New Zealand have done many things right while facing R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, but they are yet to find an answer to the two spinners' biggest weapon: the one that looks like it will turn, but does not turn
Kanpur is a city infamous for power theft. It is the subject of an excellent documentary, Katiyabaaz. Power is stolen through katiyas from official supply cables. A katiya is a home-made wire used to make a connection between the supply cable and homes. A katiyabaaz is an expert at handling katiyas, which is a daredevil act because the power-supply department is not going to stop the power supply while you install them. It is playing with livewires.
Electricians who dabble in katiyabaazi all have bent, burnt and disfigured fingers, relics of shocks suffered while doing their dangerous work. In the documentary, a katiyabaaz says he holds his breath while touching livewires. "If there is no breath, how will the current travel? Mare huey ko kya maarega [I just play possum. You can't kill what is already dead.]" Househlds that steal power have to be extremely vigilant of raids. Usually, the katiyas only come out at night.
For New Zealand, playing on Kanpur's pitch against India's spinners was like being dared to steal power on your first trip to the city. A small mistake, and the livewire got them. One wrong movement of the feet, one slow reaction, and all of a sudden all the hard work of watching every ball and reacting perfectly - all the way to 159 for 1 in the first innings - was undone. Kane Williamson admitted his batsmen either - speaking in the language of the katiyabaaz - released their breath too soon or were not vigilant for long enough.
Sometimes, though, a batsman can do everything right and still succumb to the livewire. Just look at the enormity of New Zealand's task. R Ashwin is at the top of his game. He gets drift and dip, with the new ball bowls a swerving delivery that almost swings away from the right-hand batsman, bowls a carrom ball, a legbreak, and keeps varying his angles, trajectories, release points, and revs imparted on the ball. Ravindra Jadeja doesn't have the same amount of guile, but is an intelligent bowler. He looks to make you play every ball, while also changing his angles and pace, and when the ball is turning he bowls so fast he doesn't give you time to recover from the smallest misjudgment.
Imagine you watch out for all that, pick the length early and go right forward or right back, punish the loose balls, and then a left-hand batsman plays for an offbreak that doesn't turn and gets trapped lbw. Zing. Ashwin dismissed Tom Latham in the same fashion twice in the first Test. The seam doesn't say the ball is not going to turn. The drift suggests it is going to turn. Latham covers for the turn, and is beaten on the inside edge. It is these deliveries that are next to impossible to pick out of the hand. It is these deliveries that have made the difference between the two sides.
In an instructional video, Ashwin had told bcci.tv that when he bowls an offbreak, his index finger is on top of the seam. For a topspinner, he has the inside of his knuckle on the ball. For the offbreak, the index finger cuts across the seam. For the topspinner, the index finger runs along the seam. Latham failed to pick the difference between the two releases. The seam in the air, though, suggested an offbreak on both occasions.
If there is still a chance Ashwin intended to have the two balls go straight on, try deciphering Jadeja. He is always at the stumps, he turns some, doesn't turn the others. New Zealand batting coach Craig McMillan felt Jadeja's pace comes in the way of picking the straighter one. "It's hard to pick it out of the hand when he bowls so quick, and he bowls such a consistent line and length, which offers a lot of challenges," McMillan said. "Our guys have used the depth of the crease really well, going forward and back, and picked up length really early, which is important."
BJ Watling wonders if Jadeja himself knows which one is going to go straight on. Take the back-to-back dismissals of Mark Craig and Ish Sodhi in the first innings for example. The index finger across the top of the ball, as Ashwin instructs, the thumb behind the ball, and no difference in the distance between the index finger and middle finger. The seam position in the air is identical. Craig, a left-hand batsman, is beaten on the inside edge by one that turns in. Sodhi, a right-hand batsman, is beaten on the inside edge by the one that goes straight on. Both are headed for the stumps. What do you do?
By all indications, these straighter ones are natural variations from the pitch, the frequency of which increases with the dryness of the surface. Perhaps even more than turn and bounce, natural variations are the most dangerous gift such pitches offer the spinners.
Not many domestic batsmen who have played against Jadeja can claim to have picked him on tracks that turn. Once, Ishan Kishan, a young Jharkhand batsman who captained India in the Under-19 World Cup earlier this year, scored 87 off 69 balls on a raging turner in Rajkot. Kishan said he picked Jadeja from his grip and his line. If the index finger and middle finger were split wider, he expected a turning delivery. It helped that Kishan is a left-hand batsman so Jadeja bowled wider when he intended to turn the ball.
Watch some of the replays from the Kanpur Test, and you might think you are on to something. For example, when Jadeja turned one from over the wicket to dismiss Luke Ronchi, the fingers were split wide. The fingers were split just as wide when Jadeja got Ross Taylor out with a straighter one.
By all indications, these straighter ones are natural variations from the pitch, the frequency of which increases with the dryness of the surface. Perhaps even more than turn and bounce, natural variations are the most dangerous gift such pitches offer the spinners. It's like facing the magic ball on a greentop: the ball is seaming around, you face up for what seems an outswinger, from position of seam and initial trajectory, but then the ball pitches and seams back in, giving you no chance to adjust. Except the natural variations happen for longer and more frequently.
You can watch out for all the obvious skills of Ashwin and Jadeja, which is hard enough, but how do you cope when you don't know what the ball will do? When asked the same question that McMillan and Watling answered, Williamson chose to keep his cards close to his chest. Perhaps he has a way. Jadeja's trajectory may provide some sort of hint. When he flights it, you can perhaps safely rule out a straighter one, but it is not necessary that his flatter ones won't turn.
What you can do, while remaining philosophical about uncontrollables, is two things. One: get either right forward or right back, so you either smother the turn or are deep enough in your crease to adjust. Two: try not to get beaten on the inside edge by the ball meant to turn away from you. Taylor did neither in the first innings and was trapped in front. The latter is to avoid lbws, India's main weapon, and also Sri Lanka's against Australia recently. If you are a right-hand batsman playing Jadeja, play the angle. If you are a left-hand batsman facing Ashwin from around the wicket, play the angle. If the ball turns past the edge, don't bother. It is difficult for the ball to take the edge if you don't follow it with your hands, because of the extent of turn, but if it does, hard luck.
Some of New Zealand's batsmen tried this; when interviewed by the broadcasters, Ashwin remarked that when the left-hand batsmen came on the front foot, they had come forward but not across, and played him inside-out.
This is easy to say, but to do it in addition to what all they did right is incredibly tough: a batsman's instinct is to score. And they have three days between Tests - one goes in travel and recovery - to figure this out. Nor will they get bowlers or bowling machines that do what Jadeja and Ashwin do. There will be a lot of video watched between these Tests, but if they don't spot more than what McMillan and Watling said they had, New Zealand will need a lot more luck and errors from India to survive. Winning the toss might not be a bad start.