Time was when India had the home advantage of being better players of spin than visiting teams. That was certainly a factor in M.S. Dhoni’s team winning the ODI World Cup at home in 2011.
But times have changed. Indian batsmen these days look just as vulnerable as the visitors when the ball turns sharply. The pitches in Ranchi and Lucknow for the first two T20 matches in the series against New Zealand exposed that. It will be interesting to see if the Ahmedabad pitch for the decider on Wednesday continues that examination.
Both the games were close. India seemed to have the first one in control despite an expensive opening spell by Arshdeep Singh. But when Singh came back at the end to bowl a 27-run last over, the match tilted in New Zealand’s favour. Daryl Mitchell, who had looked embarrassingly awkward against the spinners, feasted on a pacer who was preoccupied with where his foot was landing, because of a spate of no-balls.
That final over meant that Indian batsmen would be tested against a good Kiwi spin trio of Mitchell Santner, Michael Bracewell, and Ish Sodhi. All except Suryakumar Yadav and all-rounder Washington Sundar failed the test.
In the second match, India confined New Zealand to just 99, with Arshdeep managing to produce a good couple of overs at the death to not unravel what the spinners had woven. But even a target of 100 almost proved to be a bridge too far for the Indian batsmen. Suryakumar Yadav and Hardik Pandya managed to get home with just a ball to spare. Strange indeed!
The experience will send both teams scurrying to the drawing board to figure out corrective measures. Even beyond the current series, the answers will determine their preparation for the ODI World Cup in India later this year, where they could run into turning pitches like these.
For New Zealand, only opener Devon Conway looked like he knew what to do with the spin, scoring a well-made fifty in the first T20. But even he picked the wrong ball to reverse-sweep, gloved a catch to the keeper, and succumbed early in the second game, which led to the sub-100 total.
The number of Kiwi batsmen who got out sweeping suggested they had decided to come out to bat with brooms. Their inability to read the spinner off the hand and reluctance to use their feet made them feel that the sweep was their only recourse. Now they will need a crash course on better skills to handle spin, and one of these is to have a defence.
On a spin-friendly track, the worst thing a batsman can do is to panic and hit out once they get beaten by a ball that turns sharply across the face of the bat. Instead, they need to aim for a more conservative total, by surviving against the good balls and picking loose balls to hit. Expectations are high from a spinner on such a track, so the bowlers will also feel the pressure if wickets don’t come to them in a hurry.
Sweeping to a collapse is not something Indian batsmen do, but they too are victims of poor technique. Tonking spinners for sixes on easy batting pitches has spoilt them. They have forgotten the art of manoeuvring spinners for singles and twos instead of trying to hit their way out of trouble.
A number of factors have contributed to this state of affairs. International cricket and the Indian Premier League rarely call upon these skills. Even batsmen who start out as being highly adept at countering spin can lose the art over time. Take Virat Kohli, for instance, a batsman spinners used to dread bowling to. Now he rarely uses his feet effectively to put them under pressure. His vulnerability to Mitchell Santner in the ODI series was palpable.
Indian batsmen can rectify this to some extent by taking time off from the international sides to play domestic cricket, where they would be exposed more often to venues like Ranchi and Lucknow. But even in domestic cricket, the trend is towards pace bowling and there’s an increasing paucity of quality spinners.
Another way out would be to use the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bengaluru, where batsmen can be groomed periodically on a diet of spin. But India have never been able to tap the talents of their best spinners as coaches, for various reasons. That affects the quality of spinners being produced, and by extension, what the batsmen get to practise against. The current head spin coach at the NCA is Ramesh Powar, who was a decent off-spinner but not an international star for India.
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Besides, you need to rope in good attacking players against spin from the past to guide the batsmen at the NCA. There’s none better than the current NCA chief, V.V.S. Laxman. Perhaps he needs to take time off from his administrative responsibilities to roll up his sleeves and show the current generation of batsmen how he carted Shane Warne all over the park at Eden Gardens.
It would be extremely ironical if vulnerability to spin, of all things, should prove to be India’s undoing at the World Cup. A country that has produced some of the world’s best spinners as well as masters of playing spin, from Sunil Gavaskar to the current India coach, Rahul Dravid, should certainly have the wherewithal to redress this issue.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.