Getting hit on the ribs by a net bowler’s short ball, Virat Kohli let out a cry of disappointment. He would further show his dismay by swinging his bat and hitting the rolled up matting that lay behind the stump. The frustration, however, would fade within seconds as he would focus on the next short-ball he would face. There was work to be done, the Test match was just 48 hours away.
Kohli, like the rest of the Indian batting unit, was working on playing the ball that rose from the good-length spot. In the first innings of the last Test at Newlands, the India No.4 was out to a Morne Morkel lifter that had landed in the line of the 4th-5th stump. It was Morkel’s first ball, no one had an idea about the kind of carry he would get at Newlands. Kohli, a batsman who instinctively looks for runs, had tried to ride the bounce and failed. He was out caught behind.
At Centurion, where the pitch is again expected to have bounce and lateral movement, Kohli, like most other Indian batsmen, will once again be subjected to the short-ball Test. At Newlands, the South Africans bowled a relentless line out-side the off stump and bent their backs to get bounce. Leading 1-0, they wouldn’t change plans.
Going by his training method at the nets, even Virat seems to be sticking to the same plan. Today, he trained hard to not repeat the Newlands mistake. He would get the bowlers to bowl short and outside off. He would negotiate these balls by first getting on top of them. After which he would either defend them, push at them or, at times, even delivering a punch by going back and across. Once he would connect perfectly, the loud thud from the bat would be followed by Ravi Shastri letting out a ‘good shot’ yell.
It’s a batting approach that has worked for him in the past. In Australia, he would take on the pacers by climbing on his heels and forcing the ball through point. The bounce hasn’t intimidated him.
However, it’s a difficult shot to play, especially on the kind of tracks South Africa has rolled out on this tour. The home team bowlers have kept the ball just short of good length, bowled in high 140s and made the ball to take-off.
Scoring against such balls has been tough. Unlike at home, batsmen can’t run down these balls to the third man and take a single. Even playing to gully is risky. Playing straight is almost impossible since the ball is too high and angle too acute.
The other option against the SA pacer’s ‘stock ball’ could be the cut shot but it can only be tried if the ball is short. The pitch maps of the first Test shows that the South Africans were supremely disciplined, very rarely drifting from the good length spot.
If in a zone, Kohli has the quality to launch a counter on the pacer. But to do it consistently would need razor-sharp reflexes and unwavering concentration.
Interestingly, quite a few South Africa batsmen got out while trying to play the balls that were rising and pitched outside off. Case in point: Faf du Plessis’s dismissal in the second innings. He too tried playing the Jasprit Bumrah delivery that was angled in from outside off and had jumped from good-length but failed. The ball took his outside edge. Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar too got out to similar balls.
The more conventional method, and the one that’s prescribed by coaches and text books, to deal with those ‘nasty’ balls out-side the off stump, is to leave them. There were a few Indian batsmen at the nets who were working on that approach too; Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay being the prominent ones.
They would try judging the length of the ball correctly and once they got a hang of it, they would even let go balls aimed at the stumps. Once they had factored the bounce of the wicket, they knew which balls to play and avoided those expected to sail over the stumps. Pujara, and even Rohit Sharma to some extent, had applied the method on Day 2 at Newlands.
The two had held their own against the pace quartet that gave nothing away. They had almost weathered the storm and there were signs that the South Africans were about to change their line and length. And then first Sharma, and later Pujara, blinked, their loss of concentration costing them their wicket.
So Thursday at Centurion was about “India vs Bounce”. There’s no collective strategy as such but each player seemed to be working on an individual game plan to counter the South African pacers. Some wanted to counter the bounce, unsettle the bowlers and get quick relief. And there were those who were ready to wait and tire the pacers with their patience.
After the two-and-half hour long session under the harsh sun, the frame that captured India’s drive to deal with bounce didn’t have any batsman or bowler.
Instead, next to the practice pitch inside the empty training cage, assistant coach Sanjay Bangar and throwdown specialist Raghu lay sprawled, their loose limbs and relaxed posture betraying their exhaustion. All through the session, armed with the side-arm, they had been the team’s bowling machine. No one wanted gentle throw-downs, the kind they prefer when they merely want a feel of the ball and be in rhythm. Today, every batsman who walked in at the nets wanted them to bowl shorter and be meaner.
Bangar and Raghu had been virtually yanking their arms off the socket and vigorously flicking their wrist, all to get the ball to climb on the batsmen from that very uncomfortable length. They know that their bouncebackability will depend on their skill to deal with the bounce.
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