A bitter learning experience for Team India

Moeen strikes
Moeen Ali, centre, traps Ajinkya Rahane in front of the wicket in the fourth Test at Southampton. AFP

The ball, well tossed up landed in the rough outside the off stump and spun viciously to hit the front foot of the batsman on the pads, just below the knee roll. Virat Kohli, the batsman turned by instinct to look at the position of his leg vis a vis the wicket.

He would have seen that the point of impact was in the line of the off stump and his front foot was hardly a foot in front of the popping crease, indicating that he had not stretched forward but was moving his foot forward uncertainly when the ball struck.

Umpire Kumar Dharmasena negatived the loud appeal from the fielding side. Skipper Joe Root consulted bowler Moeen Ali and sought a review.

When the slow motion reply with ultra edge was analysed, it was found that there was the sound of a small nick before the ball struck the pad. Though it appeared very likely that this sound might have emanated from the bat brushing against the pad, and not from any contact between ball and bat, the third umpire decided to give the benefit of doubt to the batsman and upheld the decision of the field umpire.

Soon thereafter Sam Curran swung one into the batsman who was beaten all ends up and wrapped on the back foot. This time the umpire upheld the appeal against Ajinkya Rahane. After talking to Kohli, the batsman sought for a review, more in optimism than with conviction.

The replay showed that the point of impact was marginally outside the line of the off stump, thus falling outside the scope of being “leg before wicket”. The third umpire overruled the decision of the field umpire and Rahane resumed his innings.

Both these decisions had come when India were batting in the last innings of the recently concluded fourth Test, which they lost by 60 runs. Chasing a target of 245, India lost early wickets to tumble to 22/3 when Rahane joined skipper Kohli at the crease.

They were in the process of settling down and had barely reached the double figure mark when both of them were blessed with such large slices of good fortune.

However, the sad part was that Indian batsmen were not able to ride their luck and take the side towards a win which would have tied the series. The loss in the fourth Test has reduced the ongoing fifth and final Test at the Oval to one having mere statistical relevance.

Missed opportunity

Poor outing
R Ashwin came a distant second to English off spinner Moeen Ali at Southampton. AFP

The defeat in the fourth Test would haunt the side for a long time to come as India held the upper hand for a considerable portion of the match. On the first day, Indian bowlers ran through the English top order and reduced them to 86/6 before Moeen and Curran launched a counterattack that took the side past 200. When India finished the day at 19/0 in reply to England’s total of 245, it appeared that the visitors had secured a clear advantage over the hosts.

However, India could secure only a meagre lead of 27 runs in the first innings and that too on account of last two wickets adding 78 runs. It was Cheteshwar Pujara who held the Indian batting together with an unbeaten 132 while Kohli scored 46. The rest of the batting had no answers to the challenges posed by the off spin of Moeen, who was well supported by the pace bowling trio of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes. At one stage India were sitting pretty at 142/2, but they collapsed to 195/8, before Pujara took them past England’s total in the company of Ishant Sharma and Jaspreet Bumrah.

When one looks back, it would emerge that India lost the upper hand at this juncture despite gaining a narrow first innings lead. It was evident that the wicket was taking turn and would not be an easy one to bat during the fourth innings of the match. Indian batsmen should have factored this aspect as well and built a big enough lead which would have ensured a small target in case they were required to bat again.

One remembers the Chennai Test against Pakistan in 1980 where, after the visitors were dismissed for 272, Sunil Gavaskar dropped anchor at one end with a solid 166 and ensured that India secured a large lead in the first innings which set them on the path for a 10-wicket win. Pujara batted magnificently and waged a lone battle as none of the middle and lower order batsmen showed the heart to put up a fight.

Gets team combination wrong

Though it is near impossible to read a pitch accurately, with experience, players are able to predict how a surface would behave based on the amount of grass, moisture and the history of matches played on it. It is the job of the team management to pick the playing eleven based on their perception about how the wicket would behave. India picked two spinners for the Lord's Test where the surface favoured pace bowlers.

At Southampton, past records would have told them that the track would favour spinners. England brought back Moeen for this match, more to make use of his skills as a part time off spin bowler than as a hard-hitting batsman.

But the Indian think tank, in its wisdom, had already sent back Kuldeep Yadav, after the chinamen bowler failed to make much of an impact in the sole opportunity provided to him at Lord’s, and kept the experienced Ravindra Jadeja in the reserves. So the visitors went into the Test with four fast bowlers and a spinner and found that the track started taking turn from the very first day.

With 327 wickets in Test matches and 150 scalps in One-Day Internationals, R Ashwin can stake claim to being the leading off spinner in contemporary international cricket. However, he came a very distant second to Moeen while bowling on the track taking turn at Southampton.

Erapalli Prasanna, the legendary off spinner, had once stated that the basic principle to be followed while bowling on a pitch favouring spin was to stick to the basics without trying anything dramatic and letting the track do the rest. Moeen did just what Prasanna had recommended, tossing the ball up, landing it on the rough and letting the pitch do the rest, while Aswin tried too hard to display all his wares he bowled many loose deliveries, which the batsmen took advantage of. The end result was that Aswin leaked runs with little returns and Moeen returned with match figures of 9/134.

At one point of time, India was considered as the Mecca of spin bowling and not surprisingly, Indian batsmen were considered to be among the best in the world for playing such bowlers. Playing quality spin bowlers on pitches conducive for such bowling is an art, which is not easy to master.

This involves monumental patience, immense concentration, adroit movement of the feet to reach the pitch of the ball, use of the wrists to to keep the ball down while smothering the spin and latching on to the occasional loose ball to gain maximum benefits from it.

One used to see such qualities when players of the calibre of Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid etc used to play spin bowling. Kohli and Rahane displayed these attributes for some period of time in the second innings as did Pujara in the first, but overall, the rest of the batsmen were found to be hopelessly out of depth while tackling spin bowling in this Test.

It should also be mentioned that neither Moeen nor Adil Rashid are regulars even in the England squad and cannot be placed in the category of leading spin bowlers in the world at present. The fact that even bowlers with such limited caliber and experience as the English duo could trouble Indians indicate the fall in skill sets of Indian batsmen when it comes to playing quality spin bowling.

Finally, Indian batsmen seem to be in a unholy hurry to finish Test matches as can be seen from the fact that only of the four Tests in this series went into the last day. Indian batsmen have been great entertainers, displaying full range of shots irrespective of the weather and match conditions, which would make them popular tourists.

But the flip side of such approach is that they seldom succeed in posting match winning totals and up leaving bowlers with less than enough runs on board to defend. The blame for this cannot be placed solely at the door of limited overs cricket as international sides have players who take part in all forms of the game.

So far as India is concerned this malady runs deeper as this was seen even as early as 1967-68 when after a tour of the national side to Australia, veteran Aussie cricketer Bill O’Reilly remarked about the “tendency of Indians to rush their things forgetting that Test matches are played over five days and not three”!

Kohli’s approach that batsmen should look to dominate the bowlers reveals a positive mindset but this will not fetch results unless there are enough runs on board, for which a longer stay at the wicket is a prerequisite in Test match cricket.

The loss at Southampton is one of the most disappointing defeats suffered by the national side in recent past. The sad fact that this was a match that could easily have been won would rankle Kohli for a long time.

The evolution from being the No. 1 Test side in contemporary cricket to a great side, which would be remembered for all times, involves a long and difficult trek.

The setbacks encountered en route, such as this defeat should be taken in the stride as bitter learning experiences. This reversal should serve to toughen up the side and Kohli and his boys would hopefully emerge as a stronger and more determined side.

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