Let me first get one thing out of the way – The first Test match between India and England was played on an excellent Test wicket.
The pitch of the Edgbaston Cricket Ground was a wicket that had something for every aspect of the game; it had bounce and seam movement for the seamers, just about enough turn and grip for the spinners, and batters needed to apply themselves to make their runs.
Moreover, the batting of both the teams failed. Barring Virat Kohli in both innings and Joe Root from England in the first innings, none of the batsmen looked comfortable.
Application, patience and temperament were the keys to survive in those conditions and batters failed miserably on every front.
This is not India’s problem or England’s problem anymore. It is an issue that has been cropping up time and again in Test cricket.
The recent Test series between Sri Lanka and South Africa is also a classic example as it ended up looking like a contest of ‘who will bat more poorly’ on the sub-continental wickets that offered assistant for spinners. None of the Proteas were new to the conditions, most of them play the Indian Premier League (IPL) and keep coming to the subcontinent often enough to know what is expected from these pitches.
Is the Art of Test Batting on the Decline?
Why don’t we have batsmen who can blunt the seam movement, negate the new ball, counter the turn while using their feet and play sessions? In modern cricket whenever there is anything in the pitch for the bowlers – swing, seam movement or turn for the spinners – batsmen across the world struggle. Sometimes to the extent where even a ‘good’ Test wicket with slight help for the bowlers has looked venomous. Former cricketers now sitting in the commentary box have often failed to understand the approach of this generation and therefore you will notice that they keep citing references from the past.
The T20 Effect
There is a need to look at the times in which this cricket is being played.
Accept or deny, debate or discuss, the fact of the matter is that the batters today are a product of their time. Also, this is the time when the T20 format has taken over as the prime format of cricket, and that is very much evident from the batsmanship we see these days in Test cricket.
Earlier young cricketers used to aspire to be Test cricketers and prepare accordingly, but now they first want to be excellent at T20, and then Test cricket comes along the way. Back in the day, solid technique and defence was the foundation of batting. Coaches use to work tirelessly on the skill of surviving. In the nets, hitting the ball in the air was a crime.
I still remember watching a young Yuvraj Singh in the nets with Bishan Singh Bedi. He used get the ‘maximum punishment of taking laps of the ground’ for hitting the ball in the air despite clearing the fence. There wasn’t any other substitute to ‘playing along the ground.’
Even some of the modern greats like Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar and Jacques Kallis needed a solid defensive game to be able to apply their attacking mode.
A New Kind of Test Batting
Today’s coaching manual and approach towards batting has changed completely. Nowadays, attack is considered to be the best form of defence and young batsmen neither have the disposition nor the groundwork to fight conditions and play for sessions. Batting is all about instinct which takes years to develop. Mental tuning and approach to counter the bowler are acquired after years of practice. So, if you are trained to play your shots, look for runs and attack your way out of any situation, you cannot change your game overnight.
“That was my shot and the ball was in my area, and sometimes I will get out while playing my shots.” This is the explanation often used by modern batters while describing their shot selection at a critical juncture of the match. Modern-day bowling coaches have one tried and tested formula to get a batsman out: “Dot balls, maiden overs from both the ends and the batsman will do something silly.” So, more often than not it works, more surprisingly in Test cricket.
Could you imagine this kind of strategy to get Rahul Dravid or Sunil Gavaskar out? They would have loved it!
In today’s generation, only a handful of players like Virat Kohli, Hashim Amla or Kane Williamson have the mindset to balance their approach across all formats and succeed. Young batsmen, and coaches have plenty to learn from them.
(Nishant Arora is an award-winning cricket journalist, and most recently, the media manager of the Indian Cricket Team.)
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