Rigid and fixed leadership in any sphere of life is always counterproductive. Sport is no exception. It seems that our cricket team is currently suffering from this disease. It seems that the highest leadership consisting of coaches and captains is not only rigid, but also fixed in thinking when it comes to choosing a team. There are times when leadership needs to be rigid for a particular issue or need. This rigidity is called courage of conviction or taking a stand in the interest of the team. Rigidity is actually one of the options that a flexible leader can use in case the need arises. However, if that becomes the only option, the problems abound. The leadership of the Indian cricket team, on their tour of England, seems to be suffering from this disease.
English time and playing conditions are more suitable for fast bowlers than spinners. But does that mean spinners are redundant? Does that mean the team can get to the boot without a top spinner in the country with 413 bags in the bag and five trial centuries? Just to know, Moeen Ali, an English off-spinner on a part-time basis, has enviable results against India in England. He took 31 passes, in seven tests averaging 22 against the Indians who are supposedly great spinning ball players. So spin is not superfluous in English terms. Still, in the first four tests of the series, Ashwin warmed up the benches along the border and continues to wonder why he’s not in the middle of bowling on the English who are reportedly more vulnerable to turning than to tempo.
The captain’s logic that he had not chosen Ashvin confused all the experts. He thought he could use the footprints left by Ravindra Jade’s fast bowlers against four left-handed strikers on the English side. Another thing is that in the first three tests there was no evidence of such exploitation. To this day, most experts have always argued that the bowler outside the break is a powerful weapon against left-handed strikers because he could turn the ball around for them. The leadership also conveniently overlooked the fact that historically Lords terrain has been turning for the past two days.
A five-ball attack in playing penalties is always welcome, and the captain is firmly convinced of the same. He often pointed out that if six hitters can’t do the job, there is no guarantee that an additional seventh will do it. One would like to believe that the same logic applies to fast bowlers. If three world-class rapids can’t deliver, then there’s no guarantee that four will do. In such a scenario, perhaps a world-class spin bowler player of Ashwin’s pedigree could be a better bet than a fourth-seeder. But inexplicably, the team leadership prefers to go with a smaller spinner and four quick ones at all costs. Call it stiffness, stubbornness or fixation – whatever you want.
As for hitting, Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have been fighting, which is worrying for the last eighteen months. This concern does not subside during the current tour of England. The performance of both in the last four rehearsals, including the World Cup final, was below par. Still, the captain and coach insisted on both for the rehearsal, which began Sept. 2 at the Lords. Both have failed again in the first changes of the match, leaving India in a precarious position as Mayank, Vihari, Surya Kumar, Prithvi Shaw and others continue to warm the benches on the sidelines.
What message does the team leadership send to these players who are the future of Indian cricket? How long does the proverbial ‘long rope’ take for non-performance? Is past reputation the only selection criterion in eleven players? The Indian cricket board can boast of its strength on the bench. But if that power is not harnessed, then what is the point of developing it? Even if they failed, at least they would gain experience of English conditions for the future. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Rahane and Pujara who are at the end of their careers.
Test cricket has undergone a change of mindset following the advent of white ball cricket.
Aggressive players like Jayasurya, Sehwag, Warner and Brendon McCullum were key in making this change. Many of them were able to score close to a hundred runs in just one test session. The secret of these running machines was their ability to hit balls outside the stump that most hitters tend to abandon. The arc starting from the third slip, groove, point and to the point of shelter was where they got a lot of running against the fast bowlers except for a few edges that went to the fence between or over the heads of the sliding players. Today, those skills seem to be declining and leaving all the balls out of the stump is back in vogue.
In principle, there are three types of balls located on or outside the stump that speed bowls the bowl. These are:
- One that is thrown on a stump or up to two stumps further, and then swings further. The scorer has no choice but to play most of such balls by showing off a defensive stick after covering his stump and hoping he won’t get hit by a guard or the first two sauces. A striker deserves the epithet ‘good left’ only if he assesses the line, swing and height of such a ball and successfully leaves it. Such balls can be scored only if it is raised and becomes a semi-volley that breaks through the shelters or in the middle by stepping forward to get closer to the field of the ball. Depending on the skill of the bowler, he can return it after the throw to shoot the stumps. Whether he enters or swings further, such balls are the most dangerous for the striker and he has no choice but to play with them.
- Next is one that throws about three to six stumps on the off side and goes on. Most balls land on this line. The bowler hopes the hitter will chase the ball and get hit to bring the slides and ditch into action. Most coaches advise leaving such balls. This is how Sehwagu-like players differ from their coaches. It is important to understand that LBW and bowled options are thrown out of the equation for such balls. So, if the ball is long or short, the aggressive and confident striker crosses the back foot, crosses the ball, and performs a horizontal stick strike through the arc from the third slip to the stow point. If it is full length, he takes a long step forward and plays it with a flat stick between the shelter and the middle. If it merges, the ball always rushes to the fence because a lone player in depth cannot patrol the entire arc. If excessive bounce occurs, one may consider leaving such balls unless he has the skill to play the top cut and send the ball out of the park.
- Then there is the last kind of ball that is far outside and goes on. Such balls are best left alone as they will always be played away from the body rather than controlling the shot.
There is no doubt that, depending on the conditions, the first 10-15 overs must be played with caution and it might be reasonable to leave most balls out. But at some point, players have to start scoring with the ball from the outside, especially those whose line is three to six stumps away. If a player is shy and unsure of playing such running balls, then the team’s scoring rate will always be slow and lead to more pressure on the strikers to follow.
Statistics show that the maximum number of runs against new bowlers is recorded in the area between the slip and the shelter point. Leaving all the balls outside, we give up that lucrative option. In this regard, the Indian strikers from the first line are to blame and that is why the team tried to put great results on the board in most of the changes.
Does the captain worry that with the ax of one or both of these senior hitters he might provoke criticism of his own form and performance? If this is the case, then we have the wrong leader who betrays the team because of personal fears. Any such apprehension of a captain is wrong because his place on the team is not a problem at all. As for the coach, it is a common opinion that he allows the captain to be on his own and ashamed to lower his leg. The special kindness that the coach and captain have enjoyed over the years is attributed by many to this coaching accommodation. One would like to believe that this is not the case, but then it is up to him to dismiss such accusations with his actions.
The views expressed above are those of the authors.
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