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Whatever happened to Indian batsmen's ability against spin?

In retrospect: Rohit Sharma looks back at the damage Associated Press

I think batsmen around the world are not playing spin too well these days.

We have seen it in the Ashes, seen Sri Lankan batsmen struggle against the legspin of Yasir Shah, and now India disintegrate against Rangana Herath to lose a Test match that was firmly in their grasp. All this is suggestive of the fact that international batsmen are not playing spin too well at the moment.

The focus is so much on playing pace and seam well that it seems there is no headspace left for them to try to be adept at spin too. Before India went to England last summer, how many of their batsmen tried to hone their skills against offspin? I am sure James Anderson and Stuart Broad would have been on their minds, not Moeen Ali. No wonder Moeen ended up getting 19 wickets in that series.

Historically, Indian batsmen have tended to take spin lightly. You just have to watch them bat in the nets - they bat with caution and respect against fast bowlers, but when they see a spinner come in to bowl they dance down the pitch to hit the ball for a six. They are not fussed if they miss a few; they basically look to have fun against the spinners before they put their heads down and get serious against the fast bowlers.

Then, in a tense match situation, when the ball is turning square and the batsman sees four fielders around the bat, dancing down the pitch and hitting the ball into the stands is not an option any more, but they do not know what to do instead. Now the batsman has to do something he has never done before: try and defend the spinner from the crease and make sure the ball rolls safely along the ground off the defensive bat, away from the close-in catchers.

This is a highly specialised skill, to defend confidently against the spinning ball, using only the bat, with catchers hovering four feet away. (With the DRS and umpires willing to give batsmen out lbw on the front foot, thrusting the pad at the ball is not an option any more, as it used to be in my time.)

"Every time an Indian batsman decides to get on to the front foot to defend against spin, I cringe. They leave far too much distance between the bat and the spot where the ball has pitched"

It is a skill no one practises enough these days, and that is why you see a Rohit Sharma in defence planting his front foot on leg stump, to a turning ball from Herath that has pitched on middle and off stump.

The other critical defensive technique that has practically vanished from the game is a batsman trying to play a good-length ball and then letting it go at the very last minute, when he realises it has changed direction and is not going to hit the stumps any more. It's amazing to see how many batsmen get out - to seamers and spinners alike - while playing defensive shots to balls that are going to miss the stumps.

Mind you, in my time too, spinners were treated no differently in the nets. The advantage we had, though, was that we still played a decent amount of domestic first-class cricket as international players, so our skills against spin had not become dormant. But I remember, every time I came home to domestic cricket after travelling the world playing international cricket, it took some time getting used to playing spin well again.

In the first innings in Galle it was evident that the Indian batsmen were treating the Sri Lankan spinners with respect - they did not want to make the same mistakes they made against Moeen. But their defensive game against spinners is far from perfect.

Every time an Indian batsman decides to get on to the front foot to defend against spin, I cringe. They leave far too much distance between the bat and the spot where the ball has pitched. This is a recipe for disaster on a turning pitch. By leaving this space between the bat and the spot where the ball has pitched, you are allowing the ball to spin and bounce or straighten. You are giving the ball the space to behave mischievously. This is how Ajinkya Rahane got out in the first innings and Virat Kohli in the second - two big wickets.

The golden rule of playing spin is judging the length early, and then, when choosing to play on the front foot, getting right on top of the ball to smother its spin and whatever venom it carries.

If you think you can't reach the pitch of the ball with the front foot, go right back in the crease and watch the ball closely off the pitch. In fact, on turning pitches you should look to score more off the back foot than off the front, just as VVS Laxman used to do. When you are on the back foot, because the ball is turning so much, you get the width to play the cut and the pull or play it away for a single safely. Catchers around the bat are placed there mostly for errors arising out of front-foot defensive shots.

With all good intentions, domestic pitches have changed in India. There is more grass on the pitches now, and spinners don't rule the roost any more. The flip side is, this means less good practice against spin for Indian domestic batsmen. KL Rahul, very much a recent product of Indian domestic cricket, looked far more assured against pace than he did against spin in Galle. That is telling.

The fact is quite simple: your chances of surviving against spin increase if you practise for hours in the nets what you need to do in the match.