India entered a bold new era of Test cricket when they toured South Africa late last year with a batting line-up light on experience but burgeoning with talent. By the time they would land in England some seven months later, however, the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli seemed to have established themselves quite eloquently. Pujara had done so with a fluent ton in Johannesburg, Dhawan with a blazing one at Wellington while Kohli had scored a century each in South Africa and New Zealand.
But as India’s fortunes plummeted dramatically during the 3-1 Test series defeat in England, so would the stocks of the talented trio as they found no answers to the relentless inquisition posed by James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Along the way, their batting averages and reputations suffered major hits while the English pace duo provided a virtual blueprint for pace attacks around the world on tackling Kohli, Dhawan and Pujara.
Though their collective failures might have raised a din of alarms around the Indian cricket circles, a prudent examination of their dismissals in the Tests will reveal that they were a result of fundamental glitches in their techniques. The fact that India’s highly-billed batsmen fell prey to the same mode of dismissals repeatedly though was not only worrying but also baffling considering that they had in Duncan Fletcher, a coach revered as a batting technique guru.
Here, dissecting the failures of the three Indian batsmen and highlighting the basic flaws in their technique.
Second ODI at Sophia Gardens in Cardiff: Dhawan takes strike. Chris Woakes runs in to bowl the penultimate delivery of the fourth over. The ball pitches right on off-stump, and on a good length. Dhawan stands and fetches for it, only to miss the ball completely. He grins at the pitch, blaming it for his play-and-miss. Commentators Sourav Ganguly and Sunil Gavaskar aren’t amused. Improve your feet movement, don’t blame the surface, says Ganguly.
Cook persists with Woakes. Throws the bowl at him for his fourth and the innings’ eighth over. Dhawan falls into the trap. Once again. Woakes repeats the delivery. Pitches off, straightens, and takes his edge. Dhawan’s foot is planted on leg-and-middle. He plays miles away from the body. Out on 11. Woakes is ecstatic.
In many ways, this particular dismissal summarized the story of India’s all-format opener during the England tour. For the record, Woakes got him again in the third ODI at Nottingham, after Dhawan slashed at one outside the corridor to bring an end to his 16-run inning.
It could be said that if England got their plans absolutely spot-on for an Indian batsman and executed it clinically on each occasion, Dhawan was that man. He was nothing short of a bunny to James Anderson in the three Tests he played. The England swing bowler probably put in an extra effort to cull out reels of Dhawan’s previous knocks and hand-picked that glaring flaw in his batting technique — the limited footwork bit — to exploit.
Anderson demolished his prey thrice in three games, and in the same fashion. He would bowl to him from an angle, often around the wicket, and make sure that the ball deviated away from the left-hander. The outside-edge was there waiting for him.
So to Dhawan’s faulty footwork now. Basics tell you that whether you are up against a quality swing bowler or an equally skilled spinner, till the time a batsmen doesn’t cover the movement (both in the air and off the pitch), he is vulnerable to get dismissed. What happens when you cover the line well is that you allow the ball to come closer to you, resulting in the batsman playing it closer to his body. But if you fail to cover the line, the batsman is literally searching for the ball and lets his bat hang away from his body. Like in the case with Dhawan these days.
Dhawan’s front-foot movement is very straight, as in it moves from leg to middle, and doesn’t go across towards off-stump. When a ball leaves him and he plants his foot on the leg-middle line, he instinctively frees his arms and looks to make contact with the ball as he thinks there is width on offer. Secondly, his back-foot also fails to use the entire crease. It remains exactly where it perhaps stood in his stance. This makes him more than willing to prefer playing off the back leg as his weight is focused on it rather than the front-foot.
If one man was expected above everyone else to overcome the unique challenges of batting in England, it was Cheteshwar Pujara. Not only was he touted to be the perfect replacement for Rahul Dravid, the Saurashtra right-hander was also someone rated with an equally impeccable technique.
But Pujara scored just one half-century in 10 innings, and saw his batting average of 58.92 from before the tour plunge to 49.62 by the end of the English summer.
With Pujara, the problem was more technical than mental. While it is widely accepted that his technique is water tight in Tests, his recent exposure to limited-overs cricket has forced him to develop a range of strokes which are in many ways unnatural to his inherent approach.
Just in terms of sheer technique, his biggest flaw during the entire tour was the inviting gap between his bat and pad. Interestingly ‘the gap’ wasn’t visible as he racked up scores of 43 and 38 on the flat deck at Trent Bridge but started coming to the fore once conditions started favouring the bowlers. It began with his dismissal at Lord’s when he was bowled through the gate by Ben Stokes. This would become his weak spot as the series wore on.
Pujara’s issue to some extent are akin to that of Shikhar Dhawan, who prefers his front foot to land somewhere between leg and middle. Pujara’s error in the Stokes-induced dismissal at Lord’s was a result of this preference. His foot was planted on leg-and-middle and was in no way providing a good-enough cover for his timber. Result: he played away from the body leading to the ‘gap’ being formed.
Similarly in the fifth Test, it was Stuart Broad’s turn to test him. Broad set him up with a bunch of away-going deliveries. Then he surprised Pujara with a sharp in-cutter that caught the batsman off-guard. Again, huge gap, no roadblocks for the ball and back went Pujara.
