December 27, 2013

Have India buried the pace hoodoo?

Dravid, Tendulkar and Co set the template, and their successors seem to have been emboldened by their example

India's new batsmen seem to be well equipped to let the bouncing ball go by © AFP

Watching India's young batsmen acquit themselves almost like veterans at the Wanderers, the thought struck me that there seems to be a crucial aspect of their mental approach to the construction of an innings that is potentially worth highlighting. A few Tests don't constitute a reasonable sample set to base conclusions on, but part of the fun of cricket analysis is to occasionally extrapolate, and extrapolate in a positive sense.

There has seemed to be a healthy dose of pragmatism in the way the new Indian batting order has gone about playing what is, most would agree, the world's best bowling attack, in conditions that have suited their bowling. Though they have left the ball commendably for long periods, India's batsmen have never gone completely into their shell. They have been alert to the loose ball, have consistently looked for the quick single, and have not seemed unduly perturbed at getting beaten, sometimes in close succession.

There is a long-held view that India's batsmen will get out if you dry up the boundaries, and that this is easier to do on fast, bowler-friendly surfaces. Apart from outstanding individual innings, this theory was frequently borne out by fact, in regard to how India performed as a batting group till the late '90s. Apart from the obvious problem of having to adjust to the greater bounce after having played all your cricket on pitches that afford a good deal less, the old firm of Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly had to deal with the popular perception that Indians as a group just weren't capable of playing well on pitches in England, Australia and South Africa. As a direct effect of this perception, it seemed at times that Indian batsmen grew up in an environment where you were made constantly aware of the fact that a lot of batsmen from the subcontinent had deficiencies in footwork on bouncy, seaming pitches. Techniques came under severe scrutiny from pundits in India and abroad; mostly a kind of admonishment based on a facile formulation that highlighted lazy footwork and a lack of bottle against the fast, bouncing ball.

The overturning of this once-popular sentiment - not least among Indians - took a lot of doing. It needed the coming together of a group of rare and varied players to deal with the type of pressure that this long-held view about Indian batsmen brought with it. Through their early careers this perception of deficiency seemed to make them more tense than, say, South African batsmen would be when facing an Australian pace attack. Even for such outstandingly talented men, it felt that they were under more pressure to perform on fast pitches than batsmen from outside the subcontinent were, although it was debatable how many batsmen, for instance, from England and Australia actually played raw pace well (just ask the West Indians of the '80s). Of course, the reverse should ideally have held true for batsmen from outside the subcontinent when playing spin in India, for instance. But there was always the matter of courage in the face of fast bowling versus the question of just skill, without the attendant requirement of bravery, when it came to the successful countering of spin.

At times you were thus left with the feeling that while a Hayden or a Gilchrist or a Ponting dealt with fast bowling as merely another part of what was ultimately a game and a battle of bat against ball, batsmen from India - and as an extension from the subcontinent - had to deal with questions of mental fortitude, and a popular perception that their batting techniques froze at the sight of a short, fast ball. A Hayden or a Ponting, hence, when beaten by pace and bounce, didn't seem to be affected by it as much as Indian batsmen, or generally, batsmen from the subcontinent were. They might just knock the ball about, get a quick single, and turn over strike. There was an air of pragmatism about their playing of fast bowling. Get off strike, don't allow the fast bowler to get used to bowling to the same batsman. They didn't seem to have to fuss as much over technique and balls that beat them. Or at least that was how it looked from the outside.

Looking at India's new order handle fast bowling at the Wanderers, you were left with a similar impression. The old order's overturning of the long-held view about Indian fallibility versus pace seems to have had an enabling effect on the present set of batsmen. Having seen their elders cast off this dead weight about their necks as their careers matured, the youngsters have seemed to play the game purely as a battle of skills, of bat against ball. Nothing more, nothing less. The relaxed air has seemed to lend itself to not missing out on scoring opportunities and not getting carried away after putting away the loose ball.

It is also possible that playing on the same teams as some of the South African fast men in the IPL has made these Indian players more relaxed as Test batsmen. Having faced some of them in the nets and in frequent games, it possibly drives home the point that Test cricket is, after all, but a game of skill pitted against skill, just that little bit more. And maybe all those A tours have also helped.

The early signs of this focused yet relaxed air of pragmatism blending seamlessly with obvious strokemaking talent has made for brilliant viewing. Virat Kohli, looking at peace with himself in his celebrations on reaching his sparkling first-innings hundred in Johannesburg, seemed to hint at this batting manner rubbing off on him. Admittedly it is still a bit too early to tell whether this will last. But, echoing the spirit of Kohli's statement about it being okay to try a few big hits when batting on about 120, if you can't generalise and extrapolate a bit in the afterglow of such a fascinating Test, when can you?

Krishna Kumar is an operating systems architect taking a teaching break in his hometown, Calicut in Kerala

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