After India succumbed miserably to the wizardry of English seamers in first innings of the Lord’s Test, Ajinkya Rahane told the press, “Maybe we will need to learn from their batting unit how to bat in such conditions, which shots are important, which shots you can play. Many times in England, you cannot only stay defensive. You need to understand which shots you can play, may be the cut shot or the late cut. So the earlier you learn all that, the better it would be for you.”
A day later Jonny Bairstow and Chris Woakes batted for over three hours together and amassed a partnership of 189. Indian batsmen clearly had plenty of time to observe the methods and shot selections of their rivals. Unfortunately, despite having watched them from close proximity, the visiting top-order caved in again.
So what was it that they could learn? After watching the gruelling net session at Trent Bridge before the start of the third Test, it seems not much has changed in the Indian camp. They are still fixated on Plan A — bat outside the crease, shift across towards off-stump, press forward and then get your hands towards the ball.
It is a plan that worked splendidly for Kohli in the first innings, but not everyone bats the same way. One player who is unique is Ravichandran Ashwin. He is the only batsman willing to go deep in his crease, let the ball come to him and play late. Importantly, he is also not obsessed with shifting his head across towards his off-stump. What that means is that any ball that is slightly shorter in length and even on the line of sixth stump, he can stand tall and either punch it off the back foot or play the square cut. So far in the four innings India have batted, he has been the only player to execute the cut shot.
It is also a method that Jonny Bairstow used to his advantage at Lord's. Bairstow, unlike the Indian top-order, ensured his head never went beyond the line of the off-stump, which meant he was always trying to stay on leg-side of the ball to open up scoring options through the off-side. Chris Woakes was not too dissimilar, although he shifted slightly more across his stumps. Other important aspect is neither of the English batsmen was desperate to come forward, preferring to hang back in a manner similar to Ashwin.
Study their wagon wheels and Woakes managed to hit seven boundaries and accumulated 50 runs in the section behind point. For India, apart from Ashwin, no other player — apart from a couple of adventurous hoicks by Mohammed Shami — managed to score a boundary in that quarter of the ground in the first innings at Lord's.
No doubt the England bowlers have been lot more accurate than the Indian seamers, but once you study the pitch maps of the first and second Tests, it is clear that India's scoring opportunities off the back-foot were curtailed due to their inability to push back or play the ball late.
For the two hours each batsman batted in the nets at Trent Bridge, there was no attempt to guide the ball off the back foot, nor was there a cut shot that was attempted. Revisit the pitch maps from Lord's and Edgbaston closely and there are approximately 60-70 balls on the eight-metre length and on the line of the seventh stump. Apart from a few guides or a steers from Kohli in the first innings in Edgbaston and a handful of cuts from Ashwin, a majority of those balls were left alone or defended.
Indian batsmen need to work out a method to score from those back-of-the-length deliveries at Nottingham. They have to go deeper in the crease and not be as committed on the front foot, or alternatively make certain that their trigger movement across the stumps is not as pronounced. The difficultly arises for the players because they are trying to train their minds to not play anything that is not drive-able and outside their eyeline. It has lead to them scoring runs either with drives down the ground, square of the wicket, or through occasional pushes through the on-side.
Test cricket is about finding a way to occupy the crease, but also score runs. Problem for India is that KL Rahul doesn’t cut, Kohli jumps on his toes and likes to guide the ball on the top of the bounce, Murali Vijay steers but with an open face and Pujara just uses his soft hands to deflect the ball.
Perhaps it is time to watch the England batsmen closely. There is still time, but adjustments need to be made quickly or the series will be over before they know it.