“... If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
― Sun Tzu, The Art of War
There is much to be said on the importance of strategy.
Genghis Khan’s third son and successor to his Khanate, Ogedei Khan’s strategy was to rest, feed and train his troops during spring and summer months. Later, in harsh winter, when lakes and water bodies would be frozen rock solid he’d send his troops over them to scythe and run through defenceless European towns. Actually the towns would have their defences set in the front, with the water bodies acting as their natural defence at the back, or so they thought, until the Mongolian hordes walked across the solid surface and plundered town after defenceless town. It was Ogedei who systematically diverted rivers to prevent enemies their access to water, flooded their plains to slow down their horses, deployed giant catapults and battering rams to smash through defences.
Strategy was the key to his success and he developed it around knowing his own and the enemy’s strengths.
This is the area where the Indian cricket team’s think-tank stood brutally exposed. They pegged their hopes on the toss and when that went awry, they didn’t have a fig leaf to cover themselves.
The fear and desperation that was writ large on Ajinkya Rahane’s face when he encountered the turning ball was magnified by his desperate throwing around of his bat. Unfortunately, he was not the only one. Others too panicked to the extent that 20 Indian wickets lasted a total of just 74 overs. That is an average of a mere 22 deliveries per wicket.
While cricket fans were stunned by India’s abject collapse against spin, especially after they saw the Australians handling it far better, it must be pointed out that modern Indian batsmen have hardly played high-quality spin bowling on deteriorating tracks.
Ranji Trophy and other domestic cricket matches are these days played either on green tops with mandated 3.5 mm grass covering or on flat batting tracks. IPL, T20s and ODIs are played on pitches where batsmen can make easy runs and entertain the public. Additionally, top Indian spin bowlers hardly play long duration domestic cricket matches.
These have ensured that modern Indian batsmen are not as adept and comfortable playing spin bowling on rank turners as their predecessors. Of course, Sunil Gavaskar’s stupendous innings of 96 against Pakistan on a bullock cart track in Bangalore in 1987 is matchless. But there have been other notable innings by him, Dilip Vengsarkar, Sachin Tendulkar and a host of others, including Manoj Prabhakar and Navjot Singh Siddhu which enhanced Indian batsmen’s reputation of being brilliant against spin bowling.
Tendulkar’s preparation against Shane Warne for the 1998 series at home is legendary for its thoroughness. He roughened the surface around and outside the line of the leg stump to simulate bowlers’ boot marks that Warne traditionally targeted and had leg-spinners bowl in that area. He practised thus for hours in the baking heat of Chennai and by the time the Australians landed in India, he was primed to take apart Warne.
Rahul Dravid too readied for South African pace on their pitches by batting on the steps of KSCA against a wet tennis ball thrown at him from the higher steps. It simulated the steep bounce that the tall South African bowlers got on their pitches.
Thus preparation was central to their strategy for success.
But in the current series, it seems the Australian team were better prepared mentally and cricket-wise for spin. Former Australian captain Michael Clark spoke of how they practised on turning tracks in Dubai. The batsmen were made conscious of the ball that came in with the arm and were conditioned not to follow or be in awe of deliveries that spun viciously across the face of the bat.
The batsmen practised hard on playing late, using their feet, especially while going back and deploying soft hands in defence.
India did the opposite whether batting or bowling. Even the fielders were not geared to accepting sharp close-in catches, something that a Peter Handscomb did brilliantly.
The grim truth is that India doctored the pitch in Pune, something they did not do to such a gross extent for the Tests against New Zealand, England and Bangladesh earlier. The huge totals in those Tests, by India and the opposition, is testimony to that.
The Pune defeat, bitter as it was, helped drive home a few important lessons: Don’t hinge hopes on the toss; current Indian batsmen are not at home on rank turners; identify better fielders close-in; re-work bowling strategies.
It may be argued that this Indian team is superior to the Australian one. But a bad pitch and poor preparations only narrowed down the gap. Pune thus must be seen as a wake-up call for Indian cricket. Surely there is enough time to ensure that the Bangalore, Ranchi and Dharamsala pitches are tuned to restore balance. Just don’t queer the pitch again.