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Test batsmen should be able to handle turn or straighter ones: Sunil Gavaskar

A day after the Motera pink-ball Test ended in a little over five sessions, with spinners taking 28 of the 30 wickets to fall, Sunil Gavaskar tells The Indian Express that having the right technique and temperament would have helped in negotiating the challenging pitch and conditions.

Written by Sriram Veera |
Updated: February 28, 2021 11:03:12 am
Sunil Gavaskar, Sunil Gavaskar interview, R Ashwin, R Ashwin Aaron Finch incident, Ashwin Finch run out incident, IPL, RCB vs DC, IPL 2020Batting legend Sunil Gavaskar. (File)

A day after the Motera pink-ball Test ended in a little over five sessions, with spinners taking 28 of the 30 wickets to fall, Sunil Gavaskar tells The Indian Express that having the right technique and temperament would have helped in negotiating the challenging pitch and conditions.

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Was the Ahmedabad pitch really diabolical? What’s your honest assessment?

It was not a pitch where the ball was misbehaving constantly. Nothing was kicking up alarmingly. Neither was there any great invariable bounce that the ball would shoot. Here, the bounce was actually true, almost. Yes, there was spin but Test match batsmen should be able to handle the turn or the straighter ones. Challenging, but not treacherously challenging. If you look at the dismissals, the batsmen have contributed to their own downfall. More than the pitch, it was about the mindset which did them in. Rohit Sharma’s batting in both innings showed you could score runs on this pitch.

There has been some talk that extra lacquer on the pink ball was getting the ball to skid quicker. Is there great merit to it?

That’s an oversimplification of their own problems of having read the wrong line. Whether it was the red or pink (ball), whether the ball came down quick or slower, you would still have been out LBW or bowled if you have played down the wrong line.

How much the turning balls put doubts that resulted in the dismissals from the straighter ones?

When the ball is turning occasionally, you play the line of the ball. Importantly, it’s your bat-speed that is going to be the determining factor. Also, the grip on the bat is going to be a determining factor. How you stand at the crease before the ball has left the bowler’s hand is a factor. All these little things make a difference. We didn’t see many batsmen from both teams make the adjustments.

The disappointing thing was the body language of the England batsmen. A couple of Indians were in total contrast to that. When Rohit Sharma comes out to bat, it’s as if he is taking his wife and daughter to the beach. Nice and relaxed. Similarly, Virat Kohli comes out like a top cop trying to arrest someone who has done some mischief. On the other hand, England’s batsmen were coming out to bat looking as if they had been caught with their hands in the cookie jar. And worse still, they batted as if their hands were still in the cookie jar. The exception to that was their captain Joe Root, who came out to bat as he did in 2012 when he made his debut – a fresh-faced kid keen to get a game of cricket – and that’s why he has by far been the best and was up to it while his teammates have been dismissed in the changeroom itself.

The Motera Cricket Stadium in view. (Express Photo)

You were more than just ‘up to it’ in your last Test on a minefield in Bangalore in 1987. when you made 96 and nearly dragged India home against Pakistan. You kept driving left-arm spinner Iqbal Qasim straight past the non-striker. Can you talk about the skill and the confidence to do it as the ball was turning sharply past you?

You only drove the deliveries on the middle- and leg-stump line. You didn’t want to drive him through covers as the bat-face would turn and you would be slicing the ball to slip. You want to play him with as much a full bat-face as possible to negotiate any turn, and drive the ones on which you could reach the pitch of the ball.

Similarly, your other attacking shot to off-spinner Tauseef Ahmed was to drive him through the covers. We have seen Kohli try that and get out to Moeen Ali. Not an easy option, again, especially for a short man like you.

Because the ball was turning from off to leg when you are meeting the ball, you are still showing the full bat-face. Therefore, it becomes a little bit easier as long as you are not trying to hit the ball too hard.

The height of the batsmen does matter and therefore the stance becomes important. While in Australia or South Africa, you would be smart to stand a bit upright to counter the bounce. On pitches of the subcontinent, you are better off bending a bit low.

You have to make these adjustments according to the pitches – that’s the art of batting, na? Bending a bit helps you as you are closer to the ball, so to speak.

Just like a great wicketkeeper who gets up with the bounce, a batsman, if he crouches just a little bit – not too low – where his head is more in line with the delivery angle, he would get to know which one to play. How far to go forward or is it better to go on the backfoot. Standing upright does not give that advantage on turners. They would be able to meet the deviation and bounce better if you crouch a little like a ’keeper. You should also try to grip the bat differently.

