Ten ways to win in India
There are so many things that are exciting about a tour of India, but it can be a draining experience too. It is important to embrace the subcontinent, retain a sense of humour, and not let it get to you, otherwise India have won before you have started. South Africa have been very successful in the subcontinent of late: we have won Test series in Pakistan and Bangladesh and we drew 1-1 in India in March and April of this year, which was a great achievement. The fact remains, though, that we haven't won a series in India, so I wouldn't want to make out that I am some sort of guru. But we have worked out a formula to play really well there and this is my ten-point plan for success:
1 Deal with pressure
Playing cricket in the subcontinent is all about absorbing and applying pressure. You have to be able to endure dead periods where not much happens. Be prepared to play boring cricket if it's in the team's best interests. You will need to close the game down, maybe scoring only 50 or 60 runs in a session, especially when the ball gets older and starts turning. And you need to stop the Indian batsmen scoring. They're not happy if the ball's not going to the boundary. Stop that and you have control of the game.
2 Adjust to the game's pace
When you play in South Africa, Australia and England, the game starts off quickly and then slows up. You would generally give the first session to the bowlers because the wicket is fresh and there's normally something happening. Once you get through that first session the game takes shape and the pitch flattens out. In India the game is very slow to start off with and the first innings is crucial. Say 450 plays 420 and everybody thinks it'll be a draw. But then the game really quickens up, the ball turns square, the wicket breaks up and you could be rolled for 150 in the second innings. It's the opposite of how you expect games to go in our part of the world.
3 Make first innings count
Win the toss, bat first, but that's only the start of it. Facing the new ball can be the best time to bat in India because of the attacking fields and the SG ball, which is harder than others and doesn't swing much. But you absolutely have to make your first innings count. Then the opposition is playing catch-up.
4 Stay leg side of the ball
The way our batsmen did well in India was to stay leg side of the ball and score through the off side. Most Test batsmen in England or South Africa are back-and-across guys who look to get in line with off stump before each ball. In our part of the world you need to do that to counter the bounce and sideways movement. In the subcontinent if you do this, you'll line yourself up for lbw as well as missing out on scoring through the off side. If you stay leg side - and we're talking about the difference between taking a guard of two legs as opposed to middle - then your foot can go straight down the wicket as opposed to across. If you're hit on the pad, the chances are it will have pitched outside leg or will be missing leg. And most importantly it leaves you free to score more readily on the off. The balls that you nick to third slip and gully in England fly behind point for four in the subcontinent because there isn't the pace and bounce.
Of England's batsmen, I think Ian Bell might have to change his technique because he's very much a back-and-across player. It will be a challenge for KP as well, because he's not a big scorer in that area. He likes to get right across to the off and play through leg. To do that you need bounce and pace off the wicket. He's not a huge driver, and unless the ball is short enough to pull, flicking through the leg side is high risk.
|"Don't be scared to bowl bouncers. It's the seamers' one weapon in India"|
5 Plan against spin
You need to have two key scoring options against India's spinners. Firstly you need an accumulating shot like the sweep, which helps rotate the strike and relieve pressure. But you must also have an attacking option, because if you allow Harbhajan and Co to dominate, you will go nowhere. Equally, Harbhajan in particular doesn't respond well to being put under pressure. Neil McKenzie slog-swept well while Graeme Smith waited until Harbhajan dropped short and cut or dabbed him through the off side.
To prepare for batting against spin we waited until the end of a net session, when the bowler's end was roughed up. We'd turn the nets around, rake the wicket and then throw balls into the rough. Our batters had to manufacture their strokes in those exaggerated conditions.
6 Handling reverse swing
All Indian seamers bowl decent reverse swing, so your batters have to deal with that. One method we've used is to stay a bit deeper in the crease and try to hit the ball to mid-on all the time. Jacques Kallis is brilliant at that because he's such a technically correct player. Hashim Amla is also good because he plays later than others. Whenever bowlers got it wrong he would punish them through the leg side.
There are three phases to batting in India: the new-ball period, when there are good opportunities to score; the spin period, often with two slow bowlers operating within the first hour, when you need to accumulate; and finally the reverse-swing period.
7 Use your bouncer
Don't be scared to bowl bouncers. It's the seamers' one weapon in India to stop their batters lunging forward all day long. You need to have the ability to hit them on the head, and that is why Steve Harmison is crucial. None of the Indian batsmen pulls; they much prefer to cut. You bowl your bouncer to keep the batsman in his crease for your next delivery. Your bowlers have to bowl more attacking lines in India than you would in England or elsewhere. If you bowl outside off stump, you will simply get flayed. You must bring the ball back into the right-handers and cramp the batters for room. Andrew Flintoff could have bowled more attacking lines to South Africa during our recent Test series. He allowed us to leave too many balls, which someone like Virender Sehwag would get stuck into in India.
8 Role definition
You have to be able to take 20 wickets, so you need to allow certain bowlers freedom to attack. We allowed Dale Steyn to run in hard and go after the Indian batsmen, knowing he would go for four an over. But then you need other guys who can hold down the other end for you. Monty Panesar will be a major strike bowler in the second innings but in the first he must be prepared to hold the game for the seamers. Indian batsmen like scoring, and if you can dry them up for periods, you're in control. Be prepared to be boring to get a positive result.
9 Bowling reverse swing
There's so little going for the seamers in India that you have to be able to bowl reverse swing. The SG balls lose their shine quickly and they're also harder, which means they ping off the bat quicker. But they do reverse. In the first innings you should have Panesar at one end with your quicks rotating from the other, hopefully reversing it.
10 Play with field settings
We always say that in India "caught cover" is as good as "caught second slip" in our part of the world. Seam bowlers don't like getting wickets caught at cover but they need to change their mindset. If you do get a batsman caught at cover in India, the chances are you've deceived him with a slower ball - it is just as good as bowling the perfect away-swinger in England. Having catchers in front of the wicket is the Indian equivalent of second and third slips elsewhere.
There is a lot more scope to play with your fields. Try a short midwicket because your bowling lines will be straighter than normal.
Any visiting team should be able to out-field India. Whereas Steyn might dive to stop a boundary at fine leg, Ishant Sharma will stick a boot out and it'll go for four. India's fielding has improved but they're still a way off most other teams. If you take your chances in India, you will have a 20- to 25-run advantage. And in the second innings of a Test over there it will take you an hour to score those runs, so that is how valuable good fielding can be.
This article was first published in the December 2008 issue of the Wisden Cricketer. Subscribe here