India v Australia, 1st Test, Pune, 2nd day February 24, 2017

Possible difference between India, Australia: one metre

On a pitch that demanded a change of length instead of line, India's spinners seemed to have missed a trick by not bowling a fuller length
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R Ashwin responded to the extra turn off the pitch by often going down the leg side on the first day © Associated Press

For those unfamiliar with Indian cricket lexicon, the pitch on which the Pune Test is being played is called an akhada, a wrestling pit. The typical Indian wrestling pit is filled with clay and other dusty ingredients, while ghee - clarified butter - and limited amounts of water are used to level it. The obvious dust comparisons are behind the name, but that is where the comparisons end. The akhada is meant for pure and technical wrestling. These pitches are more akin to professional wrestling rings than a wrestling pit. Cheap shots, eye rakes, low blows, outside interference, they are all fair play. You can have the most beautiful submission holds but they won't guarantee wins. Watching the India spinners bowl in Pune, frequently going past the bat but not hitting the edge often enough, you wondered if they had taken amateur wrestling to a WWE ring.

All through the series against England, the India spinners bowled in a lovely rhythm, regularly showing their superiority on good pitches. However, the the rank turners, do two things: they place heavy premium on the toss, and bring a completely different bowling skill into play. Bowling on such pitches, especially when you lose the toss, is not easy. The pressure of expectation is immense with so much happening off the pitch; every run scored by the opposition is one to get in much worse conditions. And you need to actually turn the ball less on these pitches.

For a normal Indian pitch, the India spinners bowled in beautiful areas, short of the drive but not short enough for the batsmen to play off the back foot. In the first session of the Test, because of a combination of the pitch and Australia's left-hand openers, R Ashwin, No. 1 ranked bowler in the world, sent down 16 overs. He bowled 94 balls to left-hand batsmen in that session, beat the bat on 12 of those occasions, and beat it by a long way.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In the second innings, Ravindra Jadeja, No. 2 ranked bowler in the world, beat right-hand batsmen once every four balls, 22 out of 88 balls. On one such occasion, Steven Smith almost stood mocking the amount of turn after the ball pitched within the stumps and then missed his bat by six inches. Neither of those periods yielded India a wicket.

It looked wonderful to watch. They looked like great spells. "It was one of those days," India's coach Anil Kumble said. "Where we saw Jadeja bowled in the last session, where probably every over he was beating the bat three times. It was one of those days where on another day, that could have all taken the edge or got a wicket. It was one of those things where Steve O'Keefe pitched it; he got the results."

It is indeed incredible that Jadeja spun the ball so viciously, but didn't get wickets. Clearly the problem was too much turn on the pitch. Ashwin's response was to try to start turning it from further away. He went down the leg side often. In the first session on the opening day, 21 of the 22 runs he conceded came on the leg side, against the turn. Australia were prepared to be beaten on the outside edge, and made it a point to not follow balls turning away from them with their hands. There was one trick that India possibly missed: instead of turning it from batsmen further, try to give it less time to turn so much that it misses the edge.

To say that Jadeja was unlucky after beating the bat so often is a little like saying Ishant Sharma was unlucky when he used to bowl shorter than the ideal length. Experts believe that on such pitches you have to give up your superiority in classic spin. Instead of line you have to alter the length. Bowl fuller than what is a good length on good pitches, and have fielders at extra cover, short straight-extra cover and straight mid-off.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"You also need to be fuller," Murali Kartik wrote in Indian Express on how to bowl on such pitches. "You can afford to be two to three inches [feet] fuller than good length, because the batsman's already in a muddle about whether he has to defend his pad or risk playing a drive. Even an over-pitched delivery on a turning wicket can get you an outside edge."

The ball that O'Keefe bowled to take Ajinkya Rahane's edge was a perfect illustration. It pitched four metres from the stump, which is close to a half-volley on good surfaces. For majority of their spells when taking the ball away from the batsmen, Ashwin and Jadeja bowled the classic spinners' length: between five and six metres from the stump.

The pitch maps of Ashwin to left-hand batsmen in the first innings, O'Keefe to right-hand batsmen and Jadeja to right-hand batsmen in the second innings says a lot. Jadeja has predominantly bowled a traditional good length. Ashwin has got closer to four metres, but not often enough. O'Keefe kept persisting around that magic four-metre mark. Jadeja didn't take any outside edge. Ashwin took one wicket off the outside edge of a defensive shot in 214 balls bowled to left-hand batsmen. O'Keefe took four outside edges in 67 balls bowled to right-hand batsmen, two of them to defensive shots.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In the second innings, Ashwin has more yellows, denoting singles, on the pitch map than in the first, which means he bowled quicker to give batsmen less time to adjust, but the length still remained closer to the traditional good length. Australia kept playing inside the line, and the ball kept turning past the edge. During the lunch break on day two, Australia's spin consultant Sridharan Sriram took O'Keefe to the nets and got him to bowl fuller.

