November 22, 2012

Keep it outside off

England's bowlers need to be more aware of the lines they bowl at different stages of an innings in India

As the Indian batsmen put the English fast bowlers to the sword at Motera, one couldn't help feel sorry for the visitors. They made for a rather depressing sight: when the outcome is inversely proportional to the input, you tend to feel for the player.

The ball (especially the new ball on day one) did not swing in the air or move off the surface. The faster they bowled, the quicker it went off the bat. Whenever they bowled a bouncer, it either didn't bounce above chest height or bounced twice before reaching Matt Prior.

While the odds were stacked heavily against them because of the conditions, their predicament was also a result of a few technical slip-ups. Here's a look at a few things England may want to consider while preparing for the second Test match. If the pitch in Mumbai is remotely similar to the one in Ahmedabad, they'll need every bit of help they can get.

Vary lengths, stick to one line
Every fast bowler with a new red ball in his hand is tuned to look for early swing or lateral movement off the surface. But in India the new SG Test ball doesn't move much in the air, and so the tried-and-tested formula of keeping it in the air for as long as possible doesn't quite work. If you pitch the ball full, hoping for swing, you will most likely see the batsman safely play through the line.

I'm not suggesting bowlers avoid bowling full, but in India, full balls should mostly be outside the off stump. An outside-off-stump line forces the batsman to play square of the wicket, and that could possibly provide a window of opportunity for the bowler if the batsman is a shade late on the ball.

On the dry but not very abrasive pitches of India, the ball doesn't dart around after pitching either. So it's important to change your length while keeping the line of operation about six inches outside off stump. If there's no deception in the air or off the surface, you need to ensure the batsman is kept guessing about the length at least.

The odd bouncer - dug in really short to ensure that it rises above shoulder height - can also be a handy tool.

There's nothing wrong with being defensive
However tempting it may be to bowl straight at the batsman (hoping he'll miss and you'll hit), it's worth remembering that quality players aren't likely to miss straight balls, unless they're bowled at extremely high speeds.

In India the new SG Test ball doesn't move much in the air, and so the tried-and-tested formula of keeping it in the air for as long as possible doesn't quite work

Since there's little movement in the air in India, and hardly any off the surface, straight lines will not only give the opposition easy runs, they will also make it more difficult for the fielding side to create chances.

While the ball is new - that is, till it hasn't started to reverse - it's better to pack the off-side field and bowl an outside-off-stump line consistently. Many would consider this defensive, but in India defence is interpreted as patience and is often the biggest weapon. With the new ball, it's almost impossible to contain, and so it's better to make sure that you're hit only on one side of the pitch.

The art of the old ball
This is the real deal, more so for the faster bowlers. It's no surprise that Zaheer Khan regularly bowls with a scrambled seam to scuff up one half of the ball, for that's when the SG Test ball starts moving a little in the air. The earlier you can reach that stage, the fresher your fast bowlers will be to bowl quicker in the air, and hence more effectively.

Once the ball starts reversing, you must start targeting the stumps. Now you can pack the on-side field, and have at least one man catching in the midwicket region for an uppish stroke off the legs.

But these tactics are effective only if every ball you bowl finishes within the stumps and does not drift too far down the leg side - which would result in easy singles for batsmen with supple wrists. And if you err towards the off side, be prepared to fetch the ball from the fence. You simply can't (like the English bowlers were regularly in Ahmedabad) get square-cut and flicked off the legs in the same over.

Don't let them score easily
While fast bowlers are likely to have a bigger say when the ball starts reversing, spinners, at times, find it tough going once the ball has lost its hardness (which means there is less bite off the surface).

Once that happens, it's important to find other ways to bring the batsmen out of their comfort zone. Drying up the flow of runs works wonders in India. Not that it's easy to stop uninhibited Indian batsmen from scoring, but going around the wicket to bowl into the rough for a while could work as an attacking option.

In-out fields work best on slow Indian pitches, where there isn't enough pace off the surface for the batsmen to work the ball into the gaps for easy singles. Mostly it's either attacking shots, in search of the boundary, or defensive prods to keep the bowler at bay. If you sit back and wait for things to happen, you're doomed.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here