June 14, 2013

Why India have had success in this Champions Trophy

The unexpected conditions in England have favoured India's adventurous batting

In the build-up to the Champions Trophy when everyone was debating the ideal composition of the Indian team, the effect of possible early-summer conditions in England dominated conversation. The picture being painted was one of grassy, even damp pitches, the ball was expected to swing and seam a great deal, and, with good reason, there was concern over India's batting, which was expected to be flamboyant but not quite resilient enough. With two new balls, we thought it would swing throughout the innings and that old-fashioned Test match batting would be the way to go.

We are just halfway past the league phase as I write this and while teams have preferred to bat like in Test cricket for a major part and like in T20 thereafter, and while it has been cloudy and cold, everything else has been quite contrary to expectations. The pitches have been dry, the ball isn't exactly nipping away in all directions, and teams are checking out their spin-bowling options. A traditional swing-and-seam team like New Zealand are using three spinners to deliver half their overs, and even South Africa have, after initial hesitation, resorted to Aaron Phangiso, Robin Peterson and JP Duminy. The new ball hasn't swung: from release to batsman, it has produced straight lines, not wicked arcs like you think you might see in England. Add the two factors and you can see why India's batsmen have enjoyed themselves so far.

Indeed, India's refreshingly stroke-filled approach has been one of two talking points, with England's ability to reverse the ball rather early being the other. Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma have batted with freedom, they have hit on the rise, they have hit in the air, and they have used their feet delightfully. And they haven't been alone. In doing so, India's batsmen have reignited the debate about whether the IPL is scaling up batsmanship in the 50-over game or diminishing generally accepted skills.

While in India it has become fashionable to look upon the IPL as a cauldron of evil, there has been relatively less debate on the impact it has had on playing the game. I suspect batsmanship is undergoing a change in respect to what is considered risky and what no longer is. Where classical batsmanship, as embodied by the English top three of Cook, Bell and Trott, would nudge the ball, place it in the gaps, continue to put a price on a wicket, India's batsmen are happy to hit through the line, search for boundaries even after the Powerplay overs are gone, and hit the ball in the air quite consistently. I think it is likely that T20 is showing that the risk associated with certain shots was overestimated, that hitting over cover, for example, may actually be a percentage shot if the surface is conducive.

The IPL may have become a laboratory for testing out new shots - certainly it seems AB de Villiers has used it that way, but it is not alone, because two outstanding young players haven't been part of it, which leads me to think it is a more global trend.

Just before the Champions Trophy began, Martin Guptill produced two stroke-filled hundreds, and his shot-making during his 189 in Southampton was, by all accounts, breathtaking. Young Jos Buttler, even if he is currently batting down the order, is showing the way for a new generation of English batsmen. It seems there is a fresh air blowing across the cricket world and we must respect it.

The other interesting cricketing issue has been the ability of the England bowlers to get the ball to reverse so early in the game against Australia, and indeed in the last one-day game against New Zealand. Now, reverse swing has always been looked at with a lot of suspicion, like the black sheep in the family, and so every time it pops up when it isn't expected to, tongues start wagging. So there is a conspiracy theory, the presence of a particular player, for example, but also an interesting cricketing aspect.

Against Australia, England's bowlers bowled a lot of deliveries cross-seam. It could be because word is that this batch of white Kookaburra balls isn't swinging at all, so roughening up one side becomes more important. It would require the bowlers to land the ball consistently on the same side, because the two halves have to become dissimilar. If that is indeed the case, we are seeing another very interesting development, one that could play a major role in the Ashes later this year.

For these two reasons alone, this has been an excellent tournament so far. I won't be surprised at all if it isn't the last of its kind.

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter, writer, and a commentator on IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

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