'Play the ball, not the pitch'
It is fitting that Graham Thorpe, the former England left-hand batsman, is part of the TV commentary team covering the Kanpur Test: he was always a tough nut to crack, even on a difficult pitch. Along with Gary Kirsten and VVS Laxman, both present in Kanpur, Thorpe could well conduct a workshop on how to bat on a bad pitch, all three being 'experts of tricky tracks' in their own right.
There was a certain bloody-mindedness Thorpe used to combine with his technical nous, and he usually reserved the best of both for difficult situations and pitches. "You need a lot of mental toughness in there," he says of the up-and-down pitches, "Once the ball is gone it is gone. No matter if it has gone along the ground or spat at you, don't be fazed by it.
"Play the ball and not the pitch," he says. Sounds easy, doesn't it? But there are tricks to do exactly that, according to Thorpe. Small adjustments like standing outside the crease to the pace bowlers, who can be just as dangerous as spinners on underprepared pitches, opening up the stance a bit, and rotating the strike as often as possible can help. "Don't get pushed too much on to the back foot when facing the seamers," he says. "Playing on bad pitches is a bit like playing reverse-swing, so a slightly open stance can help. You don't want to be getting the front foot over too much, the ball can move in suddenly and get you lbw. You can afford to stand more on leg stump, and show more of your wicket."
Over the first two days, he has seen two clearly distinct approaches to countering spin on a breaking track: the South Africans waited back, played as late as they could, while the Indians, especially VVS Laxman, played Paul Harris mostly from the front foot, looking to either whip him through midwicket or go inside out. "It could be because of the kind of bowlers they were facing," Thorpe explains. "Harris is more of a skiddy bowler, and he doesn't have the pace variations of a Harbhajan. You don't want to be cutting him too much. I am sure South Africa had that plan of working Harbhajan around the corner. To do that, they delayed the movement forward; they only came forward when it was thrown right up. [Hashim] Amla and [Neil] Mckenzie are very good at staying on the back foot."
|I just worked on the principle that sometimes when the pitch is bad, there is just as much pressure on the bowlers as on the batsmen, maybe moreGraham Thorpe|
Kanpur 2008 reminds Thorpe of Colombo 2001: a similar surface, and a better bowling attack to face. "I remember it was a similar track. The ball had started spinning after the first ten overs. I came into bat in the middle of a collapse and managed to bat through." He scored a match-winning unbeaten 113.
How did he counter Muttiah Muralitharan on such a vicious track? "The key is in having a clear game-plan. You can't just go in the middle and all of a sudden start trying different things.
"I just worked on the principle that sometimes when the pitch is bad, there is just as much pressure on the bowlers as on the batsmen, maybe more," he says. "As a batsman, you have to keep that in mind. When the bowlers can't get you out on a bad surface, they start trying too much. On a bad surface, if the ball is turning a lot, it is spinning every ball. It's easier than when only three balls spin and three don't."
Only the really tough can even look beyond the pitch and try look at the bowler's mindset, and it's not surprising they come up with the most exceptional of innings on the most treacherous pitches.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo