Venkat Ananth

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Swing When You’re Winning

 

Hopefully, this isn't a one-off.

 

For the most part of Friday, India's
bowling unit, much hacked at times (occasionally by this writer too) for its
hapless demeanour, tardy execution and even ragged discipline, showed how good
they were. Bloody good. The Indian bowling unit's display at Trent Bridge was
not just a stupendously refreshing sight, but one that is reassuring or
comforting, given that these events took place without Zaheer Khan, widely
considered the leader/mentor of this fledgling bowling attack.

 

Indeed, one could argue the conditions were
massively skewed in favour of the bowlers, and this performance was largely par
for the course, but what makes this special is that the Indian attack seemed to
have measured their mistakes from London, and quickly corrected them, the
lengths, the lines, the tactics, everything.

 

For five hours at least, it was a pleasure
to watch the Indian bowlers swing the Dukes ball as prodigiously as they did,
with an immense sense of control, a respect for the conditions without trying
that bit extra to exploit them and importantly, they stuck to their respective
unique lengths, a feature missing till the fourth day at Lord's.

 

Those lengths were mainly aggressive -
fuller, often straighter, and giving the ball to swing and swing late into or
away from the batsman, giving him little chance to nullify the wobbling ball.
The English batsmen tried everything, batting at least a yard or two outside
the crease to negate the swing, trying to play the ball as close to the body or
even late, with some amount of guesswork that demands playing quality swing,
but I am afraid, their replies weren't simply good enough. Importantly, as a
unit, the Indian bowlers put up a rare display of collective intent from the
very first ball, all three of them.

 

Now to how they bowled the way they did.
This exhibition was very well thought-out, with a good mix of how they'd work
batsmen over, set up wickets by bowling an array of lengths to the
right-handers (with a tight line of course) and then, throw in the sucker ball,
which eventually tends to draw a poor shot from the batsman. I thought Praveen
Kumar bowled to his strengths, firstly to settle on a length, just full enough
to make the batsman play and from there on swung the ball both ways.

 

Also, his burst at the start was mighty
impressive, bowling in the channels batsmen don't prefer seeing the ball in
swinging conditions, especially when both the left-handed openers England have
quite like staying back and playing square of the wicket, rather than being
forced to drive straight or through the covers. For the left-handers, it was
always about the odd-ball that came in, particularly to Andrew Strauss. He
should have had Alastair Cook out leg-before, but that ball, surely did play
some part in what eventually happened when Ishant got rid of him next over,
rather luckily as one could argue. But, that wicket went a long way in pretty
much knowing what and where to bowl under these conditions, and equally, made
it easier for the likes of Sreesanth, who came first change.

 

The other impressive bit I found about this
bowling effort yesterday was the relentlessness of it all. Sreesanth for
example, came first change and did the job in his very first over, where he got
Jonathan Trott forward, attempting a drive against a perfectly pitched up
outswinger, one of those dream deliveries he is quite capable of.

 

Technically speaking, that delivery was
right out of the "Dummy's Guide to Swing-bowling" book, pretty much because the
seam position that Sreesanth has this rare ability to present and the almost
perfect release that is the norm in his case, the ball landed on the seam, on a
pitched up fullish length, did just enough to move late and away from Trott,
who by then was already into his shot - a drive, and the waiting slip cordon
did the rest, as they say. Ditto for Kevin Pietersen's wicket, at one of the
more  critical junctures in the game -
hammering in the advantage immediately post-lunch, with that slightly short of
a length outswinger, which Pietersen inevitably had a dart at, and again slip
comes in to play. But there's an interesting angle to this wicket, perhaps that
might go unnoticed.

 

Pietersen's tendency to walk into the
shots, plonk that front-foot forward, big stride and follow-through, was
spotted by Praveen Kumar in an over before lunch, where he twice tried to flick
him through mid-wicket, and this almost by habit. But as bowlers have figured
Pietersen out in the past, there's a slightly different length you bowl to him.
And Sreesanth found it pretty early - just short of length, and with the shape
he naturally gets, Pietersen fell for the trap and that was that. If I were to
be generous, I'd give the wicket as much to Praveen Kumar for doing the first
bit of drawing him forward, as much as Sreesanth for bowling what was the
sucker ball in this case.

