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The story of an offspinner and a batsman

Test cricket is a game of patience, for batsman, bowler and fan Associated Press

It was the middle of the day. The sun was high in sky and the cricket ground was silent. The bowler stood a few paces behind the umpire, to his left. He was about to jog up to the wicket and lob the ball towards the batsman - a right-hander.

It was a conventional 3-6 field for the offspinner. Mid-off and cover close together, and a first slip. The captain was more willing to concede runs square of the cover fielder than he was between cover and mid-off. That way, the batsman would have to drive more acutely against the spin. On the leg side, mid-on, midwicket and square leg formed a ring of three in front of the wicket. The fielder on the boundary behind square on the leg side was the lone boundary-rider. A forward short-leg and a leg gully completed the field.

During the course of the day, the offspinner's approach varies. Batsmen try to disturb the bowler's length using a variety of tactics. Some step out of the crease and drive, just to create doubt in the bowler's mind. Others play off the back foot repeatedly, an old-fashioned ploy that causes the bowler's length to be dragged fuller. When this happens, the batsman can drive with certainty.

If the batsman gains the upper hand, perhaps the leg gully moves across the field to a deep point. The balance of the field changes to 4-5 and the line of attack moves further outside off stump, spinning in towards the stumps.

If this doesn't work, the bowler moves to a round-the-wicket line - pitching on middle stump and straightening. The field changes back to 3-6. This is a difficult line to bowl. Even marginal mistakes can mean that the ball drifts past leg stump, eliminating the need for the batsman to protect his stumps. This is one of the reasons why offspinners bowling round the wicket to right-hand batsmen are often considered negative bowlers.

And so it goes. The game of ploy and counter-ploy.

Test cricket is marked on a ball-by-ball basis by the noticeable absence of violence. On most deliveries, the batsman is in a perfect position to play the ball and plays it without much fuss. It looks to the casual eye as if nothing much is happening.

Imagine the following over from, say, Moeen Ali, to, say, Virat Kohli. The batsman has just walked in, his partner is batting with more than a hundred to his name. Over the last 20 years, we have seen countless such overs, especially late in the day or towards the end of a session of play, usually in the middle of a Test in India.

Moeen begins over the wicket with a conventional 3-6 field. His first delivery is moderately flighted, on an excellent length outside off stump. Kohli takes a long stride down the wicket towards the off side, and aims a lofted drive over wide mid-on. He doesn't meet it perfectly, he is beaten in the flight. The ball lobs into the outfield on the leg side and a single ensues.

The other batsman, a century to his name, takes strike and quietly takes a single to the deep point that was set for him. The field changes back to 3-6 for Kohli. This time, Moeen bowls the ball flatter, slightly straighter. Kohli plays well back and just for a moment, Moeen thinks he has beaten the bat; but Kohli had the ball covered.

The ball isn't turning square. Moeen's best chance is to try and beat Kohli in the flight, either off front or back foot. By changing his line of attack, Moeen has forced Kohli to defend his stumps. Kohli response is classic: he plays a couple of balls on merit. Both are on middle stump. Kohli defends the first one off the back foot, the second off the front foot into the leg side.

Each time, he is careful not to move too far across his stumps, or to commit to playing forward too early. Off the last ball, he has his reward. Sensing that Kohli might try to attack again (given how Kohli began the over), Moeen fires the last one in across the stumps. It is flat, on a good length, and ends marginally outside off stump. Kohli is waiting. The resulting late cut produces two runs.

The over yields four runs. At other times it might have produced none. The batsmen did not try anything expansive. The bowler did not get prodigious turn. But look a little closer and the over was delicately balanced, keenly contested. Moeen tried to pry open a moment when Kohli might be caught off-balance or might make a mistake judging the length. Kohli resisted successfully.

Each style of bowler has his own lines of attack, his own well- used options for fields. Occasionally there might be a bowler who will demonstrate an innovation, but for the most part there are no surprises. This is the central feature of the elite cricketing contest. Both bowler and batsman are so good that very little comes as a surprise to either.

Sometimes this produces a stalemate in which each side chooses to wait the other out. As many great Test players have explained over the years, sometimes it is better to let the bowler have the upper hand and play out a good spell. Or, as Nasser Hussain's English tourists in 2001-02 did, to use exclusively defensive tactics to try to frustrate a great batsman's game. Hussain defended his approach, arguing that it was his job to win; it was not his job to make up the numbers so that the home crowd could enjoy a great show from their favourite player. At the time, such tactics prompted some unease.

David Hopps wrote in the Wisden Almanack:

...Hussain went too far in his attempts to smother India's star batsman, Sachin Tendulkar. First, he instructed his bowlers to aim wide of off stump, to a seven-two or even eight-one field; then, when Tendulkar still made runs, Hussain told Giles (left-arm over) and Andrew Flintoff (right-arm round) to aim outside leg. The tactics had a touch of Douglas Jardine about them, as another England captain, Mike Brearley, remarked - saying that he felt "a deep uneasiness". To oppose these ploys was to goad Hussain into employing them all the more.
Hussain's tactics prompted a sophisticated debate about the ethics of his approach. The question was not about the legality or success of the approach. The quedtion was, "Is it right?" The tactics made for gripping Test cricket. Even frustrated Indian fans had to admire England's discipline in the field under Hussain. Tendulkar himself later expressed admiration for the skill of Ashley Giles, who enforced the spin portion of Hussain's master plan. Any sport in which the ethics of a tactical choice can be debated is a truly great human invention.

There are similar questions about a batsman's approach in a Test match. I remember a Test in St Lucia in 2006. India batted first and Virender Sehwag set off at breakneck speed. He reached 98 in 74 balls, and then, last ball before lunch, backed away to leg and tried to launch Corey Collymore over mid-off. He achieved a miscue and was nearly run out.

It could be legitimately considered an irresponsibly cavalier way to end what was only the first session of a Test match. The conventional wisdom holds, with good reason, that when the going is good, a team should always imagine itself to be a couple of wickets worse off than it actually is. There's no telling when the game can turn. But the alternative argument is that with certain special players it is right and proper to let them have their way because they can do things most other players can't.

I grew up watching Tendulkar. I'm old enough to remember his brutal stroke-making genius of the late-1990s. In his later years, I often found myself wishing that just once, he would stop being such a careful student of the game and let fly in a Test match. Thirty minutes of cavalier hitting. That's what I wanted from Tendulkar. And yet, had Tendulkar played that way, he would no longer have been Tendulkar. Such frustrations form a wonderful part of being a cricket fan.

Given that so much occurs on the field during a Test match, it is increasingly hard for me to understand people who say that they find Test cricket boring. Yes, at first glance it does look as if there is an agreement between bowler and batsman. At other times, it looks as though one side is simply too good for their opponent. Yes, it is true that violent, sudden explosions of devil-may-care play are rare. But beneath the low simmer of the Test match is a rich, complex, beguiling broth that is like a great work of literature - at once quotidian and unsettling.

Over the last few years, the way I watch Test matches has changed. I watch a couple of hours, or even just one spell. I care less about the result these days. I get irritated when the broadcast does not regularly show how the field is set. I start watching, and soon I find myself asking what a particular player could be trying to achieve. Occasionally I'll exchange messages with a few select friends if they are also watching the game. Occasionally, as was the case when Kane Williamson was batting against a challenging Indian attack in the first innings in Kanpur in the recent series, it results in 20 wonderful overs. Ashwin v Williamson was a different sort of story of an offspinner and a batsman than Moeen v Kohli. But the wonderful thing about Test cricket is that there is just as much to see in a Moeen v Kohli battle as there was in that marquee hour in Kanpur.