India predictably won the Test series against Sri Lanka. The Indian batting side looked omnipotent against the weak Lankan bowling. Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara and the flamboyant Rohit Sharma made merry of an attack that did not have the sting to bother them. The most outstanding, however, was captain Virat Kohli. He had a dream series with two scintillating double centuries and a classy century. He was outstanding not just because of his stroke-play but also because of his fitness in making the runs. He was a bundle of energy and one hoped that the same energy had filtered into Indian bowling, which by the 5th day of the last Test match looked tired and complacent.
Delhi was a batsman’s dream wicket, but it’s on a surface such as this, that the class of a bowler is judged. To be bowling on a rank turner or a completely worn out wicket and getting batsmen out requires very little skill at the top level. Achieving success on a wicket that has very little to offer to the bowler requires skill in the art of flight and deception for spinners and speed and the ability to cut the ball off the wicket for the fast bowlers. Reverse swing is also an important weapon for a speedster, but to be bowling it at less than 135 kms gives a batsman enough time to adjust. The Indian bowling attack missed a wrist spinner and Kuldeep Yadav would have been ideal in conditions such as these.
The Indian selectors have once again faltered in not selecting a wrist spinner for India’s tour to South Africa early next month. The Proteas are weak to leg or chinaman bowlers and India have missed a cue there for not selecting one. The Indian selectors are presuming that the wickets in South Africa would be specially prepared for their fast bowlers and six fast bowlers is one too many for a team. Perhaps they believe that having extra bowlers would be useful in net practice.
Unfortunately, the only disappointment in the Indian batting line-up was Ajinkya Rahane. The Mumbai batsman has repeatedly proved himself overseas. He has made centuries at all the important cricket centres abroad but may find himself side-lined in the initial Test matches in South Africa. If this happens India’s close-in fielding will truly miss his presence.
An area that still remains an Achilles heel for India is their fielding and catching close to the wicket. The last Test match was a win, if the Indian side hadn’t dropped the slip catches. The team, without Rahane in the close-in coterie, will expose its weakness even further.
The Indian team is being subjected to a fitness regime that does make them look leaner and fitter than any other side of the past. The yo-yo test is a good indicator of that, but in the end the mastery of batting, bowling and fielding overshadows a six-pack physique. One can only better oneself by bowling and batting endlessly in the nets. In fielding, one can improve their agility and reflexes through plenty of catches and practice. But how can a fielder practicing with gloves on ever get the feel of the ball hitting his palm or fingers? The brain has to be trained to ensure that the fingers close with the right amount of softness when a catch comes speedily in the slip and gully region and this can only be accomplished by enduring pain. Protection such as gloves can never give that feel. Just like a runner, who is used to running only with shoes on, would struggle immensely if he is made to run barefoot. A close-in fielder needs to simulate every possible option that may come his way during practice. His hand eye co-ordination while taking a catch one-handed, a new or wet ball, a ruffed and soft ball all have a different feel to it and clearly one does not see the present Indian cricketers spending time to hone this skill.
Unfortunately, getting runs and wickets seem to be the only criteria to get into the Indian side. Rather than worrying about yo-yo tests, it is important to improve and analyse the agility and reaction time of players. The Australian Cricket Board has been smart to foresee the importance of quick reaction time. They got Usain Bolt for a session with their players. The game of cricket is played mostly in less than 30 yards. It is not a marathon, it needs instant movement and quick reaction time in a calm manner. The first two steps or movements are important. This basic understanding is sometimes forgotten by trainers and players. That is why two great rather stout slip fielders, Colin Cowdrey and Bobby Simpson were marveled at. They rarely missed catches and took some outstanding ones as well. India’s 1983 World Cup win is known for many gritty performances and the wonderful catch by Kapil Dev as well. What one forgets are the three cool and calm catches taken by Sunil Gavaskar. If he had dropped even one of them, the match may have had a different tale.
The author is a former India cricketer