x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

India's tactical approach adds to No 1 debate

Just as there is more than one way to peel an orange, there are several ways to go about winning a Test match.

Just as there is more than one way to peel an orange, there are several ways to go about winning a Test match. Pakistan did not bat especially well against Australia at Leeds, England, last week, but the bowling was as potent as in their mid-1990s heyday. Australia's first innings lasted just 33.1 overs, and not one batsman got past 20. Despite their batting frailties, their own pace arsenal meant that Pakistan were more than a match for the side that had redefined cricket over the past decade and more.

Contrast that with India, who win their Test matches very differently. Most of the notable successes enjoyed by MS Dhoni and his team over the past couple of years have been built on scoreboard pressure. The batsmen pile up a small run-mountain, and the bowlers then get to work, wearing down the opposition steadily. If the Pakistani approach is like a Mike Tyson knockout, India's is more similar to water torture.

Against South Africa at Eden Gardens last February, four Indians made centuries after one poor session of batting from the visitors had gifted them the initiative. Against Sri Lanka in Kanpur and Mumbai last winter, they piled up mammoth totals before the bowlers chipped away at the opposition's resolve. In Kanpur, they could call on Shantakumaran Sreesanth's ability to reverse-swing the ball at lively pace. And in both games, there was Zaheer Khan to lead the line and also to provide timely breakthroughs.

Without that duo, both are nursing injuries, India's performances with the ball in the current series with Sri Lanka have been wretched. With Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha ineffective against batsmen adept at playing the turning ball, both Test matches have been a case of waiting for Sri Lanka to declare. Apart from one session in Galle where Ishant Sharma and Abhimanyu Mithun bowled well in tandem, there has been next to no pressure on the batsmen.

India's lack of bowling teeth has meant that the No 1 Test ranking once again becomes something of a lottery. Australia, who held it for so long, are in decline themselves. In bowler-friendly conditions in England, Mitchell Johnson was awful for long periods, while Doug Bollinger struggled to adjust to the length required. But though the bowling was mediocre, it was the batting that really let Australia down.

Ricky Ponting is not as prolific as he once was, and though Simon Katich, Shane Watson and the Michaels, Hussey and Clarke, have had their moments, the fear-factor that once accompanied a their batting line-up has long since disappeared. South Africa have a superb new-ball pairing in Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, but failure to beat England at home does not say much about their top-dog credentials. The same goes for Sri Lanka, whose successes at home are counterbalanced by failure to win so much as a Test in Australia, South Africa or India.

England hold the Ashes, but optimism over retaining them in Australia is not really grounded in fact. Jimmy Anderson apart, no English bowler has experience of conditions in Australia, and the same Australian bowlers who struggled to adjust to seaming conditions in England will be a different proposition on bouncier surfaces at home. Pakistan's pace bowlers make them jokers in the pack, especially if Salman Butt and his team can manage to put a half-decent total on the board, while New Zealand will always punch above their weight.

Part of India's problem can be traced back to prevailing mindsets. With one-day and Twenty20 cricket placing such an emphasis on containment, bowlers retreat far too easily. Scoreboard pressure will still win some games, especially on placid pitches in the subcontinent, but on surfaces where the bat-ball tussle is an even one, there is just no substitute for a quality bowling line-up. India's stay at No 1, likely to be short-lived now, is a reminder of that.