The defensive drift

India's conservative tactics are a departure from the aggression and confidence of the Ganguly era.


With their famed bounce-backability gone, there’s a shocking sense of familiarity to everything India ended up doing on the ground in Sydney. A ‘best in the world’ batting order didn’t have the technique for the fast, bouncy conditions and worse, also lacked the will to fight.

The spiritless bowling attack lacked the intensity expected of an international attack. It showed tiny patches of brilliance accompanied by a frustrating addiction for mediocrity. And sadly, the captain's continual refuge in defensive methods is hurting the team. In short, the demeanour of this Indian team in Australia looks, in two words, utterly clueless.

A majority of India’s problems in Test lately come from a regressive mindset that consumes their style of play. This needs immediate and desperate addressing if India are to progress from here, forget levelling the series.

Conservatism has crept into our game, a regrettable departure from the mindset Mahendra Singh Dhoni inherited from the likes of Sourav Ganguly, who had brought a sense of adventurism, aggression and confidence in Indian cricket. Dhoni, sadly, has taken the other way out: his captaincy is pragmatic, passive, and formulae-laden. 

During their 15-month reign as the No. 1 Test team (mainly through wins in the sub-continent), Dhoni’s methods looked sellable. When the losses have started to pile up, it looks ugly, ungainly and horribly exposed. The interesting (or rather bizarre) coincidence is that India’s defensive drift begins around the same time when they reached the top.

Conventional thinking suggests most teams would have pretty much opted for setting the pace, going ahead of the pack, showing a ruthless streak that separated them from the trailers. Sadly, India obsessed over their status and found ways to protect it rather than taking that big leap forward. India won a majority of their home matches with a tactical template — defensive fields, slow and low wickets, the turning ball — which visiting batsmen have struggled to cope with.

Overseas, India have made an awful habit of letting the game drift from positions of relative strength. Australia 37/3 in Sydney and 27/4 in Melbourne were strong positions to lose from). What began in New Zealand (23/3 at Napier, NZ ended up with 610), followed itself to Sri Lanka (Lasith Malinga, Rangana Herath and Ajantha Mendis scoring fifties), continued through the tour of South Africa and England last year is hurting the team today. A phenomenal start, with a chronic inability to deliver the proverbial knockout punch.

And at times when they had to be on the offensive, Dhoni’s tactical naïveté meant the initiative was more or less drifting away. Even for that matter, that aborted run-chase at Dominica when the target was worth taking a shot at, Dhoni chose the safe-than-sorry option, again pointing towards an inclination to poignant defensive mindset.

THE FIELD POSITIONS

Let’s start with field positions. Dhoni’s flirtation with the defensive translates to field positions being circumstantial or reactive. Equally problematic is his bullheadedness about a particular plan. Once the plan fails, push back the field. Or in other words, set fields for bad bowling. Imminently, there’s lack of belief in the bowling attack which feeds into the level of helplessness that Dhoni pretty much embodies, that horrible feeling of resignation and withdrawal that permeates through the ranks quickly.

Deep-fields acutely illustrate India’s tactical deficiencies. They won’t get you wickets. They’re fields set in reaction to devious bowlers, which equally highlights the tactical deficit among India’s bowlers. When you have the opposition at 27/3, conventional thinking would require you to go for broke, meaning you try to get them at 116/6 at the end of the day, instead of 116/3.

In easier words, deep fields aren’t run-saving positions either. They make gaps easier to manoeuvre and worse, let partnerships develop. While a firm shot to deep point (the symbol of India’s tactical deficiencies overseas) may get you a single in Kanpur, Australia’s fitter and more athletic batting line-up is likely to push for the extra couple of runs on those massive grounds.

Hence, far from saving the situation, those fields slowly and steadily take the game away from you. That’s endgame, best exemplified by Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting and later Michael Hussey. Quite simply, what works in your backyard doesn’t exactly work abroad, does it? The six Test matches have quite shown that.

THE INTENT

Sehwag's continued spell in Sydney showed India's lack of intent.If bowlers can’t execute plans well, a word or two could possibly bring them back on track. Instead, the wicketkeeper, in this case, the captain himself, with his drooping shoulders and a passive look, seems he has already given up. The message to the bowler, thus is, “Keep bowling the proverbial, you have protection” and a single off the pads on the leg-side becomes numerically better than three streaky edges for four through the slip cordon.

Worse, nothing else could pardon India’s lack of intensity. At Sydney, on Day 1, with nine overs to go till close, India’s bowlers were simply ambling in when you can certainly expect a Peter Siddle or a Dale Steyn to charge in. But Dhoni let Virender Sehwag (a part-timer) with two overs left. Why?

Equally, where is the tactical preparation for an important tour? Where are those specific plans? If India’s think-tank sat down and watched carefully how England defeated Australia (comprehensively, at that) in the Ashes, they’d have noticed two clear things. Firstly, Andrew Strauss took the attack to the opposition — at no point did England seem out of place, tactically. Aggressive fields with a relentless bowling attack made for an impeccably feisty combination, and that’s all it takes.

Secondly, every single time they had Australia on the mat, they just seized the moment, initiative and blunted every possibility of a counter attack. Ditto for South Africa when they won in 2008. When you look at how teams have tended to beat Australia away from home, it’s a fairly simple mantra — attack, attack, attack, and hey, it bloody works.

MARCH FORWARD

Can India tactically evolve themselves into a more aggressive team under Dhoni? Possibly. How do we go about doing that?

First and foremost, shed that formula that works expertly in the subcontinent and looks out of place overseas. Secondly, irrespective of whatever the score is, keep attacking for longer periods of time before spreading the field (if you have to). Attacking fields not just keep the bowlers and the batsmen interested, but to a large point, reinforce a certain degree of faith that the captain has in his bowler’s abilities (which are not bad).

And critically, there’s a great deal of communication that the captain must resort to. Yes, these aren’t kids who’re playing for a school team, but when something’s not going their way, it’s definitely worth a quiet pat on the back with a reminder of what is expected out of those bowlers.

If India continue to be bullheaded and prefer staying on the defensive overseas, we'd go back a decade and two. In short, India are on their way to returning to the 1990s.

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