On pitches like this, luck, strategy and street smarts play a more significant role than traditional skill. While it is not clear whether India asked for such a pitch or whether the curator got it wrong in trying to ensure home advantage, India needed to be spot on strategically once Australia had the luck of winning the toss and getting to bat before manure hit the fan. It should hurt India that Australia did better on that front despite being the away side.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Salim on February 25, 2017, 11:15 GMT

    Excellent article. India should take this loss as an eye-opener and should do some serious prognosis. Secondly, there should be some serious pondering over how teams are selected. There should be horses for courses. But here, once a player is considered as good for a particular format, he is selected for n number of matches irrespective of the performance. While a dozen others - who are not considered good enough by the people who matter - get in and out of the team within no time, certain players are given an undue long rope. Raina, Ishant, Shikhar, Rohit, etc are glaring examples. Just a year or two back when Rahane was not considered good enough, he just warmed the benches, but now that he is considered as irreplaceable, he comes in at the expense of a triple-centurion! So certain players are given the feeling that his place is guaranteed. Such an approach has led to ruin of careers like Shivalkar, Salgaoncar, Rajinder Goel and among current day players Nadeem and many others.

  • mustafa on February 25, 2017, 6:31 GMT

    Well played Australia, they came really well prepared and have good fast bowlers compared to india and when you give them dustbowl ,their spinners also become wicket takers. The sooner india realize that Fast bowling and catching is crucial the longer they can stake the claim to No 1 rankings. Otherwise it will just come automatically @ home matches. Good determined fighting unit this aussies are...

  • Suganthan on February 25, 2017, 5:17 GMT

    If you have Ishant as your pace spearhead then that tells the whole story of our fast bowlers.I am telling this for almost six to seven years, he is one of the worst products India ever produced

  • Ashoke on February 25, 2017, 2:29 GMT

    How on earth a fella called J.Jadav was playing for India? He was the worst spinner in the combined team. There are thousands of young players who are better than he is. Surely he has a tremendous backing. Then again there are toomany veganist in the team to perform under pressure. You can not afford to have softies like Mukund even as a fielder. Just rubbish. As soon as the ball reaches him , his leg trembles and he drops.

  • vsukh@yahoo.com on February 25, 2017, 1:23 GMT

    Very nicely written Sid. One point totally missed is Australian agility, reflexes and super close fielding abilities. Abhinav Mukund loosing 3 close catches will prove extremely costly for India if Steve Smith plays till Lunch on third day and add to his overnight score to make a gritty century. Also is Jayant Yadav really a frontline spinner or a part time bowler just to fill the space. There is nothing he is doing making him a permanent fixture in the team when Karun Nair or Rishabh Pant are sorely missed as frontline batsmen. Ideally if Ashwin and Jadeja are bowling in tandem for most of the overs. Why do we continue to use the 5 bowler strategy and include Jayant Yadav ( a part time bowler/batsman) when Amit Mishra could have given a perfectly capable legspin option and equally shared the load with Ashwin and Jadeja...

  • Lance on February 25, 2017, 0:09 GMT

    @Crkt4evr There is an expert called Sridharan Sriram. But Australia picked him up first. Or maybe the Indian team got complacent, thinking "Whatever Australia's spinners can do, our spinners will do better."

  • Reetam on February 25, 2017, 0:06 GMT

    @CROOKEDI: there have been days where even the likes of Warne,Murali have been nullified. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. It is not wrong if a 'less gifted' person rightly points out your mistake. Hear, identify and learn!!! Only then will we be stronger!!!

  • Reetam on February 25, 2017, 0:03 GMT

    @CRKT4EVR: true !!! why couldn't Kumble identify this ???

  • Brendan on February 24, 2017, 22:47 GMT

    Great article, threre is alwaus a risk

  • Ashok on February 24, 2017, 21:12 GMT

    The simple facts are India came in over confident & got a whipping by being skittled for 105. This was topped by failure of their entire batting line up except one- Rahul. That was simply atrocious batting by any account against a steady bowling, especially by the lower order bats who played like Novices. India face defeat, may be on day 4 or even on day 3, if they do not show up, again. The worst thing is on a spinners pitch, the Aussies used their bowlers better & maximised their effort by using the right timely tactics regarding length & control. Their catching was brilliant & fielding outstanding. By comparison, India missed catches galore just like they did vs. England. Difference, those lapses were countered by Club class batting in a Test match by world class players like Vijay, Pujara & Kohli. India need all 3 to Score & NOT expect a bail out by lower order. So it was a case of one player batting + the rest finding a way to get Out. You cannot Win with 105 total!

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