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India vs Australia: By picking three pacers for a Test to be played on a dusty track with all possible shades of brown, Michael Clarke gave the impression that he had an independent mind and would rather back his strength than get overly influenced by the surface.
It would be a different story once the Test started. The track did weigh on the Australian skipper’s mind when it came to formulate his team’s bowling plan. Here, he didn’t back Australia’s obvious strength and, in turn, missed a chance to exploit a perennial Indian weakness.
Several generations of Indian batsmen, including the current crop and the old masters in the commentator’s box, have grievously chased balls that head towards the slips after pitching. It’s a given that before an India game, the rivals plot to attack the off-stump, pitch it up and move the ball away. Meanwhile, the fielding coaches pay special attention to the slip cordon and wicketkeepers sweat it out as they practice holding onto fine edges.
After the second day’s play, Australia’s pace spearhead James Pattinson, who had bowled two inspired and successful spells, specifically spoke about his team’s bowling plan. But surprisingly, there was no mention of the ‘away-going ball’, a must-have on every visiting team’s checklist when they take the flight to India.
Instead, Pattinson revealed Australia’s aim was to attack the stumps with the incoming ball. It was an unusual call as the ball heading towards the stumps is easier to block or drive, especially for the Indians.
In the absence of conventional swing in the initial overs, said Pattinson, Australia were banking on early reverse by bowling with a scrambled seam. “As soon as we saw that it wasn’t swinging conventionally, we went cross-seam and tried to scuff one side up, which worked quite well. That way I got Sehwag out,” he said.
So when Sachin Tendulkar walked in at 12/2, the Australians, thinking on their feet, decided to stick to the successful tactic. “My plan early on was to Sachin was to try and bounce him. We changed it (the plan) at the last minute and decided to target the stumps,” he said. In hindsight, it can be said that the Aussies got unduly carried away by hitting the stumps twice in first five overs, even though the dismissals weren’t quite a direct result of their strategy. Murali Vijay played a stroke that certainly wouldn’t make a Test opener proud — an expansive drive off a ball pitched on the popping crease. As for Sehwag, he was unlucky. His was a freak dismissal, a rare case of the ball sneaking on to the stumps despite hitting the middle of the bat. More than the trajectory of the ball, it was poor shot selection and bad luck that did the Indian openers in.
And so, both Cheteshwar Pujara and Tendulkar got a series of in-coming balls early on in their innings. Aussies had “decided to target the stumps”, and the instruction had gone down the ranks. Pattinson’s new-ball partner, left-arm pacer Mitchell Starc, wasn’t his usual self. He sparingly used his old stock ball, the one that goes towards to the slips with the angle. He concentrated on the attacking the stumps with the delivery that dips into the right-hander. Once in a while he bowled the away-going ball, but that stopped once he came around the wicket after the first couple of overs. From then on it was nearly impossible to pitch on off stump and get the ball to move away as the left-armer was bowling from the corner of the crease.
Peter Siddle was the one bowler who seemed to be banking on the old trick that the Indians are notoriously prone to falling for. In his first two overs, he kept the ball on off stump and moved it both ways. But he wasn’t persisted for a longer spell when the ball was new. Siddle did return after 30 overs to carry out the team’s plans of aiming at the stumps and hoping that reverse and the uneven bounce would help them. Pujara did fall to an in-coming ball that kept slightly low. This might have strengthened the Aussie’s belief of sticking to the straighter line. But according to Pujara, he had somehow lost sight of the ball and was thus beaten, rather than getting undone by low bounce. The pitch map and Hawkeye showed that the Australians had used the away-going ball merely as a variation, and that too, on most occasions, pitched short or wide.
A Study in contrast
Before the tour started, the Australians had revealed how they had been tuned in to England’s Test series win in India. In case they revisit those clips from 2012 and have a look at the James Anderson’s spells, they will realise that most of his wickets had come with the ball that moved away slightly. His dismissal of Virat Kohli at Kolkata was a classic example of how he exploited this problem by playing on India’s age-old dilemma. To start with, he pitched two balls outside the off-stump that moved away. An alert Kohli let them go. The third ball, pitched slightly closer to off stump, seemed pregnant with possibilities. The young No.5 hung his bat out. It flew away once again, taking the edge on the way. Tendulkar and Dhoni too fell in a similar fashion.
The second spinner seems to have occupied a lot of Aussie mindspace in the last five days, but a thought needs to be spared for the flaws of the pace unit. The visitors need to take a second opinion about their first plan.