India in England 2014 August 11, 2014

India flummoxed by Moeenalitharan

Not enough respect, or too much respect? India have got themselves in a right mess when it comes to facing Moeen Ali when keeping the game simple would have been the best method

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Amazed by Mo's improvement - Cook

First day of the series. India have made a cautious start. It is a slow pitch on which stroke-making is not easy. After the early runs through third man, India have been sedate. Half an hour before lunch, Alastair Cook brings on Moeen Ali. Cook has copped a lot of criticism for underutilising Moeen against Sri Lanka. So on comes Moeen. He bowls round the wicket, flights it around off, and Cheteshwar Pujara drives the first ball forcefully. This is the first time Pujara has ever faced Moeen. By the time the over ends, Pujara has hit a four, although this is thanks to a rank full toss. In the next over Pujara is skipping outside the crease. In the second innings of the same Test, Shikhar Dhawan faces Moeen's first ball - again the first time he is playing Moeen - and he goes for an extravagant flick to leg. He survives an lbw shout.

The plan is clear: we don't want to let Moeen bowl. Four Tests into the series, Moeen has taken 19 wickets at 22.94. These are serious numbers. Outside Asia only three spinners have taken more Indian batsmen out in a series. He is one behind Ray Illingworth, five behind Lance Gibbs and nine behind Alf Valentine. Even if you include series in Asia, Moeen is not too far behind: if he takes eight wickets at The Oval, traditionally the most spinner-friendly track in England, his series figures will be among the five best against India. Not quite what you expect of a bowler you did not want to let bowl.

On paper it sounds like a sound plan. The opposition's attack is lop-sided. They have only one spinner, a part-time bowler before the start of this series, who is often the fifth man Cook goes to. If you take runs off him, Cook has to go back to his quicks, who are all carrying miles in their legs. By going after Moeen, you force Cook to do something he does not want to do. Also you add those miles in the fast bowlers' legs, and possibly force them to miss a Test in the series.

A spiffing plan really. Except that India might have both underestimated and overestimated Moeen. They tried to hit the first ball he bowled away. In Southampton Rohit Sharma tried to hit him over the top five minutes before tea and perished. India ended up losing six wickets to him in an innings. They lost. MS Dhoni stuck to the team's guns. "I thought our batsmen played the fast bowlers better, but we allowed Moeen to bowl his line and length," he said. "There was considerable amount of wear and tear on the pitch that went his way, and there were a lot of close-in fielders too were there. I just felt that we could have been a bit more positive against him."

By now, though, Moeen had gone from one who should not be allowed to bowl to one who should be given special attention. Virat Kohli dedicated entire net sessions to just sweeping

The result of Southampton was batsmen spending hours practising their sweep shot in the lead-up to Manchester. Now Indian players are not natural sweepers. Their natural game of using their feet to get to the pitch of the ball or shortening the length by rocking back works well for them. By now, though, Moeen had gone from one who should not be allowed to bowl to one who should be given special attention. Virat Kohli dedicated entire net sessions to just sweeping. Trevor Penney worked a lot with him. Without doing this, too, Kohli has scored Test centuries against spinners in much more helpful conditions.

At Old Trafford, Kohli managed to face only four balls from Moeen, one of which he swept and nearly holed out to deep square-leg. By going out of their way to first eliminate Moeen and then negate him, India have let Moeen become a big factor in the series. If they had played him normally, like they do other spinners, they would have had the desired results anyway.

Even after Old Trafford, Dhoni said: "It is important to be positive. We will lose a few wickets. He is quite a consistent bowler. He keeps pitching in the same areas. He is quite good and uses the drift. At the same time we will have to put pressure back on him. If in doing that you lose a few wickets that is still good for you because that pushes the opposition to use their fast bowlers more. That is something we will have to follow. Pujara got a tough decision but others he bowled well to get them out."

As a bowler, Moeen is somewhere between what they earlier thought of him and what the numbers suggest now. Against Sri Lanka, in a short span, he took two classic offspinners' wickets. He had Kumar Sangakkara lbw when the ball did not turn and beat his inside edge. Lahiru Thirimanne was bowled after the ball turned and beat the outside edge. He gets some drift too. There is no mystery to him, though. He has two balls: the regulation offbreak and the one that goes straight on. The doosra he hardly ever uses. He even began this series negatively, from round the wicket. Now he is attacking more, bowling from over, and outside off, getting some drift, some dip, and then letting the natural variation from the pitch do the rest.

There might be a lesson in there for Indian spinners too, but by no means is he a demonic spinner that the numbers suggest. Not yet at any rate. On their 2006-07 tour of South Africa, India played Paul Harris with such caution they led to Ravi Shastri's calling him Lord Harris. On this tour India have created Moeenalitharan.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ESPN on August 14, 2014, 12:58 GMT

    He is no better comparing to murali..come on...we all know that... 800 wickets in tests..who could possibly pass this..

  • Android on August 14, 2014, 2:37 GMT

    Mooenalitharan!!! lol

  • Prabesh on August 13, 2014, 19:31 GMT

    Rahane started as opener and is an opener to larger extended before he was pushed to the middle by Dhoni. He puts prize for his wicket and has decent technique and good temperament for test. He should open with Vijay. Dhawan should be limited to ODI till he realizes that test is not about 30-35 runs. Rohit is a good middle order batsman. He threw his wicket last time he played, but he is good talent to have in the middle. Gambhir has passed his prime and limit his playing days to Delhi alone and not beyond. Kohli is a rare talent, no need to worry about him. He needs to talk to Dravid and model himself around Ricky Pointing as thier talent n agression resembles. Bowling still looks ok with right selection; Ishant, Bhuvi, Aswin, Aron, Umesh, Shami, Yadav are all decent; get most out of each. Ishant n Bhuvi don't have to play each test. Conserve them with good rotation policy for fast bowlers. Mishra and Ojha should be considered too. Play as a team like Lankans do, you will win often.

