With India’s batting in dire straits, there is no divine intervention forthcoming. Trent Bridge, the venue for the next Test, has the reputation of aiding seam and swing.
In such cases, when you have a crisis of sorts, it’s best to focus on the controllables – like the playing XI. Albeit a Test late, India must play the extra batsman. That done, it’s about every individual batsman digging deep into his game and mind and coming motivated with a clear plan.
Having watched them over the years, this is my humble guide to what each batsman could do, if picked in the XI.
His issue is hard hands. He pushes at balls even when he is not looking for runs and is looking to defend.
He must tell himself, “I will allow the ball to come to me, meet it under my eyes with a still bat, and leave all balls on the sixth stump alone.” I saw him do this in New Zealand in 2014 when he got 115 and 98 in two consecutive innings. He must bring that game back. And if England go to plan B and bounce him, duck under – his attacking game against the short ball makes him as vulnerable.
There were signs that he was trying to use the space behind the crease in the second innings at Lord’s, instead of a token front-foot prod. Rahul must tell himself to keep his mind open and watch the ball like a hawk. He has the game and he knows his failings – but he can’t let thoughts of them cloud his mind as the bowler is running in. He was focused too much on the line outside off when James Anderson got the ball angling back in his last innings.
His great strength when he was getting all those runs overseas was his ability to leave balls outside off. But in South Africa on the last tour, he seemed very keen to put bat to ball when the ball was outside off. That didn’t work. Later in the series, he tried to leave balls on that line but it seemed like his compact game was corrupted by then.
In this series so far, he has been out leaving the ball and also while playing it when in the channel, so he must feel like he has hit a wall.
This series, Vijay has been guilty of committing to a shot very early, depending on the first line he sees when the ball is halfway down the pitch. That’s when he committed to leaving the ball at Edgbaston in the second innings, and it has been the same the other times, when he played shots to get out.
His mantra should be about committing late, wait for the second line, when the ball swings or seams after it’s more than halfway down the pitch – a phenomenon that we hardly see in India.
For the last two years or so, he has not been the same player. My first sighting of his unsettled game and mind was in the home series against New Zealand, when out of the blue we saw him struggle a bit against the short ball. He went on to get runs but has looked unconvincing to me after that.
This was also the time he understandably wanted to seal his place in white-ball cricket. It’s like a Ferrari went off the road into rough terrain and now that it’s back on the tarmac, it’s jangling a bit.
Rahane’s issues are clearly mental and not easy to resolve. He needs counselling from someone he trusts. In the meanwhile, the team management could give him the security and comfort he needs by telling him that no matter what, he is a certainty in the team. That’s if they think he is still a key player in their long-term plans.
For a defensive batsman the fact that his defence gets breached so often is not a very good sign.
When I saw him in his first year of Tests, he had very decisive foot movement, a good stride forward when the ball was up, and he was well back in the crease when the ball was short. During Duncan Fletcher’s tenure as coach, Pujara too got influenced into using the wide stance popular then, and into trying to get forward all the time. His 145 in Sri Lanka in 2015, where he carried the bat through the innings was a great mental effort but his technique worried me. It had deteriorated for overseas challenges.
Now his footwork consists of taking a small step forward and a negligible step back. Both movements are a bit tentative and a little late. He must practise the simple basics of forward and back every waking hour, and yes, like a few others, he must not cloud his mind with other thoughts. Try saying loudly, “Watch the ball” before every delivery. Many great batsmen have used this technique. It helps in focusing only on the ball and getting rid of all the other clutter in the mind. My feeling is that he keeps missing straight deliveries because his mind is slightly preoccupied and not as clear at the crucial time when the ball is released by the bowler.
Finally, all the batsmen, barring Virat Kohli, need to watch videos of R Ashwin’s batting in the last innings at Lord’s. He provided some crucial hints on how to give yourself a chance in these conditions. Ashwin was often on the back foot right inside the crease, allowing the ball to finish its swing before he put a still bat to ball. Not only did he look the most comfortable batsman, he was also able to get runs quicker than most others.