How Test cricket in India is the ultimate game of chess
Chess Grandmaster David Bronstein once said, “It is my style to take my opponent and myself on to unknown grounds. A game of chess is not an examination of knowledge; it is a battle of nerves.”
He might just as well have been talking of Test cricket in India.
I have seen a lot of Tests in India and it is as much a battle of the mind as of physical skills. What works in India, is not guaranteed to work anywhere else.
As my grandson can attest, my chess is not very good, but what I have learnt from him is there are three keys to becoming good; Study: Take time to study the strategies and tactics of the game and your opponent; Practice: Practice both playing against opponents and solving puzzles; Analyse: Analyse your own game and that of your opponent, to identify weaknesses and strengths.
A tour of the sub-continent challenges an individual in unique ways. The culture, the climate, the food and the cacophony and activity can work against a touring team like no other country.
Winning in India takes pluck, planning, patience and persistence.
Steve Smith.Credit:Getty Images
Cricket has much in common with chess. Both involve strategy and tactics. Chess has 16 pieces and cricket has a team of 11. The winner is the side that leverages its combined talents best throughout the contest. Sometimes defence is the best form of attack and patience is always a virtue.
The Australians will have to summon every ounce of their talent and experience during the next month to succeed. India is no longer the mystery it once was. Tours are more regular and the IPL offers valuable exposure.
Though India is a huge challenge, Australia have their own issues to sort out; David Warner is in patchy form and needs to improve his Test record in India; Usman Khawaja, Alex Carey, Travis Head and Cameron Green will be tested against better quality spin than they encountered in Pakistan and Sri Lanka; Marcus Labuschagne will be facing his first big test in the subcontinent; and Steve Smith’s recent batting tweaks will be examined more keenly than against the West Indies, South Africa and in the BBL.
Australia can win this series. India are more vulnerable at home than they have been for some time due to injuries to key players like Rishbah Pant, Ravindra Jadeja and Jasprit Bumrah. They will rely heavily on Virat Kohli.
Australia must take wickets at regular intervals. Partnerships are the key, so they must prevent India from building them. To win, Australia must get wickets with the new ball. As the ball gets softer, they must bowl frugally and then reverse-swing the old ball. Spin is more of a weapon in India than in Australia, but we must always play our four best bowlers plus Green.
With Green in doubt for the first Test, it will be hard to get the team balance right. The choice of who is the second spinner will be critical. On good batting wickets, Mitch Swepson should be the choice. Should the pitches favour spin, which is more likely, I expect Ashton Agar to get the nod because finger spin is considered to be more accurate.
Anil Kumble who took 619 wickets in Test cricket, rarely strayed off the straight and narrow. His stock in trade were fast, flat leg breaks which were always threatening the stumps. Batters knew if they missed, they were in trouble. Jadeja’s stock in trade is similarly unerring. Agar has got to emulate their roles. One bowler leaking runs will be the difference in a tight contest.
Erapalli Prasanna is arguably the best off-spinner of all time. I fondly remember one evening in 2006 when we caught up for dinner in his home town of Bangalore. “Pras”, who was an engineer by profession and a cricketer in his spare time, proceeded to give me a memorable master class in the art of finger spin bowling.
I asked him what was his plan to a new batsman? He said he would spin the ball hard, try to hit him on the pads often, get him thinking about the spinning ball, and then trap him on the crease with a straight one, he said with a cheeky grin.
Line, he said, was optional, length was mandatory. Prasanna had “the other one” before anyone knew what a doosra was. He explained to me that he would lay the seam a bit flatter than for the traditional off spinner and then impart a higher number of rotations on the ball that would make the ball drift like an off spinner but, once it landed on the leather, it would skid on with the arm giving the impression that it had gone “the other way”. As the leader of the spin attack, Nathan Lyon will need to take pages out of his book and show the way.
It will be important that the Australian bowlers don’t give cheap runs particularly to the Indian lower order which has been a bugbear in the past. On the surface, India look to be handicapped by the loss of Pant, but Ishan Kishan is a capable replacement who bats aggressively.
If, as expected, pitches favour spin, close-in catching will be crucial. Labuschagne and Smith are brilliant catchers, but one or two others will have to spend a lot of time close to the bat, which is demanding if you are not used to it. The Indian close catchers create wickets for their spinners with their anticipation and agility which Australia will do well to replicate.
Australia must bat exceedingly well in their first innings if they want to stay in the contest. The game can get away from you very swiftly, otherwise.
Three good partnerships in each innings are required to build winning scores and in case you think this is easy, let me tell you the Indians will subject the Australians to a relentless, probing examination of all aspects of batting.
Tours to India can make or break batting careers.
Mornings will be chilly in the north during February and pitches will be slower and the odd ball will keep low. The good news for our pace attack is the cool mornings will offer early movement.
India have chosen their venues well. Rahul Dravid will be keen to see how Australia cope with the lack of bounce, allied with spin.
Delhi and Dharamshala will suit India more than Australia. On the slower pitches, Indian batters are better suited as they stay low and generate pace square of the wicket with wristy shots. Hitting across the line is a risky pursuit in these conditions. Australians who are used to the extra bounce to generate pace with the bottom hand consequently struggle on the slower, lower pitches.
Nagpur is a red soil pitch on which batting is best on the first three days unless they produce a raging turner.
Delhi and Dharamshala will be a fortress for India. In Ahmedabad there are red as well as black soil pitches and the state of the series will dictate what India order.
Visiting teams are often fooled by a game that seems to be going nowhere but suddenly changes at a frenetic pace. The Indians are used to this, so Australia will need to adapt quickly with mind, bat and ball.
Attrition takes a huge toll on touring teams. If India are in the contest on day five, they will win.
For Australia to win, they will need to emulate the words of Austrian chess player, Rudolf Spielmann: “Play the opening like a book, the middlegame like a magician and the end game like a machine”.
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