Batsmanship has evolved to new heights. Cricket today has cover drives, cuts, pulls, and even the newly added scoops -- shots through which averages and stats of modern day batsmen are bolstered, quantifying their greatness. These shots, perfected through physics, biomechanical analysis, bat-making geniuses and a trained sense for timing, is what the crowds throng for.
However, cricket has more to it than precision shot-making against bowlers, their in and out swingers, and myriad variations of spin. The game has its artistic dimension too -- the dark art of reverse swing, for instance, with a fair share of wickets, controversies and mysticism defining its existence. Then there is, arguably, the finest and most aesthetically pleasing art of them all -- the art of leaving!
At Lord’s, the Mecca of cricket, James Anderson just had to deliver it full -- according the ball enough time to travel and conjure up a wickedly magical swing from the moist air in London -- and the wickets would follow. The Indian cricket team batsmen, clearly looking underprepared for the challenge, played and edged the outswingers, got trapped by the inswingers, and the one who wouldn’t have gone either way, Cheteshwar Pujara, was run out by skipper Virat Kohli.
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Hosts England have a big advantage in the second of the five-Test series, beginning their innings on Day 3 (August 11), after bowling out India for 107 in the 35 overs that rain allowed the previous day.
Anderson’s fifer had a lot to do with the ability of the seasoned master of swing to use the conditions to his advantage. With the wicket moist and the atmosphere damp, the stage was perfect for Anderson to taunt the Indian batsmen with full ’uns which would swing with an inviting curve that many subcontinental batsmen, used to the ball coming on to the bat, can’t resist.
The Indians fell prey. At a sickening pace. Seeing the batsmen, including Kohli, the best in the world, go for luxurious strokes or jittery pokes outside off stump when restraint was of the order, makes us wonder if the Indian batters forgot to pack their cricketing sense for the long tour to England.
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Long back, when swing and off-the-seam movement started asking questions, the batsmen would go back to the basics -- play within one’s body, and leave what they felt were not theirs for the taking. It does sound like a life philosophy, doesn’t it. And it was.
A swinging delivery pitched at a full length is cricket’s version of temptation. Playing a shot is to commit a sin, while leaving it alone is the art of deprivation that took batsmen to the realms of self actualisation in the game; to greatness during a time not so long ago when there were many other elements to cricket immortality than batting averages and aggregates.
Indians, with a reluctantly played tour match and very little technical aptitude to play swing, would have done better to have honed the fine art of leaving in their arsenal. Leaving tricky balls tires the bowlers, mentally and physically. Each time they bowl a good delivery that a batsman leaves, it forces the bowlers to edge towards reason. They start to experiment with line and length, trying to make the batsmen play.
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A scenario of Indians playing the hide-and-no-seek game with the ball at Lord’s could have, perhaps, forced Anderson, Chris Woakes, Sam Curran and Stuart Broad -- the wicket-takers for England -- to alter the line or length, giving the Indians a small window to survive the day, or maybe give the score some semblance of a fight.
That was not to be. Kohli, for instance got out to Woakes, edging to second slip. The curvy outswinger around off stump, a fuller delivery, made the Indian skipper flick, even as he committed the cardinal mistake of closing the bat face a little too much. The edge floated perfectly to Jos Buttler's right. Kohli, who was looking at sea against Woakes, departed, his dismissal perfectly illustrating the nightmare the rest of the side, comprising of statistically lesser batsmen, endured.
When Kohli walked, one was reminded of his dismissal at Lord’s during the 2014 tour. He had ‘shoulder armed’ (lifted the bat high above his shoulder to leave the ball) to a Liam Plunkett inswinger and the ball clipped his stumps. Clearly, the Indian skipper was not adept at the art of leaving -- which also requires a sense beyond the ability to fathom pace, line and bounce -- at the time.
The art, mastered, customised and perfected by many greats of yesteryears -- from Gundappa Vishwanath, who used to draw an arc with his bat like he was holding a paintbrush while leaving, to Sunil Gavaskar, who stood firm and frustrated some of the greatest pacers the game has ever seen, including the West Indians.
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David Gower was another such master, who had the uncanny ability to decide and leave the ball so late that the bowler would feel he had a genuine chance of an edge. Of course Gower was always in control and the impact on the bowler’s mind was such that frustration built up over the course of the session or day’s play, inducing mistakes which earned the English batsmen his runs. Classic Test match cricket which the Indian batsmen, almost all batsmen of this generation even, are frugally equipped to play.
Indian batsmen should be ashamed of the 107 at Lord’s whatever be the conditions. But then, their skills and pride and primed for the ready-to-consume forms of cricket, and a symbolism of a very poor performance at cricket’s spiritual home is not exactly a black mark on their careers, or a scar on the player ego, anymore.
Cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties, like they say, and so one still can’t help but ponder over a “if”. What if the Indians understood the fine art of leaving. We would have had the pleasure of viewing a Test befitting Lord’s then!