Time for India's batting 'attack' to hunt in a pack
It could have been the promo for a long-awaited Bollywood blockbuster set for Friday release. "A chance for someone to become a hero." Actually, it was MS Dhoni talking about the prospect of fielding a bowling attack without the man who, without doubt, has been pivotal in putting the number one into India's Test ranking.
On the eve of the second Test against England, Zaheer Khan's absence is the loudest piece of news and lamentation; it could well get overtaken by developments in Gautam Gambhir's left elbow on Thursday night. Zaheer turned up for light training this afternoon; Gambhir, elbow strapped, batted for ten minutes, then repeatedly flexed his arm and was later stretched by the physio. At the moment, Dhoni's team needs heroes in spades.
It is proclaimed that most of India's woes, regardless of format, mostly regardless of opposition, revolve around its bowling; their lack of express pace, the predictable slowing down of all young tyros, the orthopaedics-encyclopaedia injury list across its ranks and the absence of a new mystery spinner.
Lord's though was not a failure that could be distilled down to India's thin bowling; it was a game that was India's for the saving, with five wickets left at tea on the final evening. It is not as if India did not have the personnel capable of doing so. Or that they were without recent experience of having done exactly that. yet they were unable string their presence together into the score they needed.
At Trent Bridge, before the openers set off into the sunlight, India's bowlers would well do to give all the batsmen a stern talking-to about the benefits of adopting a pack mentality. If bowling in a pack is dinned to death in changing rooms, batting in a pack is about the ability to get partnerships to weigh down on the opposition; squeezing every last run out of even unfavourable batting conditions.
At Lord's, after Abhinav Mukund's departure, Rahul Dravid was the only one among nine batsmen to go past 35 in the first innings, the lead of 188 serving as a handy buffer to seize control of the game. England won by 196 runs. In the second innings, chasing 458 in the best batting conditions of the game, everyone in India's top eight went into double figures with no one grinding out. That England dismissed India twice well within 300 is as much a reflection on England's discipline as it is on the Indian batting's lack of it at Lord's.
At Trent Bridge, it is the batsmen, more than the much-maligned bowlers, who must find technical composure and mental rhythm. In a video interview after Lord's, VVS Laxman summed up what the Indians are thinking. "I wouldn't give too much of importance or hype to the way the English bowlers bowled (at Lord's). They bowled in good areas and they got the rewards. But saying that, it was not really an exceptional bowling attack where they ran through our batting attack."
Laxman's choice of the word 'attack' to describe India's batting is the method that he and his team-mates will need to employ in conditions that, while favouring the quicks, have always managed to draw out India's excellence on their previous two tours. A fourth-innings target closer to 260-270, Laxman said, in his gracious, non-chest-thumping manner, "we would have got easily."
Hypothetical calculations, however, mean little when the series scoreline reads 0-1. Laxman was talking about the absence of a third bowler to take advantage of England's 5-62 in the second innings. The only reality India can now practically address is that their batsmen have to lead the charge for parity. When asked what exactly acted as a spur for teams to pick themselves up after a poor opening, England captain Andrew Strauss said of his own experience, "When you have lost the Test before, there is a great feeling in your camp that you want to prove that you are better than what you showed in the last match. It is a big motivating factor ... They (India) will want to prove they are better than what they have shown last week."
More than want, India's batting certainly needs to do precisely so at Trent Bridge. The mental strength and improvement that Dhoni spoke of as being the reason the Indians have bounced back from poor starts recently must quickly find demonstration on the Trent Bridge scoreboard. India have won more overseas Tests in the last decade than in the previous 70 years not because their bowling has suddenly turned gone turbo, everyone bowls at 140kph and no bowler ever gets hurt. It is because the weight of their batting has been enough for even their most unheralded bowlers to take down the best of their opposition.
As compared to the fuss around it is Gambhir's scenario that has complicated India's options further. Should he be out of the game, India's batting must quickly find new order and balance which was missing at Lord's - and an opener as well. Gambhir's most logical replacement, if not as opener, should by conventional logic be Yuvraj Singh, left-hand batsman and professional pie-chucker. It will mean that India must once again go in with a scratch opening pair. (Unless Virender Sehwag were to suddenly dash through the Trent Bridge gates a minute before Dhoni goes out to toss. As it is, he is due to arrive in these parts any time now.)
Picking a substitute for Zaheer is curiously far less contentious or difficult, despite existing skill-deficits. Sreesanth it should be, even though he is no winner in the popularity stakes with his captain and is as likely to turn up ticking sweetly as a wristwatch put together by a reality TV star. Yet, Dhoni believes everything that could go wrong at Lord's, did go wrong and new heroes must come forward; it is just the opportunity for Sreesanth to dive into the second Test, with bared teeth, flying hair and more importantly for India, all limbs functioning smoothly.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo