Modern batsmen don't focus on their feet and that's mostly okay

Their techniques have been shaped by the cricket they play the most, and challenging Test pitches don't often feature

Aakash Chopra
Aakash Chopra
Ajinkya Rahane drives, Australia v India, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 4th day, December 29, 2020

In Melbourne, unlike in Adelaide, Ajinkya Rahane came onto his front foot confidently and played close to his body with soft hands  •  Darrian Traynor/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

"There's a lot of grass left on the surface, so the seam movement is too much to handle."
"The overcast conditions helped the ball swing a lot and led to the collapse."
"Pitches in the subcontinent turn too much, which is why visiting teams capitulate so often."
These are some of the explanations you hear these days for poor batting performances. But was it really seaming or swinging or turning that much? Or did the conditions come into focus because many modern batsmen lack the technical foundation to bat on such pitches?
While answering this question, we must also look at batsmen from the past and how they responded on such surfaces. Did they play similarly? Just from memory, you might conclude that by and large those batsmen responded differently. So what has changed?
Of course, technique has. Batting technique has undergone several changes over time and the rise of T20 has added another layer to it. If you were to highlight one marked change in batting techniques over the last decade or so, it's in the foot movement - or rather, the lack of it.
The likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Lara and Hayden (the list includes pretty much all successful batsmen of the recent past, barring Virender Sehwag) had long front-foot strides that took them close to the pitch of the ball to smother the swing or spin. Most of them also used the depth of the crease to give themselves a chance to react appropriately to the seam movement. The batting fundamental was to move your feet to get into the right position to play the ball and the hands would automatically follow.
Rahane could change between two Test innings because his batting fundamentals are similar to those of batsmen of the past. A lot of other modern batsmen don't have the "feet game" at all
Nowadays only a few batsmen still follow these fundamentals - Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli are two prominent names that come to mind. But barring a few of this rare breed, most modern batsmen are all about their hands and not so much their feet.
The modern batting fundamental is to stay beside the ball when playing it, not to get behind it, the logic being that the further you are from the ball, the better the chances of getting your hands through to hit strokes. Similarly, you don't want a long front-foot stride, because being closer to the ball will hamper your free-flowing shots.
Ajinkya Rahane's dismissal in the second innings in Adelaide and his hundred in Melbourne highlighted the importance of foot movement. In Adelaide, Rahane walked into the middle of Josh Hazlewood's incredible spell and was dismissed for a duck. The full ball moved slightly away from him in the air and found his outside edge. While there was plenty to like in that delivery, a closer examination of the dismissal reveals that Rahane's front foot was stuck on the crease.
If the left foot (for a right-hand batsman) doesn't move beyond the popping crease, it's not enough to be called a front-foot movement. The only thing that happened on that ball, as far as Rahane's feet were concerned, was the transfer of his weight onto the left leg. His left foot remained planted, and the problem with that is that the hands go forward on their own. It's impossible to present a dead bat close to your body if the front foot hasn't moved. Would the result have been different if he had managed to take a longish forward stride? Perhaps yes, as we saw in Melbourne.
The highlight of Rahane's century at the MCG was the assurance with which his feet moved. The stride was long and sure, which, in turn, allowed him to play the ball closer to his body with soft hands. All the Australian fast bowlers, including Hazlewood, bowled the same full-length deliveries, but found no success because Rahane was no longer batting with his hands but with his feet. Rahane could make this change between two Test innings because his batting fundamentals are similar to those of batsmen of the past. A lot of other modern batsmen are simply incapable of making such a switch because they don't have the "feet game" at all.
Changes reflect the times, and that's the case with batting techniques too. Anyone brought up on a steady diet of white-ball cricket will invariably develop their game to suit its demands. The shorter formats are played on identical (read flat) surfaces across the world and no longer require different skill sets to succeed in all conditions. One size does fit all now.
Across the three formats, Test cricket is played the least, and even in the few Tests played, you come across challenging conditions only on occasion. The returns on the time invested to develop different skill sets don't justify the effort.
Would you still blame modern batsmen for imploding in challenging conditions? It's not that they are lazy and aren't driven towards excellence. They are simply reacting to the changing demands of the sport they play. And it's not totally unacceptable to play the percentages. After all, if you want to be a world traveller, you're likely to invest time in learning English, or maybe Spanish. That's unlikely to be of much help in, say, France, but if you travelled the world at large, you stand to cover a lot of ground with those two languages.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of three books, the latest of which is The Insider: Decoding the craft of cricket. @cricketaakash