I am back on the blog after a hiatus, caused due to the fact that there was nothing very interesting going on before the England test series, and after the test matches started, I was a little busy to post here. But now I am back and hope to continue posting regularly during India's cricket season.
I just witnessed the pathetic performance of India during the second test match in Mumbai. It is ironical that on a track with lots of spin and bounce from day 1, the famed Indian batting line-up (brought up on such tracks) came apart against the spin bowlers from a country that is famous for seaming, swinging conditions. I seriously hope this is just a blip and not a regular occurence going forward. We definitely missed Dravid and Laxman in this test match. Also it was worrying to see that our spin bowlers could not extract as much life from the track as their English counterparts. At least, they have identified the cause of the batting failure, which is Monty Panesar and the pace that he bowls at. That was definitely the difference between the 2 sides. The English spinners bowled at a much quicker pace and extracted maximum life out of the track by getting the ball to grip and bite the surface every time, whereas the Indian bowlers bowled much slower and as a result, the ball did not grip the surface as much.
The part that concerns me is the fact that we did have 2 spinners out of 3 who can and have bowled at a decent pace - Ashwin and Harbhajan. But for some reason, Ashwin bowled slower than what was needed, and Harbhajan was clearly lacking in confidence that he had in his hey-days. The one other bowler who could have extracted good turn and bounce out of this surface with his pace was Sehwag, but Dhoni once again did not give him much of a bowl at all. These things are pretty obvious even to someone watching from afar like me. This is where the role of the captain and coach come into play. One disturbing trend I am seeing for the past 1-2 years is that we are not able to adapt to conditions on the fly and change plans accordingly. It appears that we are approaching test matches with a fixed mindset and if things change during the match, like we read the pitch wrong, or the opposition produces an unexpectedly good performance, we are not able to adapt and change plans during the match. I blame the captain and coach equally for this. The hallmark of great sides is the ability to read conditions correctly and in case of sudden changes to plan A, the ability to switch to plan B instantly and continue to perform at expected levels.
One immediate example I can state for this is the way South Africa have fought back in both the test matches against Australia in their current series down under. In both games, they started well, but Australia managed to pile on the runs and put them under pressure, but they switched plans mid-way and produced fighting, grinding performances in the second innings to bail themselves out of trouble. People like AB De Villiers and Faf du Plessis, who are natural hitters of the ball, batted on and on and simply blunted the potent Australian attack in testing conditions in the recent test match. I cannot imagine someone like Veeru Sehwag or even MS Dhoni bat in that fashion to save a test match. The point here is not that they should bat slow in such situations, but the fact that they lack the application and dedication needed to produce such a performance.
Ok, enough of dwelling on the past. Lets now look at what we must do to regain control in this test series with England. It is not that difficult a task even after what happened in Mumbai. First of all, I think a couple of changes in the team are due for the next test match. I dont see a place for Harbhajan in this team based on his current form and confidence level. He has simply lost his mojo that got him 32 wickets in 3 tests on similar tracks against a confident, strong Aussie line-up. I would get someone like Amit Mishra into the side for the next 2 matches if the wickets we will get are going to be anything like the Mumbai track. Mishra bowls quicker than Ojha and Ashwin and if he can be somewhat accurate, I can see him being successful aganst this England line-up which is still not that confident about playing spin, barring a couple of players. The other change I would make is to get Ajinkya Rahane into the team instead of Yuvraj. Yuvi has always been suspect against spin and with India playing 3 spinners including Ojha, who is also a left-arm spinner (much better than Yuvi), his bowling is not needed at all. Rahane has spent his life playing on such tracks and knows how to get his runs, just like Pujara.
The other issue we are facing is how to stop Cook. I have seen in the past that Cook, like most batsmen, tends to play a little away from his body in the initial stages of his innings, thereby being a potential candidate for nicking the ball to the keeper or the slips. Since the focus is so much on spin this series, we sometimes open the bowling with spin at both ends and that is playing into Cook who is not being forced to play away from his body. I would give Zak an extended spell at the beginning of the innings with enough support in the field behind the wicket and brief him that his sole agenda would be to remove Cook early. If Zak does that, we would have removed a huge obstacle from our path and the confidence of the remaining England batsmen would also dip considerably which we should then jump on. In my opinion, KP is not as dangerous to our plans as Cook because being an attacking player, he always gives us a chance to get him out. If we can bottle him up for a period, he is bound to try something unorthodox to score, which would give us a good chance to dismiss him.
Regarding the threat of Panesar and Swann, the only way to combat that is to spend more time in the nets in the next few days and try to face similar bowling. I am confident that the Indian batsmen are technically equipped to handle both England spinners and just need the confidence that will come from extended practice. It is a good thing that we won the first test match, so even after this thrashing in Mumbai, the series is still tied at 1-1. If we do the basics right, tweak the team a little and spend time on practice, I think we can still win this series. Lets hope that happens !!
I will continue to post updates through the test series. My next post will be after the third test match. Lets discuss about the Mumbai mauling in the meantime and let me know what you guys think regarding my analysis of what we need to do.