January 23, 2016

India have a flat-pitch problem

When faced with batting-friendly tracks in recent times, their bowlers have just not been equal to the task

"The ball's not turning. What do you do?" © Getty Images and Cricket Australia

Flat pitches have become India's nemesis. When a flat pitch comes along, the batsmen get plenty of runs on it, but the bowling fails to keep up and India end up losing the game. Indian bowlers struggle to make an impact on good batting pitches: in 50-overs cricket, they are unable to curb the runs, and in Tests to get 20 wickets to win the match.

If you look at all of India's Test wins in the last few years, they have come on pitches that weren't flat, and offered more than a little help for bowlers. Such pitches balance the Indian team out by giving more potency to their bowling.

As for the one-dayers, it was amazing to see in the current ODI series how easily Australia chased scores of 309 and 308, for the loss of just five and three wickets respectively.

In the third one-dayer the chase was not as simple, and an Indian win looked likely when Ravindra Jadeja got the prized wickets of Steven Smith and George Bailey, and Mitchell Marsh was run out soon after. But eventually Australia got there in the end.

How was Jadeja able to pick up those two wickets? Because, for once, there was a bit of turn in the pitch, just a hint of it, where Jadeja's quick deliveries were able to grip and go against the angle. This deceived Smith and Bailey. It's safe to say that India need the ball to turn to have any chance of winning.

After losing three matches on the trot on flat pitches on the limited-overs leg of the India-South Africa series at home recently, India needed a turning pitch in the second ODI, in Indore, to bounce back. But come the final one-dayer, at the Wankhede, with the ODI series level two-all, a flat pitch greeted India once again. South Africa scored 438 batting first and India lost the game.

After the match, the curator, Sudhir Naik, reportedly became the target of team director Ravi Shastri's wrath. Clearly India loathes flat pitches these days.

India's cricket culture dictates that it produces more quality batsmen than bowlers, while our neighbour Pakistan, interestingly, throws up more world-class bowlers than batsmen. As we know, it's not easy to change cultures with little tweaks here and there. Selectors are helpless in the face of such trends, and are reduced to moaning about how there is a dearth of exceptional bowling talent in the country to choose from.

They gave India caps to two new seam-bowling talents on this tour of Australia, Barinder Sran and Rishi Dhawan, and so far they haven't looked like bowlers who will set the stage on fire.

Ishant Sharma, Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Varun Aaron get VIP treatment in India. When they are injured and out of the team, they get back in the moment they are fit, just like a Tendulkar would. Not too much attention is paid to whether they are match-fit or if their form is still good: India are just too eager to have these bowlers back as soon as they are pronounced fit.

Batsmen like KL Rahul, Karun Nair and the like have to get tons of runs to stay relevant to the Indian team, while some of the bowlers only have to remain fit to play. Such is the team's lack of quality bowlers.

Those connected with Indian cricket at the grass-roots level - selectors, coaches and so on - aren't very excited with the bowling talent that is coming through the ranks. India's dream of having three world-class bowlers in a playing XI, the only way a team can become truly great, still remains a dream. Of course, you can't keep waiting eternally for top bowlers to emerge from the system; India have to make do with the resources they have available.

If India want to win against good teams on flat pitches, they have no choice but to bat second. They need to thrust more responsibility on the stronger facet of the team and get their batsmen to chase scores

After watching them come second-best again in this Australia series, I feel they have no choice but to do the following to win on flat pitches.

1) The batsmen must do more. When India bat first in one-dayers, they have to start getting more than 309, 308 and 295 in 50 overs. These are good scores only if you have a good bowling attack. Cricket is a team game, so the batsmen need to extend themselves to cover for their bowlers. Like how South Africa put the match out of India's reach at the Wankhede in that final ODI by getting 438 runs batting first.

India showed a different urgency in the fourth ODI in Canberra batting second because they were chasing 339. Why not demonstrate the same approach when batting first, with a similar target in mind? If Australia had got 300 in Canberra, India would have won the game. A team with a weak bowling line-up always has to get 40 runs extra - that makes the winning difference.

2) On a flat pitch, bat second. If India want to win against good teams on flat pitches, they have no choice but to bat second. In keeping with the principle of thrusting more responsibility on the stronger facet of the team, they must get their batsmen to chase scores. For class batsmen, batting first in one-dayers is easier than batting second, and chasing 325 to win a one-day game is a fitting challenge for such a batting unit. Batting second, India clearly held more of a threat for Australia in Canberra; it is another matter that they managed to lose that game somehow.

3) MS Dhoni needs to reinvent himself as captain. I don't know if it's possible at this stage of his career, but it's vital that he changes his style of captaincy, especially given the severe handicap of weak bowling he has to contend with. His tactics have always been about saving runs in the hope that in the end the score his team has put up is enough. Of late, that score has never been the case.

His bowlers aren't capable of producing wicket-taking deliveries on flat pitches, so he must set fields that modern batsmen aren't accustomed to. This will hopefully coerce the batsmen into doing something different, and that's where India's chances of getting wickets lie.

Because he is always thinking long term, Dhoni gives away runs far too easily to new batsmen in the first half of the innings. He never seems to put enough pressure on a new batsman with aggressive field placements. If he does so on occasion, it seems a reluctant and token move, and even then, there is always a single available to a new batsman to set himself free.

Right through this current series I have seen Australian batsmen get their first 20 runs without any fuss. Basically Dhoni leads as if he has a great bowling attack, which will eventually prevail over the opposition at the end of the 50 overs. No wonder he is so disappointed with his bowling every time his team loses.

I think his expectations from his bowlers are unrealistic. He must realise they are doing the best they can; he would do better to expect more from his batsmen instead.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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