At the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore India and Australia are locked in a battle that has all the best of Test cricket. The bowlers are constantly asking questions and batsmen are forced to fight not merely to stay at the crease but for every run. The art of bowling and batting on surfaces such as this one are unfamiliar to players from both teams. What exactly are the challenges? What do they need to do to adapt? L Sivaramakrishnan, the former India spinner who has spent a lifetime watching cricket deconstructs the art of bowling and batting on turning tracks:
Both batting and bowling on turning pitches seems to be a challenge for India at the moment …
It certainly is. Because India doesn’t play domestic cricket on turning tracks any more. That’s considered to be a taboo. It’s one of the reasons why domestic cricket is played on neutral venues. But, if you are to breed young talent to play in India, in conditions that help spinners, you have to play domestic cricket on similar surfaces. Most countries win more at home than away. If India are going to use the home advantage of playing on turning tracks, they also have to learn to play spin and bowl spin on those surfaces.
What needs to be done to help players get better at using these conditions?
The basics at the grass-root level can come from playing on matting pitches. Under-13s should not be playing on very good batting pitches that they currently get. On matting these youngsters can get a good foundation to play the ball late, play the turning ball and play awkward bounce. On good matting wickets, technique will be tested early and they can make the necessary adjustment and corrections as early as possible.
What sort of pitches would you like to see in domestic cricket?
Right through this home season, India’s spinners have played on good pitches against England, New Zealand and Bangladesh. The average first-innings score was in excess of 500. What we’ve seen in the last three innings is two 100-odd scores and one that fell short of 200. India’s batsmen seem to be either unable to play the turning ball because they are either too premeditated or too committed to playing a shot. Pad play which used to exist in the past has gone out of the window. There a few factors for these changes in batting approach. One is Twenty20 cricket where everyone gets bat to ball and that becomes a habit. The pleasure of feeling the ball on the middle of the bat is what players want. Patience is something that they need to develop. In 50-over games, batsmen get enough ones and twos, and this should be used in Test cricket also when there are in-out fields. You have to pick up those ones and twos to rotate the strike.
For a spinner what is the biggest challenge on a turner?
If the batsman has solid defence, then the spinner has to do something totally different, out of the box. Defence is the foundation for any batsman. As a bowler, if I sense that I have very little chance of beating a batsman’s defence, then I have to try and induce him to play the drive. On a turning track if I have to flight the ball a really good batsman will be able to use his feet, get to the pitch and not allow the ball to turn. In trying that extra bit, the bowler could bowl a short ball. Bowlers are not machines. Mistakes are bound to creep in. If batsmen make mistakes they get out. If bowlers make mistakes they get hit for boundaries. The art of bowling on turning pitches also comes with pressure. As a spinner, if you concede runs on a turning pitch, shoulders are bound to droop. If batsmen rotate the strike, you don’t have the process of setting up a dismissal. When the batsmen are constantly rotating strike, the bowler can get desperate, and then the bad balls will come. When a partnership builds up the pressure shifts onto the bowlers. On a turner, even one big partnership can be enough to win the game.
Should domestic cricket be played on uniform pitches of a certain kind?
Neutral curators is not a bad idea. But then players should get the opportunity to play on all kind of surfaces. Let them get well used to playing on the kind of surfaces they are likely to get in international home series. If India are travelling to England or South Africa you can always have an extended camp in a place such as Lahli where the ball does a lot all day. But, in preparing to play outside India, you should not end up in a situation where you are losing in India. If you choose to play Test cricket on turning tracks, you should be well equipped to play on these surfaces.
How was Steven Smith able to adapt so well in Pune?
In Pune, when Smith made a hundred, he was well prepared and had a specific plan. He was playing well within the line of his body. Although Jadeja beat him perhaps 40-50 times, he never edged the ball because he was playing inside the line. I saw first hand in Pune that Smith was the first person at the ground. At 7.30 in the morning, Smith was there with S Sriram, now part of Australia’s coaching staff. Sriram used to throw 100-150 balls to Smith, who was batting without a pad on his front leg. Smith wanted to get leg before out of the way, and bat meeting the ball to become a habit. That is quality preparation. Smith might have been put down a few times in that innings, but the important thing from Smith’s point of view was that he did all that he could. The important thing from the team’s point of view is that they got the runs on the board. That helps you win matches. The pitch was conducive to take the 20 wickets needed, and before that Smith had put the runs on the board.
What would you hate to see in a batsman if you were a spinner bowling on a turning track?
