fuss. They had erred in team composition at Lord’s as Shastri admitted, and by the time the third Test rolled on, they had sorted out the order of bowlers as well. In the second innings, they started with their two best seamers Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah, pushing Mohammad Shami down. ‘Just give us 300 runs, we will bowl them out’ was the confident thinking in the bowling unit.
The team management has always been supportive of Hardik Pandya as they feel he fulfills whatever role given to him and adds balance to the team. Sanath Kumar, who was Baroda’s coach when he was a teenaged player there, puts Pandya’s personality in a measured way. “Don’t judge him by how he speaks or dresses. The worry would be if he had started doing this after getting into the Indian team. But he has always been like that from a young age. It’s his natural personality. He is one of the most hardworking guys I have seen, and considering he is a late starter to medium-pace bowling, he has made considerable strides. And will improve with more games. He is also a good legspinner, good enough to bowl at this level too, I would say.”
The final word should go to a member of the management group. “What you guys are missing is that this England team isn’t strong. We might be done in by the swinging conditions like at Lord’s (can you tell me any other team that would’ve fared better there?) but England can be put under pressure even without conditions. What happened that day at Lord’s? Was the ball swinging as much as it did on the first day? They still lost wickets. And if we can put them under pressure in a match, regardless of the conditions, we believe we can get them. All it needs is for our batsmen to put up a fight and get the bowlers enough runs.” That’s how the English cookie crumbled at Nottingham.
Brief scores: India 329 & 352/5decl bt England 161 & 317 (J Buttler 106, A Rashid 33*; J Bumrah 5/85) by 203 runs