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Reverse swing: The elephant in the room

November 25, 2012

Our beloved national team may be taking a well-deserved break from the hectic international calendar, but there’s still more than enough top-level cricket going on to engage fans of all stripes.

Over in Bangladesh, West Indies are visiting for a full series, while down south in Sri Lanka, New Zealand are pitting their wits against the tropical islanders. Yet the marquee series of the moment is surely the four-Test battle between England and India that is taking place just across the border from us.

India of course have home advantage, and have already drawn first blood by winning the opening Test in Ahmedabad. But this is nevertheless a very challenging series for India. When they toured England in the summer of 2011, the Indians were trounced 4-0 in the four-match rubber, which means that nothing less than a 4-0 drubbing of England will satisfy the fans, now that they have a chance to return the favour on home soil.

Pakistan’s thumping 3-0 Test whitewash over England earlier this year in the UAE creates an added complication for India, as their passionate fan base will demand a victory margin as emphatic as Pakistan’s.

India’s chances for clean-sweeping the series looked bright at the outset, but after the first Test they have dimmed just a shade. Although the match was handily won by India, there was a good deal of stubborn resistance from some England batsmen in the second innings when they displayed a tenacious temperament and nimble footwork to stay at the crease for prolonged periods.

England captain Alistair Cook in particular, who fought his way to a memorable 176, demonstrated what England’s batting lineup could achieve in India with proper concentration and technique. Along with wicketkeeper-batsman Matt Prior, he negated the effect of India’s spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha.

By the time you read this, the second Test of the series, scheduled for Mumbai, will be two days old. India got lucky with the toss in Ahmedabad, allowing them to post a daunting first innings total that put England under pressure from the very first ball they faced. Things could get very interesting if the toss in Mumbai has gone in favour of England.

This series essentially is a battle between India’s spinners and England’s batsmen, which makes the toss of utmost importance. India is bound to prepare turning pitches at all the venues, on which no team will want to bat last.

One also expects that England’s batsmen would have done some homework after the Ahmedabad defeat. Ojha and Ashwin are both excellent and promising spinners, but they are not in the same class as Saeed Ajmal. The essence of quality spin lies in length, direction, flight, turn, and variation. Ojha and Ashwin have command of the first four, but are weak on variations.

Ashwin doesn’t have a doosra (the offspinner’s googly), and Ojha doesn’t really possess an effective arm ball (a potentially deadly variation for left-arm spinners). England have talented batsmen in the side and have the luxury of coaching advice from Graham Gooch, a former batting legend who is travelling with the team and who has a record of notable success in India.

The straightforward brief for England’s batsmen is to come at Ashwin and Ojha hard and strong, and to do so right from the outset. They can achieve this through a calm and considered approach based on correctly judging the length, reaching the pitch of the ball, and playing with the turn. They should take mental comfort that India’s spinners are unlikely to pop surprises.

While Ashwin does have a finger-flicked leg-break (so-called carom ball, because it gets flicked by the middle finger the way a striker is flicked in carom board) but it is easy to spot coming out of the hand. Judging the length well and spotting any variations early will allow England’s batsmen to stamp their authority virtually from the opening overs, and that will bring an invaluable psychological edge.

Perhaps the most crucial preparation for England’s batsmen is to exorcise the nightmare they had suffered against Pakistan in the UAE. If they remain mortified of reliving that disaster, it will complicate their thinking unnecessarily.

On the other hand, some solid time out in the middle will go a long way towards reversing the pressure. It will begin to suffocate the Indian side, who are very mindful that they must convincingly win each and every match of this four-Test series to satisfy the fans.

In this whole scenario, the elephant in the room is the absence of DRS. The role of decision-review technology received a great deal of attention during Pakistan’s series against England in the UAE, and with good reason, because it was instrumental in reversing a number of LBW decisions that were initially deemed not out.

This played havoc with the mindset of England’s batsmen, and it destroyed their footwork as the series progressed. India, somewhat controversially, have steered clear of using DRS in any of its international matches. This stubborn stance might well prove beneficial for England as they try to negotiate India’s webs of spin.