“You can’t just stand there and take whatever is coming your way and not show intent at all,” Virat Kohli said in South Africa. It revealed the approach the skipper wanted his batsmen to take.
It probably also revealed why he had opted for Shikhar Dhawan at the top of the innings. Except that the aggressive Dhawan showed pretty poor judgement in his shot selection and timing.
Frankly, Team India and Kohli need an opener in the Virender Sehwag mould to disrupt the opposition’s plans. Sehwag was not just an attacking batsman who put bowlers under the cosh but was also a street-smart operator.
A couple of intriguing tales of Sehwag’s smartness will bring to the fore the master-batsman’s instant out-of-the-box thinking in tough situations.
In one of his career’s early overseas tour games, the opponents were bowling in the corridor just outside the off stump and harrying the Indian batsmen. Sehwag, noticing this, asked for off stump guard. The pacers instantly changed their line of bowling, hoping to get him bowled around his legs with outswingers. But Sehwag would slowly inch back to a conventional leg-middle stump guard when the bowlers were at the top of their run-up and had their back turned to him. This way their around-the-legs line attempt was ideal for his bread-and-butter leg glance. Before they realised his ploy, he had scored four or five boundaries off his legs and eased the pressure.
In another instance, in an English county game one of the Pakistani pacers was troubling the batsmen with reverse swing. Sehwag did not bother trying to understand the dynamics of the swing. He slammed a ball from the other bowler out of the park. The replaced ball would not reverse and had to be worked upon for a few overs. By then, the batsmen were on their way!
Sehwag’s smart thinking and clean, aggressive batsmanship often terrorised bowlers. Pakistan bore the brunt of this as one triple ton and two double tons off their bowlers show. Importantly, because of his aggressive streak, opposition bowlers concentrated on getting rid of him as soon as possible. This allowed other batsmen to gradually slip into their role. It would be no exaggeration to state that many of India’s Test wins during the period owed their success to Sehwag and his brilliant disruptive batting.
Kohli probably wants Dhawan to play that role. But the opener is a long way off from surviving, let alone putting pressure on the opposition bowlers.
Perhaps the constant interaction and exposure during the Indian Premier League with Indian players has made the South African bowlers wisen up to Dhawan’s ways. In the first Test at least, he didn’t get room on the off-side to play his cut shots and drives. Nor did he get anything pitched up on the leg. The South African pacers targeted his right armpit to cramp him up and leave him hopping around.
Dhawan needs to be a lot smarter at the crease. He has to get the South Africans to bowl in his area of strength. In the meantime they won’t lose interest in bodyline bowling unless he learns to duck or sway out of the way consistently. The hook shot on fast, bouncy tracks is neither his nor Rohit Sharma’s strong suits.
Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara are laborious prodders. They would be good on true bounce, fast pitches. But the ones that support seam bowling, like the one at Cape Town, are a different matter altogether. The seaming ball is like a lottery; the batsman does not know which one has his number. If the batsman is lucky, he’d get beaten. If not, he’d snick or get trapped in front or bowled.
To get back to the Sehwag mantra, he was not a quick runner between the wickets. But because the opposition would invariably have a couple of fielders very deep for him it allowed him to rotate strike.
India’s top order too needs to do that. Belting the ball to far corners is one thing. Being nimble and rotating strike is another. It would help to take pressure off the batsmen. They should aim for that, at least in the initial stages of the innings.
In the first Test, Hardik Pandya did a terrific job in disrupting the bowlers in the first essay. Even R Ashwin tried a different strategy by standing well outside the crease to counter the reverse-swing of Vernon Philander. Others too need to shake the South Africans out of their comfort zone.
Not everyone can bat with the destructive brilliance of Sehwag. But surely, as Pandya and Ashwin have shown, there are other ways to be disruptive. At least one top order batsman needs to deliver thus.