January 14, 2010

It's not me, it's dew

There's little fielding sides can do once the ball is wet. Pitch it on the right length, try yorkers, slower balls, bouncers? It's easier said than done

Sri Lanka needed more than 10 an over to seal the deal against India in the second match of the tri-series in Bangladesh when they decided to take the batting Powerplay. MS Dhoni brought back Ashish Nehra, who along with Zaheer Khan, is Dhoni's first choice among bowlers in the Powerplay and death overs. All Nehra had to do was find the blockhole, a few yorkers, a couple of slower ones, and bowl intelligently to put Sri Lanka in a tight spot. But instead his yorkers were too full and he was taken for runs. He tried bowling short but it made little difference; the deliveries weren't well directed and that cost India.

What happened to Nehra? Why couldn't he do what he has done so many times in the past? Was it just a bad day for him? Well, there was certainly something beyond everyone's control that was making all the difference.

Dew became the catchphrase of the series. And in this match, like in most others in the series, it set in early. Regardless of how much they tried drying the ball with towels, once it was hit to the outfield it came back soaked.

The thing about dew is, the leather of the ball takes longer to get damp than the seam does. While water takes time to seep into the leather, the seam turns wet as soon as it gets exposed to the outfield. Gripping the ball then becomes tricky. The umpires won't change the ball on the account of a wet seam. They will wait till the entire ball gets too wet to play with.

Not surprisingly, then, the focal point of most discussions during the series was not the quality of cricket or the merit of the decisions taken by the teams, but the dew. I'm not qualified enough to go into the merits of how best to refurbish dew-exposed outfields but I can tell you how the players approach playing in such conditions.

The toss, second only to dew in the list of uncontrollables, is crucial in deciding the turn of events. The captain who wins the toss will predictably choose to field first. If you happen to lose the toss and are asked to bat first, it's imperative to score 30 or 40 runs above par as a cushion to negate the impact of dew. To do that the side needs to stretch itself that extra bit.

The start becomes all the more important, but it doesn't end there. You need to capitalise on the start and maintain the momentum for the remainder of the innings, which as Bangladesh found out is not always easy.

There on, the real challenge lies in how to negate the impact of dew. The ball tends to swing more under lights and it's necessary to translate that swing into early wickets for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the ball, while dry, will be at its best to bowl with; secondly, since spinners are expected to struggle both with lack of control over the ball and lack of purchase in the surface, it's important to allow them time to settle down. The other time when the fielding team has to be on the offensive is just after the ball change, whether it's after the 34th over or whenever the umpires agree to change it.

For spinners, the challenge is in gripping the ball and imparting spin while delivering. It's like bowling with a bar of wet soap. Maintaining a good hold on the ball is relatively easier for a finger spinner than for a wrist spinner; the latter have less control to begin with, and the wet ball rules out their contribution to a large extent. The finger spinner's job isn't easy either, and the attack tends to become one-dimensional. It doesn't matter whether it's an offspinner or a left-arm spinner: the ball usually goes straight after pitching. The only difference is the angle from which the ball is bowled.

There's very little a spinner can do once the ball gets as wet, as it did in Bangladesh. As a spinner, one can only try to make the ball land on the right lengths as much as possible without thinking about too many variations. The only thing, perhaps, is to vary the pace. The wet ball, to a certain extent, allows you to bowl it a little slower or faster.

For spinners the challenge is to grip the ball and to impart spin while delivering. It's like bowling with a wet bar of soap

It's not only the spinners who struggle; fast bowlers also face similar problems. When you're bowling in the batting Powerplay and in the death overs, just putting the ball there doesn't serve the purpose. You need to constantly change the length, which includes bowling yorkers, bouncers and so on. The challenge is to hit the desired length with perfection, which isn't possible with a wet ball. A yorker can become a full-toss on more occasions than one. We saw Nehra and Zaheer bowl full tosses in the first match against Sri Lanka, and both Thissara Perera and Thilan Samaraweera made merry. The margin of error is miniscule while bowling in the Powerplay or death overs. Fast bowlers resort to bowling short in these periods, and as a batsman you expect them to.

While it's easy for batsmen to bat when the ball is wet - all you need to do is to play through the line, because of the lack of deviation after pitching - it demands that you have control over your faculties. When you see an offspinner toss it up, your natural instinct would be to go with the spin and target midwicket. But that would be playing across the line.

Also, a wet ball bounces a lot less than a regular one. So, when it is pitched short, the batsman needs to curb his instincts to play a cross-batted shot and should instead meet it with a straight bat.

The circumstances in Bangladesh were certainly not ideal for playing cricket; it was the conditions and not the opposition that the teams were up against.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here