“Indian Heavyweights,” Ponting, Reverse Swing, Bounce

Michael Roberts

The First Test between India and Australia at Mohali near Chandigarh this past week has confirmed the extraordinary degree to which these two countries produce extraordinary matches. A tied Test at Chennai in September 1986 and a topsy-turvy game and turn around at Eden Garden in Calcutta in 2001 has now been complemented by a riveting match at Mohali.

Fittingly, India won the matches at Calcutta and Mohali and, remarkably, Very Very Special Laxman was a pivotal figure in the fourth innings on both occasions. The Test match at Calcutta in 2001 was marked by high scores and Rahul Dravid’s 155 was solid foil for Laxman’s 281 in an amazing reversal of fortunes that brought victory to India. No wonder then that Anand Vasu sculpted these words: “Laxman carves a place for himself in history at the Eden Garden.”

 Pics: courtesy of The Hindu,                                                  

The game at Mohali may not have served up fourth-innings centuries, but Laxman’s measured determination and an uncanny ability to manufacture boundaries was displayed by an astounding run-rate of 92.40. In any event he confirmed Ponting’s complimentary pre-Test depiction of the Indian line-up as a body of “heavyweights,” viz., Sehwag, Gambhir, Laxman, Dravid, Tendulkar, Raina [add Dhoni] in an article in the Australian on 30 September 2010.Sehwag was perhaps the most feared of the six and most mentioned by the TV commentators – not unreasonably in the light of his recent record in Test matches. But when push came to shove it was Laxman who made the difference. In contrast Sehwag got out to a poor stroke in the second innings as did a few others; while Dhoni made a fundamental error as non-striker that should be a lesson to all cricketers – pointing towards what one should not do in running between wickets.And why do I, in opposition to Mark Waugh’s view that a tie was appropriate, consider the outcome, namely, India’s triumph, “fitting”? For three reasons: 1) because India suffered more from short-term injuries than Australia  — Sharma and Laxman in the respective first innings as opposed to Bollinger in the fourth innings;; 2) because the greater number of erroneous umpiring decisions went against India; and 3) and, to my mind, the most critical of these was Bowden’s horrendous lbw decision against Gambhir in the very first over of the Indian second innings. This gave the Aussies a tremendous boost on the evening of day four and at that point I thought the game was Australia’s because the Gambhir-Sehwag opening partnerships have been one of the platforms for Indian successes in recent years.Bowden’s decision was among the twenty worst umpiring decisions I have ever seen; but as if that was not enough Gould and Bowden committed other blunders that were in the second tier of horror (e.g. Hussey, Sharma lbw decisions). As some TV commentators at the Australian end noted, it is a puzzle why the Review System is not universally in place at this level of cricket.Here, the blame lies squarely and mostly on super-power India’s shoulders. I refer here to its Board of Cricket. But, if grapevine whispers that circulated in 2008 after the Sri Lanka series can be relied on, I have a feeling that the powerful voices of Kumble and Tendulkar may have been a factor in the obduracy of the Indian authorities in this crucial aspect of the game. If this suspicion is valid, then the great god Tendulkar’s epitaph has to be sullied by red crosses of vermilion.In this regard a significant exchange occurred, incidentally at one point during the ODI series at Dambulla recently when Tony Greig and Arun Lal were on air. A bad decision went against India and for Lanka (or New Zealand). Arun Lal’s patriotism came to the fore in an exclamation of disgust. Tony immediately and yet gently cut him down: “you, India, were the ones who refused to allow referrals” (or words to that effect).Indeed, they did? And why pray? Do not tell me that Indian cricket is short of money.

Reverse Swing

And if there are tales to be told, Ponting’s essay in the Australian tells us that we are a long way from deciphering the secrets of reverse swing. He was reflecting on their experiences in the warm-up game as part of his assessment of the scene prior to the First Test.

You hear people talk about the mysteries of India and one of the mysteries we always find is reverse swing. The boys got it going in the first innings but not in the second. The ball really scuffed up first time around and after just three or four overs one side had lost big chunks and when that happens we know that if we look after the good side, then it will reverse quickly. On the last day it scuffed up, but didn’t get the marks and didn’t reverse. It probably didn’t help that the spinners bowled earlier. If anyone could explain to me why it reverses some days and not others I would be delighted. There is a lot of science around it – probably a bit too much for our fast bowlers at times — but it is not an exact science.

In an era marked by refined analysis and planning based on advanced technology, we may well consider this murky area to be a blessing that contributes to the glorious uncertainties of cricket.

Tall Lithe Pace Bowlers A-Plenty

But what Ponting had to say about his crop of pacemen and Australia’s reserve stocks of fast bowlers is as frightening as it is awesome. They have lots of tall-timber lining up: Peter George, Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson, Mitchell Starc.

Tall blokes means lots of bounce rearing up at opposing batsmen: to quote Ricky Ponting once again — “I have always said that it is not express pace that gets good players out, it is bounce and the most difficult bowlers any of us face are the big tall guys like Harmison and Flintoff who are tall in their delivery and get the ball to rise up at you. That is what George has going for him, it is what Josh Hazlewood has going for him but unfortunately he couldn’t get fit and his replacements, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson, are tall too. It is something that our bowling coach Troy Cooley has been looking for over the past couple of years. He wants guys with height who can extract what life there is from pitches.”

It was bounce that undid several Indian batsmen even at Mohali: the wickets of Sehwag, Raina and Harbhajan Singh in the second innings attest to Ponting’s perceptive, albeit obvious, comment.

So bounce is what Sri Lanka’s Squad of XVI can expect when they play in Australia at the beginning of the Australian season, especially at the Gabba and WACA. In fact the Australian Selectors have prepared the arena for a gruelling summer and the Ashes tour by resting the leading pacemen during the ODI series against the Indians in mid-October. So when Lanka reach the continent down under they will have to bear the full force of a rejuvenated Australian pace team: Johnston, Hilfenhaus, Bollinger, with the prospect of Ryan Harris, Brett Lee and Peter Siddle (when they recover from injury), George, Mackay, Starc and Hazelwood as back-ups (and Watson and Hopes as allrounders).

Whether swing, reverse swing, pace and/or bounce, the prospects are grim. It was, therefore, a wise move by SL cricket to send the A Team to Australia in mid-2010 so that some of the newcomers — Chandimal, Jeewan Mendis and Tissara Perera for example — have had some exposure to Australia’s bouncy-pacey pitches.

Looking to the immediate future in broad generalisation: if we consider the phenomenon of blokes like Lubjic, Querry and Isner in tennis and Finn in cricket, the Bangladeshi,  India and Sri Lankan universe of cricket is going to be at a disadvantage in relation to Britain,   Australia, South Africa, the Caribbean, Afghanistan and Pathan Pakistan in the prospect of generating lithe six-foot-six fast bowlers. So, they must concentrate on reproducing little maestros of the Tendulkar and Aravinda variety… or magicians of the Murali-kind.  Some steely-silky Laxmans would be an added bonus.

Leave a comment

Filed under performance, player selections, technology and cricket

Leave a Reply