Did the famed Indian batting line up lack the skills to play quality spin bowling or was it lack of ...

Sunday, July 27, 2021

Were the Indians prepared for this series?

Krishna Tunga

The tour game against the Sri Lankan Board President’s XI saw the Indian batsmen put up a lackluster performance – against a pretty mediocre looking bowling attack, the Indians struggled to 196 for 8 in the first innings.

Prior to the first Test, all the hype was around how the famed Indian batting line up would cope with the ‘mystery’ spinner Ajantha Mendis. The senior pros in the Indian team sounded confident, when they dismissed all the hype saying they were ready to counter the Mendis-threat.

The Sri Lankans have guarded Ajantha Mendis well, knowing he is something special. In last month’s Asia Cup, the Sri Lankans did not play Mendis in the league match against India, so they could use him as a trump card in the finals – and how it worked. Mendis wrecked havoc in the final by picking up two wickets in his very first over, and went on to finish with figures of 6 for 13 to lead Sri Lanka to a convincing win.

They have done the same on this tour as well; they didn’t play him in the warm up match against the Indians – he turned up straight to the Test match and returned with figures of 8 for 132 – the best match returns by a Sri Lankan debutant in Test cricket.

Did the famed Indian batting line up lack the skills to play quality spin bowling, was it the lack of preparation, or was it players not taking responsibility?

Rahul Dravid, hasn’t looked anywhere close to the batsman that stone-walled the best bowling attacks in the world until sometime ago. His footwork has looked suspect in recent times, and Ajantha Mendis took full toll of that weakness; he flummoxed Dravid with two beauties – first, one that pitched on middle and clipped the top of off stump, and in the second innings, he produced a googly that took the inside edge of the bat, crashed onto the pads and then popped up to the man at forward short leg.

Sachin Tendulkar was perhaps one of two Indian batsmen in the Test to have handled the Sri Lankan spinners with some degree of comfort. He negated the Mendis-threat by playing late, and playing him on the frontfoot most often, and against Muralidaran, who bowled around the stumps to him, he generally preferred to stay back and work the ball through the on side. 

Tendulkar in recent times has been found having problems with bowlers who bowl diagonally to him. His difficulties facing up to left arm spinners have been well documented – and it is a similar angle that Muralidaran used in this Test – bowling round the stumps, and landing the ball on the middle and leg stump. In the first innings, it was his indecision that cost him his wicket, while in the second innings, he was unlucky to have been caught at leg slip, after an attempted sweep came off the pad, but hit the back of the bat, before lobbing up to the man at leg slip. 

VVS Laxman was the only other batsman apart from Tendulkar who looked assured against the two Sri Lankan spinners. Laxman doesn’t possess the greatest footwork – especially against the seamers and at the start of the innings – but against once he gets his eye in, he can handle the spinners as well as anyone can. He batted beautifully in the first innings, and that earned him a promotion in the second innings – however, he failed to pick up a googly from Mendis which resulted in his dismissal in the first innings, and that coupled with some unsure footwork brought about his dismissal in the second innings. 

Another edgy beginner, Sourav Ganguly too failed, much to the chagrin of the Indians. India’s best batsman in the longer version in recent times, Ganguly too found Muralidaran and Mendis too hot to handle. The leg stump-line has been an apparent weakness right through his career - he gets cramped playing anything on that side of the wicket, and is therefore forced to take a few risks.

It will be fair to say that the Indians seemed to lack plans to tackle Mendis - the new kid on the block that he is, the Indians were not aware of the variations in his armory, and when they faced him in the Test match arena, they were found wanting. Did the Indians analyze footage from Mendis’ previous matches?

Coach Gary Kirsten had indicated that there was not enough footage and data available on Ajantha Mendis. Mendis had played five one-day games at the Asia Cup in Pakistan last month and the 42 overs he bowled then, should have provided sufficient footage for the team to look for any hints to help them debug the threat posed by him.

Given all this, one is left to ponder about the following questions:

Did the Indians lack preparation? Was only one warm-up game sufficient, given the Test players were coming back after a break? Was it over-confidence from the Indian batsmen that saw them collapse to a rookie spinner? 

Indian players are said to be the best players of spin – but how will they justify being shot out for 223 and 138?

There are many more questions that need answers and the Indians have only four days to regroup and prepare themselves before the second Test at Galle. Will they go back to being aggressive? Will they have the heart to drop one batsman and use five bowlers to pick 20 Sri Lankan wickets? Partnerships – both in batting and bowling – is the key to winning Test matches, and India didn’t have any noticeable partnership in the first Test. Can they get their act together?