 

Another example of perfect tactical
execution, with skill would be when Praveen Kumar got rid of Andrew Strauss.
The important bit to note here is the over prior to his dismissal, where he
just replaced Ishant Sharma. Ian Bell, who was then batting was hogging most of
the strike (2 overs from Sharma and Sreesanth), and once he started playing
Praveen, the bowler was more intent on taking the ball away from the
left-hander, wider from his bat, trying to induce a fall-stroke with the
batsman chasing the ball. Next over, first ball, if I am not mistaken, Praveen
lands the ball around off and takes it away, again, drawing Strauss forward and
making him play at that one forcibly, a false stroke with the waiting slip.
Same over and three balls later, Eoin Morgan yet again caught on the crease
with all that initial shimmy or exaggerated setup before playing the ball.
Praveen, with a slight variation in line this time, just enough to keep the
batsman tied to his crease, hits the pad, top of off stump, thank you very much.

 

Very very impressive execution by Praveen
Kumar, in these two cases - the Strauss wicket especially, where Sreesanth and
Ishant played their part by tying Bell to his end, not giving away the strike
too easily. But surely, the ball of the day belonged to Sreesanth, so bloody
good that pardon me when I say this, it would have gotten Bradman out. Matthew
Prior, that ball! Play it again, and again and again and again. Sreesanth's
first ball to Prior in that game (Bell again took most of the strike after Morgan
departed) and the ball, just short of a length, perfect line outside off,
enough to square him up and wait -- forcing him to play the ball, the bat
hanging in the air, not good enough to cover the swing, and gone. Easy as?
Again, lack of footwork, with a super bowling partnership, where Praveen in his
twin-wicket over brings Prior forward.

 

Mind you, Sreesanth's previous over to Bell
was just brilliant, beating the bat twice or thrice along the way, the channel
starting wide, getting narrower as the over progressed, closer to the batsman.
The other attribute that I thought Sreesanth did very well was with the use of
the crease. He came closer to the wicket at times (best demonstrated in the
Bell over) and went wider, just to change the angle from where the ball is a)
delivered and b) swings away from the batsman.

 

Not to be undone with the two exponents of
quality swing bowling, I thought Dhoni and the think-tank used Ishant in a very
important role. His job early on (other than picking wickets) was to keep
hammering away at a length, keep the batsmen rooted to their crease and of
course keep pushing them back while the other two were more suited to drawing
them forward. Where Ishant has come of age in recent months is the consistency
with which he keeps bowling back of a length, almost perching the ball there,
to try and use slight variations of line, very marginal difference, though. I'd
also imagine his area of operation and potency would be back of a length and
fuller. Not too full, not too short either. The Bresnan dismissal was about his
ability to get the ball to angle in to the right-hander from his natural spot
(just back of a length).

 

The ball, which came into the right-hander
kind of opened up Bresnan, got into an awkward, ungainly position where edged
it, slip again no mistake. The only real dismissal, which didn't quite come
through quality bowling in that England innings - that of Ian Bell, after a
gritty solo effort, a terrible shot, away from the body and into Dhoni's
gloves. A real bad shot, but that was about it. Of course, Praveen Kumar's
snorter to Graeme Swann rearing off a length, reminiscent of Sreesanth's lethal
delivery to Kallis in South Africa was some effort and some magic, but rather
disappointingly, it came 40 runs too late.

 

The most disappointing feature about
Friday's display was that apparent brainfreeze that has become a regular habit
with this Indian team. Upto tea, they embodied perfection, intent and every
other positive attribute, only to be undone by an hour of tactical bizarreness
and subsequent blunders. The fields were pushed back for no.9 and no. 10
batsmen, the pace bowlers lost their respective rhythm, not just with the
counter-attack the two of them were involved in, to good effect, but things
just stopped happening. I thought, Dhoni went on the defensive then, moving
away from the fields he so impressively set for some of the English top-order,
resulting in an hour of madness. The bowling obviously backed up the tactical
deficit with less than ordinary performance, but this is one area where India
need to shore up, and rather quickly - with the same amount of intensity as
they did with the new ball.

 

Having said that, for the five hours of joy
they gave me, with the most advanced display of swing bowling, much like what
we witnessed last year when Pakistan were in England, I am willing to forgive
that phase of dementia as if it never happened. I thought, after a long long
time I witnessed something special from a bowling attack that was under the
microscope for its (in)ability to take twenty wickets. Yes, they still are a
work in progress and only threaten to get better with experience. For now,
they've done half the job. Over to Laxman and Dravid.

 

 

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