Another bone of contention in Pujara’s technique in England was his back-lift. Though, that is one issue that didn’t pose a problem in his first 19 Tests, back-lift always plays a big role in English conditions, where the ball moves both in the air and off the surface. Dravid for one used to have his batswing coming down from first slip as well but just at the time of meeting the ball, his bat came down pretty straight. Pujara’s bat comes down from an even wider angle, which means that when he plays an outswinger, his bat comes down diagonally, towards leg stump, cutting across the angle of the ball. In the process, his bat hangs just enough to get a touch of the ball.
Twice in the series, he fell to such deliveries, one each from Anderson and Broad. The way Pujara gave his wicket away to Moeen Ali in the third Test also highlighted his diagonal back-lift, bringing the slip cordon into play.
The urge to translate his Test form in the shorter versions has been another deterrent for Pujara of late. In limited-overs cricket, there is a tendency to play at every delivery, regardless of length or line, with the focus on scoring as many runs as possible. But this erroneous habit has leaked into Pujara’s otherwise steadfast approach in Tests too. Earlier, Pujara used to wait for balls in his territory to score and now he goes out of his way to get quick runs. And twice he was out flashing at deliveries outside off-stump—almost as wide as his fourth or fifth stumps—which the Pujara of old would have left alone. Out caught at gully while cutting raucously at a wide delivery after all was a manner of dismissal you simply couldn’t even imagine from Pujara pre-England.
Never ever before Kohli has been this out of form. Unlike Dhawan, Kohli does possess swift foot movement and the amount of runs he has amassed in his career is a reflection of how good he is on either side of the pitch. But despite consistently raising his performance, he has developed flaws, which might not be affecting his game in placid or sub-continental conditions, but made him pay in England.
While Kohli has always liked to play front-on (open-chested) off the back-foot that habit has crept into his front-foot play as well. Hence, the alarming slide in Kohli’s batting fortunes. A look at the dismissals during the Test series show that Anderson, Broad and Chris Jordon were always in search of the outside-edge of his bat, and they found it on five occasions. Anderson himself got his man that way thrice.
Ian Bell suffered from a similar problem before India reached England. Seconds before the bowler would release the ball from his hand, his back shoulder would turn a bit to make him open-chested. Neither the Aussies nor the Sri Lankans let him get away with that technical glitch. Then Ishant Sharma castled him the same way in the Lord’s Test after his ball straightened off the channel.
Kohli’s issues are of a similar nature. He too has been found guilty of opening up just before the ball is released and as a result hanging his bat out just as the ball leaves him. But because he loses half the battle by giving away his side-on position, he is in no control to avoid the fatal outcome.
Kohli’s strength has always been against the incoming ball as a result of his dominance on the leg-side. But the dismissals owing to the ball leaving him, have left him in two minds even when it comes to negotiating in-coming deliveries.
Thrice in England, he got out to deliveries that came into him, as Kohli stood wondering whether to play at them or not. Liam Plunkett disturbed his furniture for a golden duck in the second Test. Chris Jordon got the better of him in the fifth Test by trapping him in front as Kohli shouldered arms yet again.
These are times when a batsman in order to correct himself at the crease loses the judgement of where his off-stump is. And it’s this insecurity and indecision that led to Kohli’s dramatic slump.
How to keep your head about you during a poor run
It is not impossible to iron out a technical flaw in the midst of an international series, says former India batsman Dinesh Mongia. Speaking from experience, the left-hander recalls how impromptu tips from teammates, a little self-help and the ability to think out of the box can go a long way in helping a cricketer regain form.
While playing the ODI series against England in 2002, I remember batting with Sachin Tendulkar in Kanpur. Though I had been in good form as I had made 71, 49 and 21 in the first three games before the Kanpur match, at times I used to struggle against the delivery that was angled into me. I was getting hit on the pads. Mathew Hoggard was bowling to me. Being a natural outswing bowler (inswinger for left-handers), he hit me on my pad as the ball swung into me. The appeal, on this occasion, was loud but I was fortunate. After Hoggard completed that over, Sachin came and asked me: “Dinesh, on which stump are you standing? “Leg-stump,” I said.
“Okay, for now stand two stumps outside your usual guard (on the fifth stump towards the leg side). I was amused at first but then I thought that it was Sachin giving me advice and I should follow it without thinking twice. I took my guard according to Sachin’s suggestion. Hoggard again bowled an inswinger. This time I played a beautiful drive for four. Eventually we won the match. Sachin remained unbeaten on 87 and I was 17 not out.
Back in the dressing room, Sachin explained this change of guard theory. “I asked you to do that because your head was falling over and you were playing the on-drive from the middle stump. When I made you stand outside leg, even if your head fell, you weren’t losing the line of the ball.”
The following day, I thought about how to stop this unwanted movement of my head. Then I went to the nets and decided to put the collar of my shirt in my mouth and play the ball. The principle was if the collar happened to come out of my mouth, it was an indication that the head was falling again. On certain balls I would deliberately keep that in mind and the collar would stay there. Over time, I managed to correct this mistake of mine and it really helped me in the games that followed.
Another instance that I remember very clearly was related to late Bob Woolmer. We were in England and there he was helping a South African player with the same problem that I had had. His head would fall over. While my head fell over when I used to be in my stance, the SA player ‘s problem was his initial movement, as it was too big. So big that it would take his entire body along and the head would fall over.So Woolmer took him to the nets and put one tennis ball right next to the toe of his front foot. He asked him not to bother about the ball placed at his foot but play as he used to. Woolmer’s aim was to reduce his initial movement to that effect wherein it would only break the inertia of the body and not effect the balance of the body. If the batsman would kick the ball, that indicated that his head fell over and on occasions when the ball stayed at its spot, the batsman would play perfectly.
—As told to Siddhartha Sharma