As a spinner, if the target is not moving, is playing from the crease, then length becomes a permanent spot. If a spinner can bowl consistently on one spot, then he’s on top of the batsman. If the batsman uses the depth of the crease a good length ball can be converted to a short ball and a scoring opportunity. On a turning track, the deviation off the surface will open up scoring options square of the wicket on either side depending on what type of spinner is operating. When the batsman is moving around, the bowler’s length is also constantly changing. The spinner can’t just keep bowling on one spot and expect wickets. If the batsman isn’t using his feet, the spinner can keep repeating his action, land the ball on a spot and allow the pitch to do the job. That also allows the bowler to plan a dismissal, set up a batsman. With that being the case, it’s not hitting fours and sixes that is needed on a turning track. As a batsman, the aim should be to get off strike as soon as possible. This means bowlers cannot dominate.
Is bowling flat always only a restrictive move?
Trajectory is very important. There are people who mistake bowling a flatter trajectory with bowling fast. Nathan Lyon bowled a flatter trajectory. On a good pitch you will naturally have a higher trajectory because you need to beat the batsman in flight. This also means you have to put more spin on the ball to get it to dip. On a pitch where the ball is turning, you have to bowl a flatter trajectory, but still be able to vary your pace.
How difficult is it for a spinner to bowl a different pace depending on the conditions?
At the highest level it should not be too much of a problem. It’s about basics. If you have a high hand speed like Graeme Swann did, it becomes difficult to bowl slower without a change in action. But bowlers like Ashwin and Lyon should not find it difficult to change the point of release and thereby control the pace. That is a minor adjustment. What Lyon did well was use his body in the action, seam pointing to fine-leg, getting plenty of overspin on the ball. When you do that, there is bound to be a lot of bounce.
How much turn does a spinner need to get to be successful?
The width of the stump is nine inches. If you’re turning the ball more than nine inches, you are going to miss your target. Or you are pitching the ball outside the line of the stumps and probably taking lbw out of the equation. The batsman can get his pad outside the line of the ball. If you turn the ball big, it’s only to create panic. What will get you wickets is turning the ball eight inches or less. With the DRS bringing umpire’s call into play when half the ball is hitting the stumps, the nine inches margin is reduced to eight inches. With the ball turning a lot, very umpires will give the batsman out in a marginal call. The benefit of doubt will go with the batsman. With this being the margin of turn, if you turn the ball big, you will look good, there will be a lot of oohs and aahs on the field, the batsman will look silly at times, but if he is a good player he will wait for the loose balls and make you pay.
In today’s cricket, if you can turn the ball six to eight inches, you will get wickets even on flat wickets. Batsmen these days do not have the patience to stay at the crease long without scoring. Part of the problem is that very few modern batsmen trust their defence. And this comes from not practicing it enough. If you see batsmen in the nets, they are looking to smash the ball to all parts. Unless you practice long enough, something is not going to come easily to you out in the middle in a match.
A lot has been said about Nathan Lyon’s overspin. What role does this play?
Overspin is important because the ball will turn less, but it has extra bounce. When you reduce the deviation, for wicket-taking deliveries, is when you make the batsman play. Also, when the batsman misses the ball, there is a higher chance of him being bowled or leg before when the ball is not turning too much. Balls that don’t turn and bounce too much are the ones that get you wickets on turning tracks. It’s fantastic to watch huge turn, but it’s more important to bowl the kind of deliveries that are most likely to get you wickets. If Steve O’ Keefe is getting batsman out lbw or bowled on a turning track, it shows that he is bowling straight. The art of bowling straight on a turner is a most difficult one. It doesn’t happen overnight, it doesn’t happen with two days of practice.
In your playing days which batsmen were the best on turning tracks, in domestic cricket?
Ashok Mankad, Brijesh Patel, Parthasarathy Sharma were outstanding on turning pitches. These batsmen would read the bowler’s mind. The other thing in common is they had rock-solid defence and patience. The bowler is bound to get tired and every wicketless over increases the pressure on the bowler. These batsman could grind a bowler down even on a turning track.
And who was the best bowler or a turner?
Venkataraghavan. On turning tracks he would bowl quick through the air, getting turn and bounce and hit the batsman repeatedly on the chest. I’ve fielded close-in to Venky bowling and seen this again and again. But, he would set the batsman up with these deliveries and look to get them out with the ball that he under-cut, the one that pitched and went away from the right-hand batsman. Either the ball would take the top of off stump or go off the outside edge to slip. Also, he would give nothing away. When the pitch was doing something, Venky would be deadly accurate, not allowing the batsmen to score.
(This interview first appeared on Cricbuzz on March 5, 2017)