India can win abroad with the right balance
My take on why the numbers from the current India-Australia series clearly say we need five bowlers to compete in test matches abroad.
It’s the ability to play well on all kinds of surfaces that separates the best teams from the rest. Statistics shows that most teams are far better in their home conditions where they have the luxury to prepare pitches which suit them more than the opposition, than when they travel abroad.
The same stands true today for the Indian cricket team when it comes to Test cricket. The team has an enviable record at home but when it comes to conditions anywhere outside the sub-continent, the record shifts right across the spectrum and shows the team as one of the poorest travellers, especially in countries such as South Africa, England and Australia.
But is this Indian team as bad as the numbers show them to be? Do they truly not have the ability to match or beat opposition teams on foreign pitches? Or is there more to this puzzle than immediately meets the eye?
Playing just four bowlers won’t work
The answer for me lies in the team balance that the Indian team finally puts on the field. It is almost always a mix of six batsmen, one wicket-keeper and four bowlers. This, to me, is where we lose half the battle each time.
Our strength is our batting, but we continue to believe that we need to strengthen that very department each and every time. It’s almost as though there is a belief that playing the extra batsman will somehow build the castle that can never be knocked over.
Take the current India-Australia Test series; while the Indian batting has held up in most cases and has scored over four hundred runs in the first innings of each Test, we still ended up on the losing side. Would playing an extra bowler have helped? And how would that have impacted the significant scores we put up while batting in the first innings?
In the current series, we started the first Test at Adelaide with Rohit Sharma being the extra batsman. He made 43 and 6 in a game we lost by 48 runs. In the second Test, where Rohit played at number six again, he made 32 and 0 in a game we lost by 4 wickets. Come the third Test and we decided to bring in the debutant KL Rahul in place of Rohit. And he did even worse, getting 3 and 1. However, India managed to save the game with some gritty middle order batting.
In the last game, the fourth and final Test of the series, India played Suresh Raina as the sixth batsman and his contribution was a pair of ducks. So ultimately, the extra batsman has so far contributed 85 runs for 8 wickets – at an average of just over 10 runs an innings. That’s definitely a sub-par return for what it has cost the team, and it definitely hasn’t been a factor in the rest of the batting line-up piling on the runs as they have.
And just what has it cost the team? It has cost us the series – that is how I’d like to simply put it.
But let me explain the build-up to that final outcome:
1. Reduced bowling options and limited variety
Once the decision has been made to play just four bowlers, the mix of the attack typically self-selects itself. The second spinner goes out of the window and you are left with the three pacers and a single spinner combination to take on the opposition batsmen.
That’s workable if you have a group of either four great bowlers or a couple of bowling options amongst the batsmen. We have neither, and that’s the problem. The difference between the two teams in this series has been the quality of bowling attacks, and the lack of an extra bowler for India has been pivotal in our losing yet another away series.
2. Too much pressure on the bowlers
Picture the opposite scenario – if India had played six bowlers, leaving four top order batsmen to make all the runs, the world would have erupted screaming about the insanity of the thought process behind such a selection. It just shows how settled we have become with playing a team where exactly the same pressure is placed on the bowling unit.
Knowing that in the absence of any decent all-rounder options to support them (the occasional options used have bowled 58 overs for 186 runs with a solitary wicket to show for their efforts) they will be expected to bowl out the opposition twice in the game, the unit is then forced to try too hard and look for the magic balls to get wickets.
As a bowler, it’s either that or looking forward to bowling yourself into the dust, which has happened in this Test series. The Indian bowlers have bowled over 750 overs in the four-Test series, almost 700 of which have been delivered by one of the four front line bowlers. That’s a lot of work.
The hunt for the magic balls (and they are called ‘magic’ because the unplayable wicket-taking balls in modern day cricket come few and far between) invariably leads to a flood of loose balls as well. That takes the pressure off the batsmen, and with the leaking of quick runs, removes catching fielders soon after.
The greatest bowling units in the world get more wickets through sustained battles of attrition built on consistent bowling rather than with brilliant deliveries. However, usually those attritional battles are won by bowling units who share the burden in shorter spells where the focus and concentration on each and every ball is maintained.
Also, if a bowler realises early on that he’s going to have to bowl a lot of overs in a day (the best pacers in the world can give you 15-18 overs of quality bowling in a day, and the spinners around 25), he’s going to have that in his mind and he’ll naturally try to conserve his energies and end up not really giving a 100% in every ball he bowls.
3. Reduced accountability on the batsmen
Give a group of people a task and they automatically break it up into shares of deliverables each of them is responsible for. It would be the same for the batsmen in the team who would realise the importance of each of their wickets and would therefore, ideally at least, apply themselves more. Just as the heat and pressure of a furnace brings forth the finest steel, similarly, the pressure to deliver will bring out the best from the top order Indian batsman.
Too often in this series we have seen Indian batsmen throw away starts which promised so much more. The pressure of being one of five who had to make it count just might have helped convert those starts into more substantial knocks.
4. Playing two spinners abroad
There is a lot of talk about the fact that playing two spinners abroad doesn’t make sense. In my mind, that’s a load of rubbish. As a team, you need to know who your best bowlers are, and if two of those options are spinners, so be it. Once again, this would have been a far more simple call if the decision was to go into a game with five bowlers.
Imagine two spinners in Adelaide or in Sydney, and you can see where the story is going. Even on the other tracks, the spinners would have given the captain far more control than what the medium pacers did. The spinners could have played important containing roles in the first innings and become huge threats on Day 4 and Day 5.
Australia played Shane Warne and Tim May together for ages, as have Sri Lanka so successfully done with Muttiah Muralitharan in tandem with numerous others. If nothing else, the two spinners would have given the skipper far more control than the pacers – especially as they could have bowled longer spells while teaming up with each other or uniting with the pacers, who could have delivered short sharp bursts.
To me, the ability to play abroad is not a question of talent, it is one of mindset. Putting out a team on the field with five bowlers makes a statement of intent. Intent is the first step, which would be backed up if the team has the self-belief to make it happen. And self-belief is not something this Indian team is short of.