The problems with India's young batsmen
I believe that you can have the worst technique in the world, but if you have a sharp, disciplined mind you can still survive at the international level. Technique, though, does become very important, at times, like in Dambulla recently, where the ball didn't behave as predictably as it does elsewhere nowadays.
The short ball is something Indian batsmen are generally, and naturally, not too good against. I used to envy young Australian batsmen during my playing days. A bouncer was a scoring opportunity for them. The moment somebody bowled short, they pounced on it. It's like when an Indian batsman sees a spinner bowl short. For Indian batsmen against bouncers, their first instinct is not positive. Then we sort of tell ourselves that we are going to be aggressive.
In the nineties India started to look at Australia as the team to be. The kids in that era grew up idolising Australian batsmen. Perhaps that's why a lot of them are playing the pull shot today, to make a statement, even if it doesn't come naturally to them. For the Australians the pull shot is like the drive or the flick is for the Indians.
There is a notion that in limited-overs cricket if you don't pull, you give the bowlers free dot-balls. And you can't keep ducking either. That's what the young Indian batsmen often say. Suresh Raina showed he played the short ball better in Tests, when he wasn't under pressure to score fast. In limited-overs cricket, though, they start pulling , but unconvincingly, thereby making it a high-risk shot.
Sachin Tendulkar doesn't play the pull anymore. Nor does Virender Sehwag. VVS Laxman doesn't play it as often as he used to. They are all still effective batsmen at the international level. You don't always need to always play the pull shot to prove something to someone. Why play a high-risk shot at a time when you don't want to lose wickets?
You don't need to hit a boundary every time the ball is bowled short. I remember when they bowled short to Sunil Gavaskar in limited-overs matches in Australia, he would glide it to third man for a single. And then the bowler had a different batsman to adjust to. How does Tendulkar take care of short balls in Twenty20? He does not play aggressive shots; he just takes singles to fine leg or taps it over where slips would be. More importantly, he shows he is comfortable against the short ball. That is the key.
If someone is bowling short in limited-overs cricket, he is not going to do so right through the innings. It's just a matter of maybe two overs. And it is impossible to keep bowling short in Twenty20. How many pitches will allow you to do that? At any rate, India's main problem is not that they are stuck for long periods without scoring runs. Their problem is that they are losing wickets. It's not like they are three down for 180 in 50 overs.
Fast bowlers keep bowling short at a batsman only when they see he is uncomfortable against it. What happens with a Raina or a Ravindra Jadeja is that they show they are uncomfortable. If Raina, even in Twenty20, ducks under one, and guides the next one for a single to fine leg, and shows he is comfortable, he won't get much more of it. It will only happen if it's clear to them that he is getting into strange positions while trying to pull. Being secure against the short ball is important. Even if you're not scoring off it, if you look reasonably comfortable against it without playing an attacking shot, you will be fine.
Therein lies the need for these young batsmen to discover their own game, what they are suited to do best. And the onus, a lot of it, is on Gary Kirsten to help them do that.
You have to feel for him, for he has never got an extended run in a certain position. Having said that, he is opening in limited-overs cricket. The white new ball does a bit more than the red one, and once the lights come on, sometimes it swings even more. To face the new ball well, he needs to get back to his basic game, with which he seems to have lost touch.
Karthik's game has changed in the last two or three years, during which he has mostly played limited-overs cricket and tried to meet the demands of those forms. I see him doing things that seem to be outside his game. For example, standing outside the crease. When you are out of form, playing a fast bowler on a responsive pitch, why would you want to give yourself less time?
When you walk down the pitch to bowlers like Kyle Mills and Lasith Malinga, it just defies logic. I think Karthik is a little confused. Too many pre-meditated movements have crept in - both when he walks down the pitch and when he sometimes stays in the crease for no apparent reason. He doesn't seem to be doing the one basic thing: watching the ball, and then reacting to it accordingly.
