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How do you deal with Axar Patel and Ashwin?

First, though, a flashback to the '70s, and an English master

Mark Nicholas
Mark Nicholas
Derek Underwood bowls to Greg Chappell, England v Australia, 5th Test, The Oval, August 1977

Derek Underwood: past master of the mean track  •  Getty Images

Perhaps the best thing about county cricket in the 25-year period from about 1970 to 1995 was the quality and number of international players. Obviously they raised the standard but they also provided unique experiences for the average Joes, who made a buck or two from their part in the sidebar column of the superstars' lives. I was one of those. As Simon Hughes sort of says in the introduction to his brilliant book A Lot of Hard Yakka, we may not have been the best players going around but we sure hung out with a few who were.
One of these was Derek Underwood, the Kent left-arm spinner, who took 297 wickets for England at an average of 25.83 and an economy rate of 2.10. Twenty-nine of these, at an average of 17 apiece, were on Tony Greig's successful tour of India in 1976-77, when he combined with John Lever's left-arm swing to help win the series 3-1. They compare favourably to Bishan Bedi's 25 wickets at 22.9. In their very different ways, both were wonderful bowlers. On a decaying pitch, Underwood's extra pace and directness were more fearsome than Bedi's flight and guile.
In his first-class career he snared a total of 2465 victims at 20.28 per wicket and the same economy as in Test cricket. He was a unique cricketer and an unlikely one, given his ten-to-two feet, utter absence of athleticism and penchant for a smoke and a pint. He was brave, mind you, and the photograph of him, bare-headed, swaying out of the way of a Michael Holding thunderbolt at Old Trafford in 1976 is one of the game's most iconic images.
"Deadly", as he was known, bowled the ball fast for a spinner and had a wizard "quicker" ball that was fired in at around medium pace. On pitches that offered something, whether wet or dry, he turned it square - he didn't cut the ball, as is often suggested, but he did release it a cutter's pace - and was close to unplayable. You get where I'm coming from, right? Think Axar Patel and then some.
Us Hampshire lads got him on one of each at Canterbury. The first was on an old, dry pitch, so uneven that the eye of a hawk was required to simply survive. After an over of playing and missing, I got myself to the non-striker's end and asked the umpire, the Australian Bill Alley, what he thought. "Kick it or cut it, son, there's no other option," he answered with certainty and a smile, upon which, next time I was down that end, I backed away a little from a good-length ball and cut with a power and precision I didn't know I had in me. Oh my days - to the square cover boundary it flew as if it were a bullet from a gun! Nice one, Bill.
The next ball was pitched full and I thrust out my left leg in panic, realising too late that it was the famous inswinging quicker ball. It rebounded painfully from my pad and into the hands of the silly-point fielder, who joined the chorus of appeals for lbw. Plumb, hitting middle halfway up, surely. Bill gave me not out. Bill!
The second time was in 1984 on a wet one, where the ball tore divots from the pitch each time Underwood landed it. The first one I received went past my chest, to be taken by Alan Knott at shoulder height. The second slammed into the splice of my bat; the third, spun hard, ripped the thumb of my glove away from the bat handle and looped to slip. We were 13 for 0 when he came on and 13 for 3 at the end of the over. We managed 56 between us, 17 of them to previously unseen reverse sweeps by our buccaneering captain Nick Pocock. Deadly took 7 for 21. Barry Richards told me that Deadly had done the same to a Hampshire team he played in on a dry pitch on one of the Kent outgrounds in the late '60s. He said Deadly took 7 for 18, or something close to it, adding that he had no idea how they got the 18. And Barry could bat.
So I tried to imagine what it must have been like walking to the wicket in both the second Chennai Test and the third, in Ahmedabad: a fiendishly difficult task ahead indeed.
Patel bowls at a good pace, not far from that of Underwood, and with equal directness. He spun the ball hard in Ahmedabad, angling the seam mainly to slip but occasionally undercutting it so that the ball skidded on from the outer layer of lacquer sprayed on to protect its colouring. He rarely dropped short or bowled a full toss.
He doesn't have Underwood's quick inswinger but he does have the DRS - the decision review system officially adopted by the ICC in 2009 - a weapon so potent that batsmen are hopelessly limited in their defensive options.
Forget kicking it away and then forget playing with bat and pad locked together. Don't push hard at the ball because, with Patel's height and ability to drive it into the surface, the extra bounce will kill you. Ideally you would get nearer to the pitch of the ball by using your feet, but at his speed - which often touches 60mph and averages out at 56, surprisingly quick - you need to weigh up the risk carefully! Oh, and don't sweep, no chance, not on two pitches that saw pieces burst from the surface on the first day. Joe Root is about as good as it gets against spin, and in great nick, but even he struggled with the complexities of the problems before him.
So what to do? Get your mind right, for a start. Believe that if you find a way to survive for 30 balls or so, things should get easier. Should.
Stick to a plan. Don't fret if you play and miss. Playing and missing is good. Much better than nicking off. Team up with your partner, rotate the strike. Look to score and you will defend nice and solid. The move to attack is the best move to defend because it is positive, decisive, clear. Ignore the noise, park the traffic. Ignore the opponents and their asides. Enjoy it. Embrace the crowd. Love it. Remember this is what you dreamt about since bat and ball first invaded your life. See upside not downside. Smile from within. And damn the opposition, make it all about you.
Assuming you are a right-hander facing Patel, you want to get forward but without committing the move of the front foot too early, otherwise you end up either playing around that front leg or using your bat as if it is on a rail, sliding left to right in search of the ball. You need to stay leg side of the ball and look to score on the off side, with the spin. Ideally you want to be alongside the ball, allowing flexibility to either hold your defensive position and allow the ball to beat you, or react to the natural angles and with the softest of hands. This is really difficult and requires practice to get the timing of the move forward exactly right, because if you commit too early, it becomes hard to get back and cut, which is a key scoring option. Ask Bill.