  • Rahul on August 13, 2014, 18:54 GMT

    The bowling attack has to be Bhuvi, Shami and Aaron. With Ashwin as the spinner. Can't say much for the batting. For a side that started with so much confidence they seem to be out of knick collectively. Pujara is struggling because the openers are not giving him cover. And well, kohli, he is in trouble. His series seems to have been settled by the one that came in and took his off stump as he left it. His judgement outside the off stump has been uncertain ever since. Probably Dhawan needs to come back. Gambhir was really out of sorts. I still have belief in Rohit though. How can one not! He has so much pedigree in his strokeplay unfortunately nothing to show for it!

  • Anand on August 13, 2014, 17:40 GMT

    This will be Dhoni's final Test match as a Test Captain. The result of this test series will hurt india to the 1 day world cup. Only a good test playing cricket team can win the world cup and India does not show that talent..

  • Prabesh on August 13, 2014, 13:43 GMT

    Part 3 Dhoni's best fit is ODI; and he has shown that he human and is no more invincible in T20 anymore. The 2014 IPL was a testament of his ebbing glory.... Ravi Aswin for Test Captainship for 2-3 years and depending on his performance and till someone else elevates and earn the rights to claims the Test Captainship. No one guy can be a shrewd tactician in T20, ODI and Test. These are completely different games. T20 is a brawl, ODIs, a battle but Test is a war; you need warrior not soldier or street smart brawler for Test and Dhoni is mere a goalkeeper.

  • Prabesh on August 13, 2014, 13:40 GMT

    Part 2 As the name suggests "Test Cricket" is truly test of your cricketing skill and bits and pieces players like Jadeja, Binny, even Dhoni's lack of skill will be exposed sooner or later. Dhoni was lucky to have the greatest batsmen of all times in the form of Dravid and Tendulkar; and great supporting cast of Ganguly and Laxman in the middle but that Era is gone. Dhoni is exposed and he does not enjoy test cricket (known fact from the beginning) so should let go or forced to let go of Test Captainship. He is now inept for Test Captainship and Cricket. The guy who has bigger ego than his country (1.2 billion) should not be sustained as captain, period. Albeit he is so powerful now that he chose his own destiny, he should not forget there is nothing bigger than cricket and he has to accept his fall from grace. Even SRT lacked the charm in the twilight of his career so who is Dhoni, a goal keeper who made fortune keeping wickets.

  • Prabesh on August 13, 2014, 13:39 GMT

    Part 1 I know it's not the right time to start captainship controversy but we need to talk about it such that we see a change when the team flies down under. Dhoni should step down form Test Captainship and Perhaps Aswin who is the unfortunate candidate to be left out due to inclusion of Jadeja, should be made captain. I don't think there is any automatic and stable player in white for India beside Dhoni, who is only there because he is captain. Beside Dhoni, I think Aswin is the 1st automatic choice spinner in both Home and away test and should be made captain. I thought of Pujara and Kohli too but India needs them immensely as a pure batsmen and any additional pressure is better if avoided. Dhoni should be replaced by other capable wicketkeeper in test, yes only in test because he is too good of player and effective captain in shorter version of the game.

  • Ashok on August 13, 2014, 13:18 GMT

    @rk_ks: Vijay has scored in SA, NZ & England apart from his scores on the Indian wkts. You read my comments (contd) only, because my earlier comments got "missed" out by Cricinfo! I clearly commented on lack of proper batting technique of some of our modern stars which includes Kohli- relies more on hand -eye coordination than correct foot work. Pujara, Vijay, Rahane , Ashwin are more "Old schooled" or conventional batsmen- getting right behind the ball on back foot defence & to he pitch of the ball on the front defence. In addition the bat remains straight not slant. Kohli has been getting out with half cock defence with slant bat at the balls on or outside the off stump. Anderson has noted this & gets him out each time! Unless Kohli corrects this he will continue his bad spell. The current squad is not the best when Yadev the pace bowler is omitted & the opening bats for India not right. Uthappa, Rahul, Nair, Chand, Jadhev wee Not considered as openers instead of Gambhir- Why?

  • Gokula Krishnan on August 13, 2014, 10:46 GMT

    Not sure how much sense it makes.

    Why not make Ashwin open along with Vijay, even though he has not done at international level.

    Than it opens a slot for a specialist batsman, bowler or allrounder, in which Ojha can be accommodated.

    I have seen Dhoni bowling with good pace and carry, so why not Dhoni bowl few tidy medium as fourth seamer, this particular move will get a extra seamer, a better wicket keeper without loosing Dhoni and last but not least he will learn importance of fifth bowler in test.

    So the playing XI can be,

    Vijay, Ashwin, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Ojha, Rohith, Dhoni, Bhuvaneshwar, Aaron, Sharma/Shami

    It might look odd leaving Jadeja, but this might work, because he has not troubled any right handed batsmen (frankly speaking not any) as of now.

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