When you play swing bowlers off the back foot, giving yourself more time, you get width. You get a chance to play the square cut. Imagine that Nuwan Kulasekara has bowled an inswinger. You stand outside your crease and thrust your front foot forward and counter the swing. Compare it to another batsman who stays in the crease and sees the inswinger coming. If it is not very full and finishes around middle and leg, it can be deflected to fine leg or square leg. You need not limit your options by walking down the pitch. When the ball is spinning or seaming, it makes a lot of sense to play it late.
Sehwag rarely walks down; Tendulkar never does. There are two batsmen who come to mind who have successfully adopted this tactic without limiting their scoring options. For Matthew Hayden it was an extension of what he did; he could always go back to his basic game. Gautam Gambhir also walks down the pitch sometimes, but he seems calm in his mind when he does it, ready to react to whatever happens; he is watching the ball closely all the time.
Karthik seems to go down with a specific plan in mind, and if the ball is not where he expects it to be, he struggles. You get the feeling he is not settled in his mind. My advice to him would be to just settle down, get into a normal stance, give himself time to play, and just react to the ball. Then, when he wants to play differently, if he walks down the pitch, he'll be fine. He has got a decent enough basic game to succeed in international cricket.
Kohli is a talented player, one who goes out there wanting to make a difference. His technique, though, worries me, especially in conditions like in Dambulla. He will get such conditions in South Africa, Australia, and sometimes in England.
Whatever the length of the ball, the position of his feet is the same. He gets into a sort of criss-cross position, where the front foot is across from the back foot - and not well down the pitch, as it should be. When the ball is short, you have to go slightly back, or at least your weight has to go back; when it is pitched up, you have to go forward. He does not have this basic game.
Kohli could be advised to have a look at Rahul Dravid, because they have some similarities. Dravid too looks to get on the front foot, but when the ball is pitched up, he makes an extra effort to get down to the pitch of it. When it is short, he stays back, without actually taking a backward step: he is waiting for it, his weight is back, even though his front foot seems to be down the pitch. When Dravid plays a square cut, you will never see both his feet together behind the popping crease. His front foot will be out of the crease, but his weight will be back. That is how he gives himself time to meet the ball late.
Kohli is making life difficult for himself on responsive pitches by just having one kind of foot movement for all lengths. It can be worked on if he plays a hundred balls of different lengths in a day in practice. And if he is reminded again and again to get back when the ball is short and well forward when it is full.
We have to consider Rohit a bit like we would VVS Laxman. They are both elegant batsmen, but Rohit is a bit tighter than Laxman was when he first appeared. Laxman, though, showed that he had great mental discipline, which Rohit needs to acquire.
Technically there aren't too many things he needs to work on, like Kohli and Karthik do. He needs to know he is a little loose at the start of the innings, and that, like Yuvraj Singh, he is tentative outside off and has a tendency of going through the line of balls outside off. He has to learn to leave them alone, because he is not a square-cutter. If you are going to push at deliveries outside off, you are doing yourself no good. He does not get into a position to cut them nor does he look to leave them.
Of late Rohit has been getting out lbw to full balls. And that is mostly to do with confidence. When your confidence is low, you tend to try and get into position even before the ball is delivered. It is a nervous act, although Rohit manages to look casual when he is doing it. The front foot goes across as a natural defence; you are basically trying to cover yourself up. You don't want the ball to go through and hit the stumps. You put the front foot down as a survival instinct, but it happens a bit too early. In Rohit's case, the foot is going too far across too.
That will only change when he becomes mentally more relaxed. It is a technical thing, but it has a lot to do with your insecurity as a batsman. In the nets he needs to tell himself, "Wait. Make your foot movements only after the ball is delivered." When you are out of form, you think too many things, and before the ball is delivered you have made certain movements, getting yourself into positions that are not ideal. When you are in form, like Sehwag, you stand still in the crease and your feet and body start operating only after the ball is delivered. When you think too much, you don't do that basic thing well enough, watching the ball. Rohit has to keep telling himself to "watch the ball" to remove all other thoughts from the mind and focus on what really matters.
As told to Sidharth Monga
Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here