Sidharth Monga in Melbourne
There was a time when everybody used to be surprised when a spinner did well against India, leave alone a humble offspinner. However, there is no surprise right now who the highest wicket-taker in this series is. He is Australia’s most successful bowler against India, and the world’s second-most successful spinner against the same opposition, known for their batsmanship against spin. Nobody has dismissed Virat Kohli as many times as he has. That he is fit and performing is proving to be a big advantage for Australia. Nathan Lyon, with 16 wickets at 19.43 each, is currently the most threatening bowler in the series.
India’s batsmen – under fire anyway – once again have questions asked of their techniques against spin. While it is true that spinners like Moeen Ali feed off the pressure created by their seam bowlers at home – they have much better numbers against India at home as compared to in India, where they should ideally do better – Lyon has now been troubling India both home and away.
That nine of Lyon’s 16 wickets this series have come off defensive shots in what can’t be classified as dream conditions for spin is a matter of big concern if you are India’s batting coach. That combined with low strike rates of batsmen against Lyon means two things: the defensive technique is not what it should be, and that they don’t have enough low-risk attacking options. Not only is Lyon taking wickets, he is bowling beautifully in one spot when the wickets are not coming. Those who have managed to score at a strike rate of over 50 against him have not been able to bat long enough, which points to the high-risk game Rishabh Pant and Rohit Sharma have had to play against him. The fact that others – even Kohli – haven’t been able to force mistakes from him points to lack of attacking options too.
One of those attacking options was seen in the nets on Sunday, three days before the start of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. When batting against spin, Kohli played a succession of sweeps. Perhaps he was just toying with the idea, and we might not necessarily see him play that shot often, but there seems to be an intent to attack spin. Even Cheteshwar Pujara lofted spin in the nets on one occasion on Monday.
The sweep remains an interesting option, though. Traditionally Indian batsmen have prided themselves on not needing the sweep: they are either right forward or right back, playing the ball either before it turns or after it has turned. The sweep has been considered the weapon of the less proficient. Yet, it is an effective shot. When played well, it not only plays with the bowler’s rhythm, it also makes the fielding captain defend more scoring zones, removing an attacking fielder.
In this series, Lyon has been swept or reverse-swept only 23 times, which is once every five-and-a-half overs. On the last trip here, when Lyon averaged 35 against India, he was swept or reverse-swept 92 times, once every two-and-a-half overs. Even when Lyon toured India last year, India swept or reverse-swept him once every three-and-a-half overs.
India’s relationship with the shot has been sporadic. On two consecutive tours of England, they went to the shot in the nets only after Moeen Ali had troubled them. Trailing 2-1 in 2014, they tried it only before the finale at The Oval. Those who were present in England this year talk of how the Southampton defeat sent them to the shot in the nets at The Oval.
India have trained hard to face spin although what Lyon does is difficult to replicate in nets. That quality of bowling with that much overspin is not readily available. Still India have tried to simulate the conditions, creating artificial rough; once Kohli batted at the edge of a pitch at the SCG nets with Sanjay Bangar, the batting coach, throwing balls down diagonally into some rough there. Kohli has been practising the sweep in the nets since Adelaide, but he has not played a single sweep against Lyon. Perhaps he doesn’t feel he is ready with it yet, which makes it a risky option as opposed to his against-the-turn cover-drive, which he used to good effect in the first innings in Perth.
In this series, even R Ashwin, who has played only one Test, has been swept or reverse-swept only nine times, which makes it once in almost 10 overs. Seven of those shots have been played by a lower-order batsman, Lyon himself. So perhaps the conditions – both Adelaide and Perth strips had appreciable bounce in them – make the sweep a risky option. Perhaps, by sweeping Lyon more often than Australia have swept spin, India have been proactive but just haven’t been able to find a way.
Melbourne should bring India more scoring options against Lyon, especially with less bounce from the pitch to aid his overspin. We might just see more sweeps. Whatever they do, India will need to find a way to attack Lyon. Even if Lyon is not a wicket-taking threat, India can’t afford to let him hold one end up, which gives the fast bowlers time to recover and take turns from the other end. One of Lyon’s big successes this series has been that Australia’s fast bowlers have fewer overs in their legs, which allows them to play an extra batsman. With the reputation they have against spin, India should not be allowing that to happen.