The generously spirited Rahul Dravid sent Kevin Pietersen an email on this theme of response to problems Pietersen encountered a decade ago. In it, he says that a good practice drill is to face spin in the nets without pads on ("maybe not the day before a game!') which forces you to get the bat in front of the pad and to watch it very closely. He adds that an exposed front leg will instinctively not move forward too early and therefore a rhythm will develop that has you waiting while picking up the length of the ball and then moving quickly to defend on the front foot or attack from the back foot.
Patel is doubly difficult to face right now because his confidence is high. There are few, if any, bad balls to feed from - balls that have the dual effect of lifting the batsmen and eating away at the bowler. Best of all, he has a master of the craft at the other end, wheeling away with an increasingly ruthless quality.
Much has been said about R Ashwin's control, less about his variety. He has four main deliveries - the orthodox offspinner, which has the seam angled at 45 degrees towards fine leg; the overspinner, where the seam revolves vertically on its axis and brings extra bounce; the slider, where the seam revolves horizontally on its axis and the ball skids, low and fast, at the stumps; and the carrom ball, which is flicked between thumb and bent middle finger and can spin a little either way but is used most effectively by Ashwin to go from leg to off.
Though not an especially big spinner of the ball, he is an almost cruel examiner of technique. In theory, it should be easier to cope with the ball turning in to the bat as against the one leaving it, but he has managed to contradict that theory by working out the varieties and angles that most discomfort even right-hand batsmen and make him such a formidable opponent.
He has also learnt not just to be comfortable with the new ball but to fizz it off the leather with the horizontal revolutions used to target pads and stumps. He has made fools of many an opener geared up for the raw battle against pace but unable to unravel the subtleties of spin. The pink ball made life even easier for him because the extra layers of lacquer kept it hard and shiny (and therefore quicker and more skiddy off the pitch) for longer than will be the case with the red ball this week. In fact the pink ball and the DRS directly explain why so many wickets were bowled or lbw - 20 out of 30 in the game, a high percentage of those to what were perceived as straight balls.
Not many truly are straight balls, as the angles prove. A ball bowled to a right-hand batsman by a left-arm spinner from wide on the crease that hits the pad on the front foot in line between wicket and wicket (which is the requirement of the lbw law, assuming a shot is offered by the batsman) will often be missing leg stump simply because of the angle. Therefore it has to straighten, or spin, just a little from leg to off (cricketers often refer to this as the ball holding its line).
In the days pre-DRS, batsmen would use their pad as a second line of defence and umpires were reluctant to give anyone out on the front foot as, a) they felt the ball "still had a lot to do", and b) the angles told them it was missing leg. The DRS suggested otherwise. More balls appeared to be hitting the stumps than previously thought. Umpires started to give more front-foot decisions in favour of the bowler. Batsmen had to quickly rethink: hence the Pietersen conundrum and the Dravid email.
In no time, the percentage of lbws claimed by spinners went up, and dramatically so. Suddenly it was fine to give batsmen out on the front foot, even when the ball nipped back or spun from the off. Then, in 2016, came the killer blow for batsmen: the at once tiny, but in its effect absolutely massive, change to the detail of the DRS.
Before September 2016, in cases where the ball was hitting the outer stumps, more than half the ball had to be predicted to be hitting the off or leg stump squarely for it to be judged as out. The change was to say that the ball had only to be clipping the stumps: the stumps were effectively made half a stump wider on either side. Believe me, when the ball is moving and the batsmen are groping, this is so damn difficult as to easily explain the low scores we saw in Ahmedabad. Axar has taken seven of his 18 wickets in the series lbw. That's a lot for a left-arm spinner on big-turning tracks and a good reason for him to bowl it quickly and directly at the target. If batsmen cannot be sure whether it will spin or not, they are in big trouble.
It will be fascinating to see if the red ball behaves less aggressively than the pink one and if the pitch for the fourth Test is as dry and crumbly as the one for the third Test, which, though not dangerous, was too heavily weighted in favour of the bowler and extreme in the nature of the challenge it went on to present.
It is not quite right to say that India face similar problems when they come to the green pitches in England. Certainly there are green pitches in England, and as the Australians of 2015 will testify, some like Nottingham that are far too green. These matches are often toss-dependent because green pitches tend to dry out and improve as the game goes on, or as overhead conditions become kinder to batsmen, thereby making the chance to bowl first a potentially game-breaking advantage. More generally, English pitches are good to bat on. The best players agree on that. After Stuart Broad took 8 for 15 to knock over the Aussies for 60 that day at Trent Bridge, Root made 130 in England's 391 for 9 declared and Australia 253 in their second innings.
The reverse has usually applied in India, thought not particularly so in the last two Tests, when the ball spun throughout the match. In the first Chennai Test, yes, England took full toll of winning the toss and went on to win the game. In the second, England had the chance to close down India's toss-winning advantage but failed to take it. In Ahmedabad, they had that same advantage but failed to make use of it because there was something in the surface for the bowler. It is the first-innings 112 that Root and his men will forever rue and that Virat Kohli will long remember as the match won by Axar Patel with a pink ball and a system that favoured his brilliant performance in a way that England's more modest spin attack simply could not match.
It has been pretty crazy stuff but whatever your view on pitches, balls and review systems, it makes for a compelling watch and endless debate in the aftermath. Cricket as a headline is no bad thing. Expect more of the same, if not quite so quickly please, in the contest to come on Thursday.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator