John Lever with a layer of Vaseline on the ball at Chepauk in 1977-78. Wasim Akram with his majesty and variety for over a decade from the mid-1980s. Bruce Reid in Australia in 1991-92. Mustafizur Rahman in Bangladesh in 2015. Mohammad Amir at the 2017 Champions Trophy final in 2017. Trent Boult at the World Cup semifinal in 2019. Shaheen Shah Afridi in Dubai in 2021. It’s a long list with one common factor: India’s travails against left-arm fast bowling.
It would be worth revisiting Afridi’s first spell against India… yorker-length to Rohit Sharma, a little bend inward and fast. For an opener playing his first ball, it was almost unplayable. At the same time, it offered a throwback to Rohit’s dismissal off Amir in the Champions Trophy final four years ago. On both occasions, he was caught in the crease.
KL Rahul was done in by seam movement, a delivery that shaped back from outside off-stump. For so many times this has happened to Indian batsmen, when a left-arm quick found in-swing at pace. Boult will pose a similar threat in a virtual knockout game and a lot will depend on how the Indian top-order counters him.
There’s a Joe Root masterclass on YouTube, on the art of negotiating left-arm fast bowlers coming from over the wicket. “Generally, I would stand on middle stump, trying to keep it quiet neutral, opening up both sides of the wicket. And maybe to a left-armer, my back foot goes slightly further across, my left foot will open up slightly and I try to just align my shoulder where the ball’s coming from,” says the England Test captain.
Dilip Vengsarkar speaks about the importance of having a front-foot trigger movement while facing left-arm pacers from over the wicket. “I don’t think it’s a genuine problem (for India) as such, but when I was facing John Lever for the first time in 1977, I was told by Chandu Borde, who was a selector then, ‘slightly open your stance when he is bowling over the wicket to you. Then you get a clear picture. Slightly open your left shoulder’. That’s what he said, which helped me a lot. And besides of course, when you are facing fast bowlers like Wasim Akram, Mohammad Amir and Shaheen Afridi, all 140 kph-plus bowlers, you have to be extra alert and have to go on your front foot, because they can surprise you with pace also,” the former India captain told The Indian Express.
“You can stand still at the point of the bowler releasing the ball if you have a big stride. But you should always be ready to come on the front foot. Picking the length early is vital,” he adds.
For a batsman new to the crease, it takes a little time to get the feet moving properly. Rohit in India’s T20 World Cup opener was a case in point. Vengsarkar offers advice. “You do a lot of skipping before you walk out to bat and if you can open your left shoulder a little bit, that will help.”
Maybe, Indian batsmen would be better off playing straight, or towards mid-off initially rather than across the line against Boult. Vengsarkar asks them to follow Kohli’s batting template against Afridi. “He was coming on the front foot as much as possible, which neutralised the swing. On pitches where you can come on the front foot like Kohli, and I’m sure others can do also, they would be successful (to counter the left-arm pace threat).”
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Unlike his teammates, Kohli dominated Afridi. First, it was a case of wresting the initiative, which the India captain did by walking down to a good-length delivery and clipping it through mid-wicket for a couple. Kohli’s advance movement not only cancelled out any LBW possibility, it also forced the bowler to alter his length. Kohli’s six in that over was a result of the psychological upper hand he had gained over Afridi. The latter had dragged his length back a little but Kohli still walked into that to whip it over mid-on. A small victory for him.
Root says: “I want the bat to come down dead straight. Early on in my innings, I would try and make sure that widish mid-off is where you really want to hit it to give yourself the best chance.”
A lot of Indian batsmen have the tendency to play across the line even against the swinging new ball. Maybe, Root’s method could be a good reference point against Boult.
But what should be India’s team composition against New Zealand? Vengsarkar, a former chief selector, refuses to go into the selection debate, without having first-hand information about the team affairs: India’s preparation, net sessions, etc.
“It’s not fair, sitting in Mumbai and commenting about the form and fitness of the players. I guess they would play the same team except maybe Hardik Pandya, considering he is not fit,” Vengsarkar observes.