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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Undercooked batsmen on undercooked pitch: A recipe for disaster

The pitch at Motera, which saw batsmen crumble like over-crispy cookies, 30 wickets in under four sessions, might have veered on the side of being undercooked and underbaked, but not unpalatable.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: February 26, 2021 7:38:14 am
What the strip did was turn, and turn prodigiously, more than what was seen in the first two Tests, or in the recent vintage in the subcontinent. (BCCI TV)

Making pitches must be akin to cooking; there is always the possibility of a pitch getting undercooked just as much as it could be overcooked, underbaked just as a strip could end up being overbaked. Perfection is often subjective, some like it a bit overcooked, some others a trifle undercooked. As long as it is palatable, some would say.

The pitch at Motera, which saw batsmen crumble like over-crispy cookies, 30 wickets in under four sessions, might have veered on the side of being undercooked and underbaked, but not unpalatable. It was not a Bunsen Burner, one that spins and bounces; it was not a snake-pit, where the ball scuds shin-high; not a minefield, the bounce of which not even the most astute astrologer could predict. Not one short ball scuttled along the ground; not one good-length ball kicked up waist-high. There was not a single unplayable delivery that culminated in a wicket.

What the strip did was turn, and turn prodigiously, more than what was seen in the first two Tests, or in the recent vintage in the subcontinent.

It was, fundamentally, something between a dustbowl and an akhada. A copious amount of dust and even more turn. A rank turner, if there was one. Not sharp spitting turn off freckled cracks, which makes batting extremely difficult, but more conventional turn, off a powdery surface, a combination of under-watering, heat and the sheer smarts of the bowlers. The pitch was not as infernal as scores of 112, 145 and 81 would suggest.

Flat-track bullies

Part of the scorecard told the truth; part of it hid the truth too. The hard truth that batsmen are not as equipped to deal with spin as they once were. The reality, as this match would attest, is that it’s not some of the pitches that are undercooked or underbaked these days, but batsmen. Undercooked batsmen on undercooked pitches is a recipe for disaster.

axar patel, india vs england Axar Patel bowled a terrific first over in England’s second innings. (BCCI TV)

Now replace spin with seam and swing, and the results are eerily identical. A parallel could be struck with India’s capitulation in the second innings in Adelaide (the winter of 36), where the batsmen could not negate the movement of the pink ball instigated by a group of high-class seamers at their inspired best. They were caught lacking judgement, discretion, ingenuity, having hard hands, leaden feet and premeditated minds. The conditions never tumbled into the realms of unplayable.

Just replace seam with spin, and the same set of deficiencies resonate. England, and most of their Indian counterparts too, went to bat with a set mindset, that no matter what they would play their shots. Zak Crawley came with a backfoot ploy, to play everything with the deviation after the ball had landed. A trusted method in Asia, but not against someone as brisk and someone who makes the lacquer-heavy new-ball skid on as Axar Patel. Moreover, he had beheld several of his teammates perish down the backfoot route. And then to weaken an already weak ploy, he played down the wrong line.

Axar’s next victim, Jonny Bairstow looked even sillier when he tried to sweep straightaway, without trying to figure out the existing state of the pitch. If it was the intended jail-break shot, it was so injudicious that it merited another term.

Deceived by turn is one thing, but getting out playing down the wrong line is another, as did 13 of England’s batsmen in both innings. It signifies a deeper malaise. Of batsmen’s diminishing ability to play good spin bowling on turning tracks. Just as batsmen’s gnawing inability to counter quality seam-bowling. Scores of 36 and 81 are two sides of the same story, of batsmen’s shrinking inability to prosper in adverse conditions.

Recent struggles

Not too long ago, England were bowled out for 67 in Leeds, 58 in Auckland, 77 in Bridgetown and 85 at the hands of Ireland at Lord’s. Australia were bundled out for 60 in Nottingham and 85 in Hobart (by South Africa).

The last two Tests India lost on home soil were chasing a total in the fourth innings, the downfall instigated by spinners. Even outside Asia, they have lost to the guiles of spinners like Nathan Lyon and Moeen Ali (twice!). In case you can’t fathom the possibility of an Indian batsman being harangued by spinners, just catch hold of Ajinkya Rahane’s approach in the first innings (in fact, the entire series), when he tried to sweep a short ball and cut a full ball. So much for the dexterity of Indian batsmen against spin bowling.

Such gross ineptness that one wonders whether all those T20 cynics were, after all, sensible in believing that the format will eventually lead to declining standards in Test cricket. Test cricket might be more entertaining than ever before, but not always of the highest quality. Would England’s batch of 2012 have sunk so easily on this wicket? Would the Fab Four-powered Indian batting firm surrendered as abjectly as their successors (145 should not escape censure either)? Playing spin in T20s and Test matches are as chalk and cheese as English breakfast and Gujarati thali, calling for entirely different skill-sets. The T20 staple of reverse-sweeps and slogging would not always work.

Deficiencies galore

The footage of this Test match should be preserved in cricket academies to show how not to play spin bowling. Like the proverbial 10 sins, there are two cardinal sins from the scripture of playing spin. Playing from the crease, going neither fully backward nor forward. Premeditating, be it when sweeping or defending. Batsmen of both sides were prone to these. Use of hands and feet could come later.

And whatever happened to the art of picking the variation from the bowler’s hand. Most bowlers throw tell-tale clues. Most batsmen study the movements of their wrists, fingers, shoulder and action religiously to pick tiny giveaways. Reading them off the pitch, they know, is risky business, especially in Asia. Like they could not pick which of Axar’s deliveries turned and which didn’t. Scrambled seam deliveries are even more difficult to pick at times. But the modern-day batsmen are self-destructively confident that they could pick the variations off the pitch.

Beyond all these, blatant was the lack of ingenuity. They stood shocked, unable to chalk up a plan, surrendered all too easily, and in the end, cast disparaging eyes towards the pitch, rather than looking deep inside and asking: “Was it truly a bad pitch or did I play badly?”

No all-conditions batsmen

This episode was another reel in the swelling proof of batsmen becoming less condition-proof. Apart from three or four elite batsmen in the world, the rest struggle in foreign (the word in its truest essence) conditions or in churning out runs at a consistent clip. Not even the supposed Fab Four of this generation has sound records all around the globe. Kane Williamson, for instance, averages 30.87 in England, 20.16 in South Africa and 27.61 in Sri Lanka. Virat Kohli aggregates 36 in England and South Africa; Joe Root’s corresponding number in Australia is 38, in New Zealand it’s a slightly better 39. Steve Smith has not fared particularly well in Bangladesh (29, but in two Tests). So, when even the cream of the batting is struggling to remain on top in every condition, what of the rest?

Some blame it on non-existent warm-up games, unlike back in the day when teams used to tour a country for two-three months and get a lot of acclimatisation. There are too many international fixtures these days to facilitate this.

But whatever the name of the blame game is, sometimes (not always) the quality of a pitch is how the batsmen make it look. In Ahmedabad, it looked undercooked because the batsmen were undercooked too.

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