How do you go about solving a puzzle like Virat Kohli
? Such will have been the question taxing England's management on the flight from Visakhapatnam to Mohali, where this intriguing Test series rumbles, already, into its third act.
While Virat's Vizag contributions
- utterly imperious in first wresting the initiative and then snuffing out the light as England sought an unlikely route back into the game - ensured the plot played out to pre-series expectations, he probably hadn't imagined he'd spend the final session in Rajkot
in survival mode. Nevertheless, he rose to and embraced the challenge, displaying the timeless virtues of batting on capricious, turning pitches: quick to judge length, light on his feet, poised, balanced, judicious and pragmatic in shot selection, and, as always with Kohli, doing everything he can to cow the bowler with that strutting body language.
Two Tests, then, and two masterclasses of technical brilliance and adaptability. Kohli's transitions from defensive resolve to relentless, single-minded orthodoxy to counterattacking flair as the differing match situation and pitches have demanded have served to remind of cricket's endless variety and richness, its ceaselessly modulating challenges.
While Visakhapatnam kept relatively low and (eventually) offered sharp, red-earth sidespin, the bounce and overspin in Rajkot presented a different examination, of both the Indian captain's defensive game and of England's trio of spinners. Picking Adil Rashid from the hand and, frankly, toying with Zafar Ansari, Kohli's biggest threat - in line with Duncan Fletcher's theory that the ball spinning in is more dangerous when it's spinning miles - was Moeen Ali
, who bowled perfectly respectably (no worse than the standout fingerspinner in county cricket the last five years, Jeetan Patel, recently pawed like a ball of twine in Kolkata), yet could find no way through. Kohli's relentless excellence squeezed Moeen's margins down to the finest calibrations: above a certain pace to challenge the footwork, on an ultra-precise length and exact line (the absence of left-arm seamers, or scarcity of left-handers in the India line-up that would justify the heavy-footed seamers going round the wicket to create rough magnifies this), and then hoping the pitch obliged by having the ball spit.
The varying degrees of bounce and spin have brought a subtly different geometry to the game - angle of attack, alignment at the crease, arrangement of fielders - to which England's itinerant spin-bowling coach, Saqlain Mushtaq, has helped his charges adapt. Most noticeably, Moeen has regularly eschewed the standard long-on in favour of a deep straight midwicket ("cow corner", if you prefer), which serves both to prevent the easy bunt down the ground (making the batsman play slightly more across the ball for an easy single), while also covering, from an offspinner's attacking line, the natural arc of the slog sweep. It's a canny move, yet there was another aspect of this absorbing Rajkot cat-and-mouse that even Saqlain's voodoo couldn't overcome.
With one of the more likely modes of dismissal being the gloved catch round the corner, Moeen was unable to attack Kohli exactly as he would have liked, all because of an archaic law devised over 80 years ago in the aftermath of the Bodyline Ashes series. Once the initial furore over the "leg-theory" line of attack had abated, in 1935 umpires were given explicit powers - and the moral responsibility - to intervene if they felt the bowler was deliberately trying to injure the batsman. Then, in 1960, a new clause was added to Law 44 (today, Law 41.5), since which time, as every daydreaming young square-leg fielder knows, only two fielders are permitted behind square on the leg-side.
Rather than doing away with the Law entirely, it could simply be tweaked to allow one extra fielder behind square. If a team wishes to assign three fielders there for a quick bowler, despite the restrictions on the number of bouncers bowled per over, then so be it
For an offspinner bowling to a right-hand batsman (or slow left-armer to a leftie) on a surface offering bounce as well as turn, the leg slip is de rigueur (and even then this area still feels undermanned from a close-catching perspective). But where to put the other man permitted behind square? If he's at deep-backward square, then anything marginally short can be nudged, fairly safely, into that area for a single. Bring him up, on that same angle, and the hard sweep almost certainly goes for four. Either way, a well controlled lap-sweep would run away through short fine-leg, with a top edge falling safe - unless, that is, you move your backward square-leg finer, in which case...
It's all part of cricket's cat and mouse, of course, but there's always an escape route for the batsman, always an in-built restriction for the bowler. This is especially true at those times when the pitch is really spitting, or when you're really pushing for wickets - times such as in Rajkot - and two close catchers behind square on the leg side - a fine leg slip and a leg gully - is optimal. Doing this, though, means that any hard sweep will go for a certain four, and, save for a freak rebound-off-the-body dismissal, any poorly played lap-sweep will arc unfailingly to safety. In these conditions, the "Bodyline Law" means there is no way for the bowler simultaneously to stop the batsman scoring with impunity in this area and attack him as he would like (with more than that of-necessity lone catcher).
And therein lies the quandary for our trusty fingerspinner: always, in some sense, at a disadvantage. Why should a fast outswing bowler presented with ideal conditions for his craft be able to fill his preferred quadrant with five or six catchers when the same possibility is denied the fingerspinner? Is it time, therefore, to consider repealing the Bodyline Law - or at least modifying it slightly?
One objection is that such a change could pave the way for tediously negative leg-side bowling at the back end of a Test match ("We flippin' murdered 'em" territory), or perhaps for tediously intimidatory bowling at any stage - not that the West Indies teams of the 1980s saw rules preventing four leg gullies as any sort of disincentive for a rib-rattling attack. Besides, there is already ample provision in the current Laws for umpires to nip this in the bud.
Rather than doing away with the Law entirely, it could simply be tweaked to allow one extra fielder behind square. And if a team wishes to assign three fielders there for a quick bowler, despite the restrictions on the number of bouncers bowled per over, then so be it. (There's a legitimate gripe that allowing even three fielders behind square enables a pace bowler to pound away at the ribs with both a leg gully and two men back for the hook, thus covering both the attacking and defensive options, but the amendment could stipulate that the wicketkeeper has to be stood up to the wicket for the third fielder to be allowed.)
It seems that, regarding the game's variety, the pitch giveth but the Law taketh away. Allowing three fielders behind square - on the rare occasions it is expedient and desirable to have them - wouldn't close off all scoring options in that area, nor stack everything in favour of the bowler, especially with most contemporary batsman having the field-mangling reverse sweep in their locker. It would merely bring a new dimension to the bat-versus-ball problematic, enhancing the cat-and-mouse struggle of a batsman attempting to manoeuvre the spinner's field, among the most compelling the game has to offer.