Can you explain the grip?

A grip where you hold the bat a little bit higher is a big plus on such pitches. When you drive, you are more likely not to hit it in the air. When you are defending, you slide the bottom hand a little bit down towards the shoulder of the bat – particularly when defending off the backfoot, you are making sure the ball doesn’t jump up.

All this is happening in real time? Tauseef or Qasim bowling on that crumbler, and at some point in the trajectory, after you have decided front or back, you then do this fiddling with the grip.

Yes, yes! Javed Miandad is standing at silly point ready to take anything, boss! (laughs) Four-five Pakistani fielders crouching near you, breathing down your neck, you can’t be giving any half-chance! But now, not just the England batsmen but also the Indian batsmen need to train in the next few days. India also didn’t make too many runs. They have to do these little adjustments if they want to bat longer.

You mentioned in your commentary about taking an off-stump guard. In that game, you were on leg-stump guard, though.

I am a short guy and was comfortable with the leg-stump guard against Qasim. But the off-stump guard should be tried by England’s batsmen, who are nearly all six feet in height. It will be a huge advantage. When they play forward, nine out of 10 times, the impact is going to be outside off. So, LBW is out of the window. If they play the sweep from there against the off-spinner, the impact will be outside off. If they are playing against the left-handed Axar Patel, they would be in a much better position to know which ones to play, which ones to leave because they now know where the off stump is as they are standing on off-stump guard now. Sometimes, with leg- or middle-and-leg guard, you don’t know where the off stump is.

When you are on off-stump guard, though, you should take care not to flick to square-leg or behind. Try to work it straighter, else you might miss and be out LBW. That’s one thing to watch out for, certainly off the backfoot as Joe Root found in the first innings of this Test against (Ravichandran) Ashwin. To someone short, probably off-stump guard isn’t advisable. It may not be good for a Rahane, it depends. It’s important to have a defensive technique against spin and pace. In Test cricket, in an over of six balls, you would need to have a defence against 4-5 deliveries. Else, trouble.

The backfoot play also seems lacking. Graham Gooch told this newspaper that you have to move back, not just stand back and play. That press-back to cut the ball like Rahul Dravid or GR Vishwanath or Dilip Vengsarkar would do, that’s also missing these days?

Everyone is on the forward-press movement these days. It’s not easy to work the backfoot from there. You just tend to transfer the weight back which does not get you in the right position to play the cut shot. As Goochie said, backfoot means you are actively pressing back, gaining time and distance to manoeuvre the ball by creating your own length. Not just standing back. To play the cut shot, you have to actually use the depth of the crease. We saw Kohli do that in the previous Test. He used the depth of the crease absolutely brilliantly. Rahane too, when he got that 60. We saw Joe Root do that in the double century, almost going back to the stumps. The backfoot actually comes into play. You can then open up a wide range of shots. When you are on the front foot, the shots are more likely to go in the V. With the backfoot, it can go anywhere. You can target different areas with cut, punch, flick, etc. But the backfoot play is gone because of the forward press, which has come because of the restriction on the bouncers. The whole game has changed as a result. The forward press is a lot easier for batsmen to do.

Also, why aren’t the batsmen not going down the pitch these days? Rohit does as an attacking option, Pujara does as defensive too, apart from driving. The rest, not so much. What’s happening?

You need the confidence to go down the pitch. Pujara does it the most. In Australia, against Nathan Lyon, he took an off-stump guard and went down the track; that way he was confident that even if he missed, it would invariably hit him outside the line of the off-stump and avoid LBW. Also, it makes the bowler think, ‘Is he going to come down now’ and he might drop short. Rohit does it as he has a natural instinct to look for that opportunity to get the big shot going.

Most batsmen around the world just stand there at the crease and hit the ball into the stands with the modern-day bats. On turners, that’s not going to work. Unless you get close to the ball – either on attack or defence – you are going to get in trouble by staying in the crease. Look at the dismissals in this Test – most of them have been stuck at the crease. More than a lack of technique, it’s a lack of confidence.

In that Bangalore Test, the ball flew over ’keeper Salim Yousuf a few times. How did you put away those in your mind?

