This Australian team has done something which four other nations could not: forced Team India to rethink strategy. Consequently, India were compelled into a huge policy shift following the humiliating first Test loss; never mind that the move actually worked to shore up the team’s prospects.
For a while now skipper Virat Kohli has stridently followed an aggressive five-bowler strategy. It brought him tremendous success over West Indies, New Zealand, England and Bangladesh. It portrayed the team in an aggressive mode and the message it sent out to the opponents was: Watch out! We are out to bowl you over.
The five-bowler strategy was aggressive in intent because it sought to blow away 20 wickets in each Test. The skipper always had a bowler fresh enough to have a go at the batsmen and it came as no surprise that opponents could not regroup and gradually crumbled to defeat in series after series.
But the Aussies were a different kettle of fish if only because they came to India better prepared to handle the home team’s various threats. The Aussies had an extended camp in Dubai in conditions that replicated India’s spin-friendly environment. The batsmen got conditioned into playing quality spin bowling while the spinners strived to hit the right line and speed at which they could be a maximum threat.
The resounding first Test win in Pune vindicated the planning and preparation. It, in fact, showed the Aussie batsmen to be more adept than the home players at handling spin!
This worried the Indians and they responded by sacrificing a bowler to strengthen the batting at Bengaluru. Triple centurion Karun Nair was brought in for Jayant Yadav. While the Aussies could probably indulge in a bit of back-patting for changing the Indian leadership’s thought process and plans, there is something to be said for the re-think of strategy.
The first major takeaway was the acknowledgement that pitches at the fag end of a long and hard season would not be good enough to last five days. This acceptance was crucial for it altered the workload on bowlers.
It established that most innings would be wrapped up in fewer than 100 overs. In such a scenario, the brunt of the bowling could be shared by just four bowlers, with any one of them expected to bowl an extended spell in a session. In any case none of them would be called upon to bowl more than 24 overs in a day.
In case the Australians went ultra defensive in an attempt to grind out the four-man attack, it would turn counter-productive on pitches where wear and tear could be alarming as the match progressed. For instance, while the Australian innings lasted 94.5 & 87 overs in the first Test, their stout defensive tactics in the first innings of the second Test went against them. They were bowled out in 35.4 overs on a deteriorating track in the second innings.
Of course the major worry in a four-bowler strategy is the danger of injury to one of the bowlers. That would straight away condemn one of the other three bowlers to do a holding job and thus severely limit the captain’s options. The over-bowling of the three bowlers could also debilitate their effectiveness in later Tests.
Thus sticking to a four-bowler strategy will remain a huge call for a crucial Test, especially with the series finely balanced at 1-1.
The Aussies, already wary of facilities available in Ranchi, stayed back to have extended nets and workouts in Bengaluru but their media has been excessively critical of Ranchi, terming the choice of pitch a “conspiracy”. This is a bit rich coming from these Aussies. For years they’ve given visiting teams flat pitches for practice matches and then ambushed them on fast, extra bouncy tracks in Tests. The only time they were deterred from this practice was when the West Indies could hit back with their battery of world class fast bowlers.
Meanwhile, sources reveal that former skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni was sent tapes of the Aussie bowling pattern and he had guided the Ranchi curator to prepare the pitch in a manner that would aid the bowling strengths of the Indian spinners.
For instance, Ravichandran Ashwin’s bowling length is different from Nathan Lyon’s. Additionally Ashwin’s line of attack is usually from outside the line of off stump whereas Lyon, like Ravindra Jadeja, prefers a wicket-to-wicket line. But Jadeja also bowls a slightly shorter length and hence his landing spots could be under-prepared to suit his bowling.
This practice is not unique. South Africa were known to use the heavy roller breath-wise instead of the conventional length wise in an attempt to make it bouncier for their fast bowlers’ length. Visiting fast bowlers would be confounded that they could not get the same bounce that the Proteas got before they cottoned on to the trick.
India should and will pull out every trick in the book to outsmart the Aussies. And there’s nothing wrong with that. They would only be doing what the Australians have been doing all along. The only issue is whether the Indians will have a go at them with four or five bowlers. Come Thursday we’ll know.