“Not even God could play that,” reported Lawrence Rowe upon returning to the company of his teammates. It was the 1975-76 West Indies tour of Australia and the Jamaican had just been dismissed by a particularly vicious delivery from Jeff Thomson. The West Indies lost the series 1-5, a humiliating result considering they had high hopes going into the series.
For larger part of the series they were battered by the pace and menace of Thomson and Dennis Lillee. Those two bowlers, performing at peak levels, on wickets offering pace and elevated bounce, were too much for the men from the Caribbean, despite the presence of batsmen like Rowe, Roy Fredericks, Clive Lloyd, Alvin Kallicharran, and a young Viv Richards. Lillee and Thomson, who had similarly brutalized the English the prior season, were simply too good.
The James Anderson and Stuart Broad led English attack has been too good for India’s batsmen in this current series. Akin to West Indies batsmen in that series, the Indian batting has been completely overrun so far. But, whereas Lillee and Thomson conquered by electric pace and brutality, Anderson and Company’s dominance has been through swing, seam, and subtlety.
At Lord’s, especially, the ball swung, the wicket seamed and India’s batting unit were confronted by a skillful attack operating at peak performance levels. Anderson, Broad, Chris Woakes, and Sam Curran are not the best fast bowlers under all conditions. However, with a Dukes ball on a seaming surface they are capable of wreaking mayhem, which they did at Lord’s.
Had Murali Vijay, for example, repeated Rowe’s words of over 40 years ago, after his first innings dismissal at Lord’s nobody could quibble. Nobody could have been expected to play that.
Plotting a path towards middle stump the ball changed direction late in its flight, evaded Vijay’s outside edge before finding his stumps.
The batsman did attempt a flick through the onside and so if you want to nit-pick you could say he should have presented a straight bat. But the shot wasn’t unreasonable given the original line of the ball, and a straight bat might merely have meant ball hitting bat’s edge instead of stumps.
Some play it better than others but all batsmen struggle against the moving ball. India’s batsmen produced little during the first two Tests, but I’d wager that any line up of batsmen would have been similarly discomfited. As esteemed cricket writer Jon Hotten tweeted: “India fans not happy, but rest assured, if England’s current top order had to face its own bowling in these conditions, it would be exactly the same.”
India’s batting display has been labelled poor, humiliating even. At Egbaston, 274 and 162 were their totals. At Lord’s they were torn out for 107 and 130. But prior to this series few would’ve accused their batting of being anything but highly competent. Kohli is, arguably, the best batsman in the world, while Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, KL Rahul, Shikar Dhawan, and Ajinkya Rahane are all capable of brilliance.
So how then did they suffer this ignominy at Lord’s?
Beyond a certain point in a ball’s flight, the batsman, no matter how good, is likely to find it difficult to adjust. It is for this reason that the ball that swings late, or the full-length delivery that deviates off the surface, can be troublesome.
The ball from Anderson that dismissed KL Rahul veered wickedly late in its flight. There is hardly anything the batsman could have done to avoid snicking it. As Michael Atherton said on air for Sky Sports, “He didn’t do a lot wrong there.”
Adopting a technique suitable for the moving ball is helpful, but like everything else there are no guarantees. Playing late and not pushing the hands out too far makes survival more likely. Batting some distance outside the crease, like Kohli does, allowing the ball less opportunity to swing, can be helpful as well, though doing that also gives the batsman less time to play. Others prefer to retreat deep inside the crease, wagering that additional time to see exactly what the ball is doing is their best bet.
These may all be beneficial to some degree, but a batsman could still be defeated by an exemplary delivery. Kohli's scores of 149 and 51 at Edgabaston were well made. But, as good as he was, he only managed to get to a hundred because of good fortune. He was dropped more than once, easy chances that came fairly early in his innings. He played and missed a number of times, and a number of edges fell just short of slip fieldsmen. It could have turned out quite differently.
At Lord’s, good luck did not attend to the visiting captain the way it did at Egbaston. His scores were 23 and 17 and this time there was no difference between him and his comrades. In both innings, the whole team fell in a heap and cricket’s best batsman was unable to master the irresistible England bowling.
For the most part, India’s pacers have thrived in the favourable English conditions as well. The home team were shot out for 287 and 130 at Egbaston, and were 89/4 and 131/5 in second Test, before Chris Woakes and Jonny Bairstow crafted an escape. Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami have bowled excellently on occasion, but England’s pacers, who have been a class apart, were never going to be upstaged, particularly in the absence of India’s spearhead Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
And so here we are with two Tests down and three to go. Hostilities resume on Saturday, 18 August at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. Kohli and his men will have to try and forget what has gone before and focus on what is to come. Indian fans, already stung by the two defeats, need to realize, however, that if the conditions are as amenable to seam in Nottingham, and the English bowlers turn up in the same mood, the end result will likely be the same.