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Seam and swagger: How India set the pace at Lord’s

V J Raghunath and S Giridhar | Updated on August 24, 2021

Team spirit: ‘Give them hell’ is apparently what Kohli told his fast bowlers when they went to field on the final day at Lord’s   -  Reuters

There was method to the machismo displayed by Indian cricketers in the recent win over England

* ‘We want to take the pitch out of the equation’ is a statement that coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli carry like a banner

* Kohli and Shastri have sworn themselves to an attack that will consist of four fast bowlers and a lone spinner to play a supporting role

* ‘Give them hell’ is apparently what Kohli told his fast bowlers when they went to field on the final day at Lord’s

***

Four fiery Indian fast bowlers brought down England in less than 60 overs on the fifth day of a Test match on their home ground. Angry exchanges, eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation and bristling aggression right through the day was high voltage even to people watching the game on TV thousands of miles away. The swagger, the machismo, the full beards and cricketing excellence is the amalgamated representation of how this team plays the game.

‘We want to take the pitch out of the equation’ is a statement that coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli carry like a banner. To announce that unlike teams that visit India and whine about Bunsen burner pitches, Indians are happy to compete on any pitch that the host country serves up. For many, the memories of the fabulous series win in Australia seven months ago will be proof that performance lives up to the talk. To others, for whom Kohli’s aggression on the ground seems discordant, it will bring up the 1-4 loss to England in 2018. Put that aside, and on the current tour, India seems to have got the vital aspects organised perfectly and are now leading 1-0 up after two Tests. That might well have been 2-0, but for the rain on the last day of the first Test. So let us look at what India got strategically and tactically right this time.

Firstly, the much talked template of four fast bowlers. Kohli’s team is still hurting badly from the loss of the WTC Final in June where they went with three fast bowlers and two spinners. Singed by that, Kohli and Shastri have sworn themselves to an attack that will consist of four fast bowlers and a lone spinner to play a supporting role. And in choosing Ravindra Jadeja over R Ashwin for the spinner’s role, they have gone for the better batsman, not the better bowler. It might have seemed illogical to drop the best spinner in the world but after two Tests we might as well credit the Indians with having got their team balance spot on.

Which brings us to the planning and preparation behind the commitment to the four pacemen template. Playing four fast bowlers meant India’s tail began at No. 8. A tail, that was the weakest among all countries, rarely contributing runs to the team total. Quite starkly, when an Indian Number 9, came to bat, the end was nigh. Thus, for the many weeks leading up to the first Test, India’s fast bowlers put in hours of practice to improve their batting and learn to put a price on their wicket. This attitudinal change — realising that matches will be saved or won if they bat time and score a few runs — is what has enabled Shastri-Kohli to implement their plan. The transformation is becoming visible and the tail seems resilient — it helped India take a handy lead at Trent Bridge, and then, of course Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah created history with their heroic 89 run partnership at Lord’s.

‘Give them hell’ is apparently what Kohli told his fast bowlers when they went to field on the final day at Lord’s. Kohli knew he could blow them over in under two sessions. That declaration was the expression of an aggressive, confident captain who knew that against his battery of four relentless, top quality fast bowlers, the Englishmen would not have a minute’s respite. England was quaking when they went in, with no thought of chasing 272 and lost both openers without a run on the board.

For many years now, Kohli has been clear that it is his fast bowlers who will deliver wins abroad. He has always wanted high pace from his fast bowlers but he has also demanded fitness from them. Seeing his foursome at work at Lord’s we were reminded of a conversation some years ago with a senior cricket correspondent who said that Gary Kirsten and MS Dhoni wanted their fast bowlers to be as sharp at 4 pm in the evening as they were at 10 in the morning. Kohli has set that bar higher and wants his pacers’ to be as hostile on the fifth day as they were on the opening day. For those who think Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s swing would have been handy in English conditions, there lies the answer. Swing yes, but only if you can bowl above 135 kmph and if you are fit to bowl that way on all five days.

In the selection of Jadeja over Ashwin, consider another aspect of cricketing intelligence. When a team has four fast bowlers — long run ups and all — the over rate would inevitably suffer, causing not merely a financial penalty but the docking of precious points on the WTC table for falling short of over rate. That is where Jadeja becomes a masterly selection as the lone spinner. He bowls his overs so quickly that he gives his captain 15 overs in less than 30 minutes; that is an immense help for the over rate and gives Kohli valuable time. Ashwin, though India’s best spinner, would in a combination with four quicks, bowl 15 out of 90 overs at best; not enough to impact a game. Any disquiet at Ashwin’s non-selection has been put to bed, having seen the bowling combination do its work in the first two Tests. As the pitches change in late summer, we will see whether Kohli and Shastri tweak their template to accommodate the best off-spinner in the world.

Middle-over woes

Another vital aspect where India has clicked has been their strong opening partnerships under challenging conditions. When visiting teams consistently put up stout opening partnerships, it has the power to change the tenor of the series. Look closely at overseas Test victories and one will notice that opening batsmen have always played a key part. This time with Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul, India seems to have struck gold. And with Mayank Agarwal, Shubhman Gill and Prithvi Shaw also in the mix, India are well served in the matter of Test openers.

The middle order is however another story. Kohli and Shastri may not admit it openly but they must be worried about the frailty of the middle order. It is now many games since Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane have combined to put up reassuring totals, often leaving it to Rishabh Pant and Jadeja to bail the team out. That is not healthy. Even against a weak English side, the outcome of this Test series may depend on how this experienced trio come good.

Looking ahead, India will need to find batsmen with sound back foot technique and steely temperament to play reliably when confronted by bounce and movement on challenging pitches. Ideally, one of the top order batsman would be an accomplished left-hander, for a southpaw is necessary to disturb the rhythm of the bowlers. We believe this is an aspect that Kohli and Shastri are quietly addressing behind the scenes. We look at the selection of Washington Sundar in the touring party not as an all-rounder but as the one in whom they see potential to fulfil that role. Sundar is strong off his back foot (such an essential requisite on pitches outside India) and technically sound. In his brief career, against high quality pace in Australia, he has shown tight defence, either leaving or playing with bat close to body, as well as his competence in handling short pitched stuff. In that swivelling hook for six off Cummins and pull shots, is evidence of the young man’s strong grounding in batting fundamentals.

But that is for the future. Right now, India’s Test team is in a great space and indications are that they will return with a series win. Kohli and Shastri may not get it right all the time but on the basis of what we have seen, there is more than machismo and aggro to Kohli and his team. The Indians have lost the toss nine times in the last 11 Tests but still won five and drew two of those games. That is an excellent indicator of this team’s spunk and quality. They have always been devoted to process, confident that results will come. In Australia the team, despite being depleted, displayed incredible courage. On this tour so far, they have been strategic, tactically sharp and worked very hard.

V J Raghunath and S Giridhar are colleagues at Azim Premji Foundation and the authors of cricket books, ‘Mid-wicket Tales: From Trumper to Tendulkar’ and ‘From Mumbai to Durban: India’s Greatest Tests’

Published on August 24, 2021

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