Just like if you are beaten by the ball, you ignore it. You try to see what you did wrong and try telling yourself you are not going to make the same mistake whether you were beaten outside the off or if it has nipped back and hit you on the thigh pad. You don’t think about it. The next ball is a completely fresh delivery. So, you just ignore those balls that climbed too much. Just put your head down and focus on the next ball.

Against left-arm spinner Qasim, you largely played for the line, and let the turning ball spin past your bat. How difficult is that art and discipline of ignoring the vicious turn?

It wasn’t difficult to ignore as we were brought up in a different age. Now, the batsmen are not used to playing consecutive dot balls. They are always looking for get-out-of-jail shots. Have a look around the world, you won’t find too many successful jailbreaks. Unless that temperament is adjusted, and it’s difficult today as there is so much white-ball cricket. It wasn’t difficult to have patience in our times.

To all the little adjustments I have said – from the grip, stance, guard – I would add a caveat that it’s easier said than done, but if you want to be successful, you have to try to do it.

Did batting with rubber soles and not spikes help you as a batsman?

I always played in rubber spotted shoes, so can’t say about the effect of spiked shoes. It helped me, for sure, and I have never got run out because I slipped. I even fielded in rubber soles most of my career.

We saw Kohli and Root speaking to the umpires after a couple of decisions. Back in that ’87 game, nearly all the Pakistani fielders were surrounding the umpires after some of the appeals against you were turned down! And you were calmly standing there, at times not even walking to the non-striker when all this was going on. What were you thinking?

I was confident that I didn’t edge them! The appeals were mostly frivolous. If we were fielding and a batsman was hanging around there, we would also have done the same thing. As a batsman, I knew I was not out.

Did you edge anything? Was there any appeal that went your way?

There was one occasion when the ball took the edge and popped up. I think it was Rizwan-uz-Zaman, the opening batsman, standing close and he had to dive to take it in the centre of the pitch, but when he eventually landed having taken the ball, he touched the ground with the ball. So, that was not out. They appealed a lot!

Ok, now to the most important question for our generation of fans. The ball that dismissed you. A Qasim jaffa that kicked up at you from a length. To this day, many claim you never gloved it.

You read the scorecard now! (laughs). Arre! look at the scorecard. That’s it.

Ok, was that the most difficult spin track you ever played on? What are your memories of that game?

Yes. It was. And there was a game in 1977, again in Bangalore, against Derek Underwood and company. The second innings there. It was a tough battle. [Gavaskar made 50 with 9 fours and Gundappa Vishwanath hit 79 as India won]

My memories of the ’87 game is of Iqbal Qasim bowling a rare short ball outside the off-stump. My eyes lit up after all that metronomic accuracy. But I cut straight to the fielder at cover. That is my strongest memory. Instead of getting runs, a loose ball ended up as a dot ball.

You don’t remember much else from that great knock? Apart from there being no great recording to revisit, did your mind blank out?

Yes, because of what’s called being in the zone. I don’t remember much from that knock. That short ball and that cut for nothing remains the strongest memory! And the rain on the morning of match day. A lot of balls that turned and flew over the ’keeper or past him would have been boundaries but for the fact that they were all stopping three-four feet from the boundary. Because of the wet patches. But for that, India would have won the match. The difference, in the end, was 16 runs. All that would have been boundaries but it would stop literally just before the boundary. And Pakistan had Hanif Mohammad’s son Shoaib fielding at backward short-leg – a very quick runner – and he would ensure it would just be two, not a three or a boundary.

Was there a lot of banter from the fielders?

Oh yes, particularly from my friend Javed Miandad at silly point. I seriously don’t remember what he was saying – it was like he was talking to the wicketkeeper rather than me. I was wondering why is he abusing the wicketkeeper, maybe because it was flying over his shoulders. Only later, I found out that he was actually swearing at me, but that’s okay (laughs).

If the current-day batsmen played on such a track now, how many hours would the game lasted?

Haha! Don’t ask me that hypothetical question! Not fair!

Finally, anything you want to say about the criticism coming from England on the state of the pitch in this Test? Geoffrey Boycott, Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain have not blamed the pitch.

It’s a free world. They are entitled to their opinions. When you look at some of the more sober criticisms, you realise that some of the extreme criticism is not really fair. As you say, Geoffrey, Nasser, and Athers have spoken fairly. The rest of the criticism is not really worth taking your headphones off to listen to!

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