The underbelly of competitive cricket
Cricketers, their upbringing, tactics and the pitch - there's more to international cricket than what meets the eye.
It certainly was not cricket.
Often used as a synonym for fair play and termed the "game of the Gods", it's soul was nearly shattered at Bangalore as the gloomy silhouette of the "ugly Aussies" reared it's head. In a bid to win at any cost - or so it seemed - Steven Smith was caught with his hand in the jar by an alert Nigel Llong.
Gentlemen from the yesteryears who plied their trade in this great game - replete with crests and troughs, a la snakes and ladder - would have reeled and turned in their graves had they witnessed the scandalous pursuit employed by modern day cricketers to win at all costs.
Images of the dreaded body line, the infamous underarm saga of Greg Chappell and the monkey gate of Sydney 2007 loomed large while threatening to destroy the carefully crafted fabric of legendary yore.
If the drama caused by the pitch at Pune and Bangalore tested the batsmen to their bare bones, the enactment beyond it - akin to a Greek drama - was ghastly, macabre and reeked of cunning cloak and dagger stuff.
Post-match, both sides indulged in a free spell of innuendos and spiteful harangue - usually reserved for pre-match heavyweight boxing bouts. In a game devoid of body contact, these must rank as the heights of hitting below the belt.
Cricket is reckoned as being at its best when it occupies the back pages but this latest acrimony and controversy brought about by Smith's feigned "brain fade" got it on the front pages.
Such was the simmering tension that the Indian and Australian cricket boards had to step in. But for their timely intervention, the situation threatened to escalate into a diplomatic breakdown.
Amidst all this, one gnawing thought refuses to cease and continues to eat away at my cricketing vitals - the acidic heartburn created by the spin conundrum and designer pitches.
Nothing shapes the character of cricket more fundamentally than the pitch. For the curators, it's a thankless task. Ideally, a pitch is a result of careful tender and a labour of love. It is meant to suit the pace bowlers to begin with. Then the stroke makers are to enjoy the pace and bounce and finally, as it wears on with time, the tweakers hold centre stage. But the world that we live in today is far less ideal and cricket after all, mirrors life.
Very few sides - barring the Aussies in 2004 - have competed, let alone won in India without cutting edge spin. But at Pune, India's plans backfired as the "under-prepared tracks" lashed at them like the tail of an angry stingray.
India nearly succumbed to the process in Bangalore again. But for the pugnacious partnership between Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in the second innings and the growing consistency of KL Rahul, the Aussies may well have clinched the series at Bangalore.
Who knows, had India batted last on that spiteful deck at the Chinnaswamy, the result may well have resembled the annihilation they suffered at Pune.
Sadly, such is the importance attached to a mere spin of the coin. To display "quality skill" over lengths of time was usually the time-tested norm on good cricket pitches and surpassed the small benefits of a toss. But on these diabolical decks with craters like the surface of the moon, exhibition of "skill sets" becomes a lottery with nearly every ball out of a bowler’s hand exploding like a grenade.
Cricket played on such tracks, sadly are overtly and unfairly skewed towards the bowlers as they masquerade as established matchwinners. They reap rich rewards without seemingly working for it. By sticking to the basis of darting on a coin long enough, old fashioned methods like flight, drift, arc and genuine spin are sacrificed at the altar of mind numbing robotic accuracy without an iota of planning and imagination.
Doing so for prolonged lengths of time only crudely exposes them on a proper cricket pitch, which accords fair chances to all the pliers.
It is one thing to retain home advantage but with overindulgence, the hosts lose the plot. In their quest for victories while pressing the spinning advantage, the players to suffer most are the anguished batsmen. The journey from in-form to chloroform-induced is but an inning away and swifter than one can imagine. The miasmic haze results in frazzled nerves as batsmen resemble men walking in sleep.
It has not happened for the first time either in India and nor will it be for the last time. Mumbai in 2004 versus the Aussies, Kanpur versus SA in 2006 and then again when the Proteas visited again in 2016. Each of these instances are in the forefront of every faithful follower’s head as proof of dustbowls passed as cricket pitches. All these contests, or the lack of it, nearly paled against the backdrop of these two pitches in Pune and Bangalore.
Of batting travails
As a former batsman myself, I empathise with the sad narrative of the Indian batsmen. The decayed malaise only runs deeper.
