India's weakness against the short ball on a lively pitch was exposed by West Indies a couple of days ago at Lord's and England exploited it to the hilt to send the defending champions crashing out of the ICC World Twenty20. England's fast bowlers sent down a volley of bouncers and back-of-a-length deliveries, aimed at head, neck and chest, rendering India's top-order batsmen helpless during their Powerplay, a period in which the game was won and lost.
A succession of bowlers, from Ryan Sidebottom to Luke Wright, concentrated on not giving the batsmen anything in their half of the pitch and got the ball to rear off the surface. And no one, from Gautam Gambhir to Ravindra Jadeja, could counter the barrage effectively. It was startling to watch batsmen with formidable Twenty20 reputations hop, jump and fend, make futile attempts to pull and hook, and eventually perish to the short ball. They could do little else, for balls full enough to drive, wide enough to cut, and straight enough to glance were a rarity.
Rohit Sharma fell while pulling for the second time in a row: against West Indies he skied a short ball from Fidel Edwards while today he played Sidebottom on to his stumps. Gambhir hit boundaries - a drive and a flick off James Anderson - when the ball was pitched up but his attempts to pull barely cleared the infield. Suresh Raina kept transferring his weight on to the front foot, only to struggle for time and space as the short ball hurried on to him. He looked a pale shadow of the hard-hitting batsman on show during the IPL in South Africa and eventually top-edged a bouncer from Sidebottom.
Jadeja, who India gambled on by sending him at No. 4, was painfully out of his depth, the quality of fast bowling far superior to any of the IPL attacks he succeeded against. India hobbled to 36 for 2 after the Powerplay and the struggle against the short ball did not ease up even after the field restrictions were lifted.
India were one of the favourites going into the tournament, a billing based largely on the strength of their batsmen, rich in Twenty20 experience and renowned for smashing the ball into the stands. The majority of those reputations, though, were acquired on the flat pitches of the subcontinent, the stamp-sized grounds in New Zealand, and on South African surfaces that were slower during the winter.
Those who observed Raina batting in New Zealand, for instance, would have watched several mis-timed pulls and hooks clear the small boundaries. And Yusuf Pathan, who carried Rajasthan to victory during the initial stages of the 2009 IPL, was seen to struggle against the short ball later in the tournament. Even Yuvraj Singh, who has success against most medium-pacers, irrespective of the length they bowl, struggles when the really quick ones bounce him.
"It's not the first the first time it is happening to us," Dhoni said. "Even if you see in the last World Twenty20 in South Africa, the wickets were lively. The bouncer was used [then as well] but we adapted pretty well last time. Whenever you go out of the subcontinent, you play fast bowlers who bowl bouncers against you.
"They [England] bowled the bouncer really well. They used the short balls and mixed them with slower bouncers. There are quite a few lessons to be learnt from this, hopefully during the time we have off from here, we can really look to work on this area."
India were deprived of the one batsman who had worked on his weakness against the short ball. Virender Sehwag used to succumb when bowlers targeted his body with the short-pitched delivery - England have used that ploy against him - but in recent series he's added the hook and the flick off his hips to his repertoire of shots. And few other Indian batsmen have Sehwag's hand-eye coordination and gumption to send a slightly wider short ball sailing over the backward point and third man boundaries with a rapier like slash.
The Indian team that was beaten today barely resembled the six-hitting, world-beating, brimming-with-confidence team they were talked up to be. England came at them with one plan and it succeeded: the Indian challenge was bounced out. South Africa will have been watching and India, with nothing more than pride to play for, can expect more of the same from Dale Steyn and Wayne Parnell at Trent Bridge.