Tuesday, March 9

India have been incompetent playing swing bowling of late: Sanjay Manjrekar

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When India were 19 for 6, I didn’t have to look at our statistician in the commentary box; the number 42 has been entrenched in my mind since I was a kid. The new number is 36—India’s lowest Test score.

India have lost to Australia before, by big margins too, and even on the third day; but it’s the 36 that makes this defeat unique and the moment, albeit not celebratory, historic. It is India’s worst batting performance in their 88 years of Test cricket.

It’s important to not look at 36 in isolation but at 165, 191,242,124, 244, and then at it. These are team totals in their last three Tests (two in New Zealand) when the ball moved. This is all India could muster, and they lost all three. So, 36 as a low score may be an aberration, but of late India have been incompetent as a batting unit when the ball has swung or seamed.

Like most other countries, India too have an issue when the ball swings. But with all that’s going for Indian cricket in terms of wealth/finance, fan following and years at the highest level, more is expected. India need to set a benchmark for excellence in all formats, like West Indies and Australia did in the past.

So, what happened on the third day afternoon in Adelaide?

First, the ball was hard and new and the pitch had quickened considerably. It wasn’t sluggish like it was on Day 1 when India batted first. To make matters worse, the matty texture of the pitch allowed the ball released from a high point to do just a little bit after it pitched, that is bounce a little more and move sideways a wee bit.

This was exploited to perfection by a quality seam attack led by Hazelwood, who amongst the three seamers had the highest release point. That’s all it takes to bring down famous batting line-ups.

Shaw was gone the day before, carrying bad form into both innings. His issue for now is his high back lift. The bat seems to be coming down late on the ball; however quick any one is bowling, when batting at the highest level the bat must be down and ready to meet the ball.

This is not happening with Shaw; also sometimes with Mayank Agarwal, who did not seem to have this problem the last time when he debuted in Australia. His back lift may have got slightly higher this time.

They need not fret though. Many a successful Test batsmen have had high back lifts. Shaw’s is exactly like Lara’s. Both openers need to work on their timing, not of hitting the ball but bringing their bats down before the ball arrives.

Pujara got a good one from Cummins; he had to play at it so you have to feel for him. His defence was looking as good as I have seen from him.

As for Virat, he is aware he has to be extremely careful when the line is wide of off-stump, and he was in the first innings when he kept leaving those balls. But in the second, he got sucked into playing that shot. I would call that a lapse of concentration and drop in restrain.

Cummins bowls from a wide angle, so for Virat who loves to get on the front foot the ball seems a lot closer to the stumps than it actually is. Cummins’ wide angle release must be why Virat has got out to Cummins 4 times in 5 Tests.

Rahane has become an interesting case in Indian cricket. When people see him bat in IPL they wonder about his form, but I have maintained that you can’t think of dropping Rahane because his recent Test record is good. At the same breath I have also said that post-2017 Rahane has never looked like the batsman we all loved.

He looks muddled in the mind more than anything else. The way he got out in the first innings missing a full length ball by a mile after being set was one of the many indications he has given to me of his state of mind in the last three years.

Rahane has played 66 Tests and can’t be a player at this age of his career who scores just enough to keep his place. The second innings was a perfect time for Rahane to show his worth, on his third tour of Australia, by playing a heroic innings like Virat does often and he used to pre-2017.

Also, his failure in the first Test is a lesson for those who look too much into warm-up games to gauge form and confidence.

India’s No.6 Hanuma Vihari is a batsman with limited ability but with a promising defensive game. May be India could use that ability by batting him higher.

India is not the only team to have been in such a situation in recent times. It just proves that one is only a product of the environment. Not just in Tests, the quality of defensive batting has gone down drastically, the fallout of a cricket landscape with three formats.

Considering the rewards they get from playing Tests (the toughest format to master) and the sheer number of T20s and ODIs in a year, how much time are batsmen devoting to master Test batting nuances like playing with a dead bat close to the body, watching the ball till the last fraction of a second or letting balls go outside off?

In the 1980s growing up that was the main focus of our batting practice. Now that the general needs are different, practice is different. It’s all about hitting a million balls with power now, not leaving them.