Indian batsmen, raised on a diet of spin from their cradle, floundered with feet of clay and fragile mindsets. Indecision and indiscipline added to their woes. The harrowing tale in the aftermath of the exit of the fab-five and Gautam Gambhir escalates the burning issue of playing a spinning ball skillfully.
It was also because of the nagging persistence of Nathan Lyon and O'Keefe - an arsenal the earlier visitors lacked - that the previously gleeful hosts are now visibly uncomfortable.
The quality of spin bowlers produced in our backyard has gone down massively. Very few of them are keen on loopy flight and spin. Instead, they tend to ping and rifle it at pace, visibly worried about flat beds and oversized bats. The size of the modern day grounds – slightly bigger than postage stamps – only compounds the misery.
That they are reliant on dust bowls to help them succeed is a sad reflection and needless to say, affects their growth. Spin bowlers mature with age and need to go through the compulsive gestation period to harness their potential and acquire growth. Good slow bowlers traditionally spun it in the air with multiplied revolutions and turned them off the pitch with supple wrists.
The double jeopardy for the team then kicks in as the Indian batsmen, perpetually on the move in a cricket caravan, rarely get enough chances to polish their game assiduously, like players of the past.
The absence of vital first-class match practice is a huge factor. When not playing or touring, the tired batsmen either rests or recuperates from their hectic schedules. Thus, they are robbed of vital exposures to domestic cricket and quality spin, to sharpen their once acquired natural skill.
That the spin on offer in the domestic circuit has gone woefully south and is bereft of quality only exacerbates a young batsman's plight. His technique is, therefore, stunted without due feed.
It is but a sheer coincidence that the Indian board, with its noble initiative to help the pacers, have produced some green seamers. Else, their fast bowlers in the domestic circuit would be in a terrible state of moribund.
The evidence to back this can be seen from the ensemble of pace battery available at India’s disposal. But the downside is that "spin cupboard" is barren with just a few like Jayant Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal waiting in the wings to threaten Jadeja and Ashwin off their perch.
In both the games, the Chennai openers – the accomplished Murali Vijay and the nervous Abhinav Mukund – perished early and created a huge vacuum for the middle order to fill.
The road ahead
Vijay's calming sagacity at the top was sorely missed in Bangalore. He is after all the one to have chalked up 3 hundreds in this long home season. It is another matter that Virat 's rare and unheard streak of failures had to happen in these cauldrons at trying times.
Cricket and batting in particular, is all about movement, rhythm and a combative big ticker. They are as important as a good technique and an organised game plan. Should one not invest and ignore them, peril – as seen by batsmen in this series – looms large.
The Indians had the heart and will to fight the Kiwis and the English on proper pitches which wore on naturally with time. But pitted against the Aussies, their plan to counter the visitors with dry abrasive surfaces is clearly backfiring, as seasoned batsmen are developing cold feet.
Devilish spin bowling is best played from the non-striker's end. Rotation of strike with deft nudges can irk even the best as it manipulates the field. And there was plenty of evidence on offer in both the games to back this theory. That said, to execute this on minefields warrants a semblance of luck.
This is where Smith’s knock in Pune sticks out like a sore thumb. He was nimble and light on either feet. More importantly, rarely did he premeditate or chase balls that turned prodigiously.
Playing pace requires physical courage and use of the upper body in an adroit manner. To succeed versus spin, one has to have the mental courage and supple wrists. Add nifty footwork, soft hands and an innate understanding of working the angles and the outcome is bound to magical.
Angry batsmen go red in the face seeing such pitches, but with discipline and a positive outlook, they may well channelise and harness that anger into priceless runs.
One fervently hopes that proper pitches are prepared at Ranchi and at Dharmasala with adequate time thrown in for the curators. And hopefully, there’s less intervention from an over zealous home team management.
With good old fashioned watering and rolling, the paying fan will feel duly entertained. Television show producers too, who are now at wits end with matches not lasting the distance, would sport a smile.
As stories of another sandpaper like surface at Ranchi are already doing the rounds, the thought of producers laughing all the way to the bank with games going the whole hog of five days may well be a utopian dream.
The Aussie capitulation in Bangalore, the draining emotional strain of an opportunity missed and Mitch Starc rendered “hors de combat" does not augur well for the visitors.
The preying hosts, famished of runs, would be eager to arrest the slide. That they are now suitably roused with claws sharpened was witnessed in the redemption at Bangalore.
Beware Australia – the lion is roused.