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India get the better of Australia, one flick at a time

A look at how this unglamorous shot made all the difference for India, and why Australia could not employ it effectively themselves

Virat Kohli flicks one away - like many of his team-mates in the Delhi Test  •  BCCI

Virat Kohli flicks one away - like many of his team-mates in the Delhi Test  •  BCCI

Cheteshwar Pujara faced five of the last six balls of the Delhi Test match. First, he levelled the scores with a flicked single to deep square leg after skipping out to Travis Head. Then, getting the strike back at the start of the next over, he played two more flicks off Todd Murphy, one to square leg, one to short midwicket.
After another dot ball not involving a flick, Pujara hit the winning runs: down the track again, and a firm whip over midwicket for four.
Five balls, four variants of the leg-side flick. And in that lay a story, perhaps even the story of the 2022-23 Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
The flick can be a delightful stroke to watch, but it isn't always a glamorous one. ESPNcricinfo, for instance, runs a video series titled Build Your 360 Batter, where current or former players pick their favourite exponents of eight shots that circle the dial: straight drive, cover drive, cut, reverse-sweep, scoop, sweep, pull and the lofted hit down the ground. The flick, as you may have noticed, isn't one of them.
The flick, however, is the Test batter's run-scoring lifeblood. Since the start of 2021, according to ESPNcricinfo's data, the flick has brought batters more Test runs than any other shot - 17,697, to be precise - with the cover drive way behind in second place at 12,979.
In that time, batters have played the flick a whopping 22,373 times. It's in third place behind defended (62,637) and left alone (25,277), of course, but those aren't scoring shots.
The reason why the flick is such a key part of Test cricket is simple. Bowlers target the top of off stump constantly, and when they miss their lines and lengths at Test level, they usually only miss it by small margins. So while the rank long-hop and the wide half-volley are rare occurrences, the ball that's a touch straighter than ideal, or a touch fuller or shorter, is more frequent. Test batters can flick balls from all sorts of lines and lengths - if the angle is just right, a back-of-a-length ball can be worked to deep backward square leg from a fourth-stump line.
Spinners are particularly prone to getting flicked, and not just with the turn. Top batters can use their feet to get to the pitch of the ball, or go deep in their crease to give themselves time, and twirl their wrists to play the shot against the turn too. Because of the pace spinners bowl at, their margin for error is smaller, and the more turn there is, the smaller that margin becomes - the ball turning into the batter is likelier to end up on the pads, and the ball turning away is likelier to start from a line closer to leg stump.
The first two Tests of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy have been played on pitches with plenty of help for the spinners, and the margins for error have consequently been fairly small.
Over these two Tests in Nagpur and Delhi, India's batters have been able to play the flick far more frequently against the spinners than Australia's batters. They've also had to defend significantly fewer balls.
There are many ways of looking at these numbers. You could say Indian batters are naturally wristy and fond of playing the flick. You could say they use their feet better to get down the pitch or go deep in the crease, to create opportunities to play the flick. You could say that the two teams have employed different batting gameplans, India's revolving around positive footwork and shots down the ground or through the on side, and Australia's around the sweep.
This last argument is particularly compelling if you watched the closing stages of the Delhi Test, and watched and read the post-mortems. Australia lost a lot of wickets to sweeps and reverse-sweeps, and India barely ever played those shots. The experts shook their heads and told you how unwise these shots were on this third-day surface, where the ball was frequently shooting through low.
But here's the thing. Australia's players and team management know this. They know how dangerous cross-bat shots can be on pitches like this. But R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja have bowled with the sort of control that has left them with few other scoring options. They're certainly not getting drive balls and cut balls, and they're not getting a whole lot of flick balls either.
They've chosen two different responses to this challenge in the two Tests of this series. In the second innings in Nagpur, Australia defended for their lives and were bowled out in 32.3 overs. In the second innings in Delhi, they swept at everything and were bowled out in 31.1 overs. Their captain Pat Cummins said their batters had underplayed their hand in Nagpur and overplayed it in Delhi.
Against spinners with the control of Ashwin and Jadeja and on pitches with both turn and natural variation, those can be the only options for visiting batters. Neither is the right answer, but there's no real middle way either, unless the bowlers have an off day.
And in Delhi, the sweep helped Australia compete on a level footing with India over the first two days. It was a defining feature of Usman Khawaja's 81 on day one, and of Marnus Labuschagne's batting when Australia raced away to a quick start in the third session of day two.
The sweep, therefore, was a symptom of Australia's problems and not its cause.
And the problem hasn't been that they're a bad team. The problem is that they're just not as good as India in Indian conditions. You would only back a handful of teams over the game's history to beat this Indian team in Indian conditions.
Australia's spin attack on this tour is among the best that has visited this country in a decade - Nathan Lyon is a world-class offspinner with more than 450 Test wickets, while Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann have bowled with terrific control for visiting spinners who've made their Test debuts on this tour. They've bowled with better control than a lot of overseas spinners who've come to India with a lot more Test experience, and they've barely bowled any long-hops or genuine half-volleys.
But it's only natural that Australia's spinners don't have the inch-perfect control of Jadeja and Ashwin on Indian pitches. The margins for error are tiny. Minute errors in line and length don't leap at you in real time, but they all add up over the course of a series, one flick at a time.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo