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The lost art of batting against spin

White ball cricket has altered the mindset of modern-day batsmen, robbing them of the patience of a grind and the technique for an impregnable defence

India's Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates the dismissal of England's Ollie Pope during the 2nd day of the 3rd Test Match in the series between India and England at Narendra Modi Stadium, Motera in Ahmedabad on Thursday. (ANI Photo/BCCI Twitter)
India's Ravichandran Ashwin celebrates the dismissal of England's Ollie Pope during the 2nd day of the 3rd Test Match in the series between India and England at Narendra Modi Stadium, Motera in Ahmedabad on Thursday. (ANI Photo/BCCI Twitter)

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In an article for Lounge during the ODI World Cup in 2019, I’d written how cricket was sliding towards a disbalance between the bat and ball, which favoured the batsman in white ball cricket. The article had warned against batting’s consequent loss of skills that are no longer practised, mental muscles no longer exercised. After the extraordinary events of the third Test between India and England, it has become clear that the batting malaise has travelled from white to red ball cricket as well.

The third Test, a shocking affair, featured three batting collapses in four innings in a match which lasted a mere five sessions. One of these collapses was England getting bowled out for 81, their lowest score against India ever, while the Indian first innings saw yet another batting collapse in a pink ball Test after their own lowest-score horror, in their last series, where they were bundled out for 36 by Australia.

Twenty-eight out of the 30 wickets in Ahmedabad fell to spin, with the exception of a solitary wicket for Ishant Sharma in his hundredth Test. R. Ashwin crossed the 400-wicket landmark, the second-fastest to do so in Test history, bagging figures only behind Axar Patel, who took 11 wickets in the match and his third five-for in only his second Test.

All of this was to be expected after India’s pivot to rank turners since the loss in the first Test with the World Test Championship hanging in the balance. The script has been used several times in the past to drive home the advantage, most obviously against South Africa in 2015 after losses in both ODIs and T20s before the Tests began. However, almost nothing except perhaps an Indian victory in the end went according to script over the two days, as batsmen from both teams found themselves woefully wanting against the possible demons in the pitch and certain demons in their minds.

At one point Joe Root, who averages over 40 as a part-time Test spinner and had never taken a five-for in his entire first class career, had figures of 3/0 and a chance to achieve the all-time best bowling figures in Tests. He finished with 5 for 8, far and away his best Test figures and the fewest runs given for a five-for by an Englishman since 1924, against the vaunted batting line-up of India, ostensibly the best players of spin bowling in the world today. The hosts lost 7/41 on the second day, displaying an “ineptitude against spin”, in Ian Chappell’s words, which they had calculated to exist much more in their opponents’ batting and spin bowling quality.

The Indians, or the English for that matter, are hardly alone in their emerging technical difficulties against spin bowling. Just last month, South African opener Aiden Markram was addressing collapses against spin after getting bamboozled by Pakistani spinners on their tour of the subcontinent. Similarly, Sri Lanka—England’s tour just before India—collapsed to unlikely spin tyrants Jack Leach and Dom Bess, with Bess taking back to back five-fors in a Test. Yasir Shah blew away the Kiwis with 8/41 on their tour to the UAE in 2018, while India themselves have polished the career figures of spinners like Root, Steve O Keefe, Dom Bess and others whose names are otherwise lost to the spinners’ history books.

In general, the quality of batting in Tests has deteriorated, making collapses against both pace and spin more frequent, but the quality of batting against spin has plummeted more. From the start of the 1990s to the retirement of Tendulkar in 2013 (considered the passing of the baton to India’s and Test cricket’s new batting generation), the average of the top three spin bowling teams, Sri Lanka, Australia, and India, was 29.57, 30.02 and 33.62 respectively. Compare this to averages of 24.57, 24.77 and 29.05 respectively for India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, the top 3 spin bowling teams since 2018, and you see the precipitous drop in batting quality.

Not only that, strike rates (balls taken per wicket) for spinners for the top three fell from 63.1, 67.2 and 70.8 between 1990-2013 to 46.3, 52.1 and 57.0 since the beginning of 2018. When one takes into account that the previous generation of Test spinners had the top three wicket-takers of all time in Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble playing at the same time, the numbers acquire even more significance. Of the new crop of spinners only Ashwin can be compared in quality to the giants of spin bowling, and yet the figures of this generation mask this gap in quality.

This is because a corresponding fall in batting quality has more than compensated for a fall in the bowling standards. Former English captain Nasseer Hussain admitted Ahmedabad was not an 81 all-out pitch, while former spinner Graeme Swann highlighted that the English batsmen let the spinners dictate with the turning ball. As for the correct technique, Indian batting giant Sunil Gavaskar said to The Indian Express: “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,” he said. Several minor adjustments of posture, stance, and grip which add up to make a huge difference were also missing on both batting sides, he said.

Even without the expertise available to Gavaskar, these trends are plain to see for fans who’ve watched the devolution of spin batting first-hand in the recent decades. More so, the conditions leading to this devolution are also not difficult to discern. White ball cricket, especially T20 cricket, has permanently altered the mindset of modern day batsmen, robbing them of the patience of a grind and the technique for an impregnable defence. Test matches barely ever make it to the fourth and fifth days when conditions are spin-friendly, and with the current workload for international players, even Indians barely ever play the crop of domestic spinners they have over four-day matches on the first-class circuit.

More than these factors, though, a complacency born of the lack of turn, swing and seam alike in white-ball games turns into dread and underconfidence when conditions favour the bowlers. Once again, this is visible in the stats. Even while wickets have fallen aplenty, the economy rates of spinners has risen across the board from 2.64, 2.75, 2.8 between 1990-2013 to 2.78, 2.89 and 2.9 in the last three years for the top three teams, displaying the rise in run-rates in Tests in general at the cost of time played.

As the recently concluded series in Australia has shown, an epic Test is an even match between bat and ball, with the pitch having something in it for both sides. It is here that the “test” of Test matches lies for both sides. Successful efforts to popularise Test matches need to restore this balance of bat, ball, and pitch, failing which no amount of the ball changing colors will help.

Binit Priyaranjan is a freelance journalist, author and poet.

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