India refuse to take a backward step, but is it prudent?
Five Tests into India's overseas cycle, their batsmen have thrown up quite a few remarkable statistics. One that you hope hasn't escaped the attention of the team management is that in three Tests in South Africa at the start of this year, India played only 22 cuts against the quick bowlers, for 46 runs. The number has been whittled down to a third in England: five cuts in two Tests for 16 runs. Now, this doesn't include the ramp or the steer off the front foot. Just the old-fashioned cut, either along the ground, or over the infield, or even a top edge over the cordon. A high percentage of these cut shots has been played by Bhuvneshwar Kumar and R Ashwin.
By comparison, South Africa played the cut shot to the India quicks 38 times for 77 runs, and England played 15 cuts for 36 runs. These statistics tell you two important things. We are getting too excited over the fact that India's bowlers had taken 80 wickets in their first four overseas Tests. Playing in bowler-friendly conditions, they are bound to take all the wickets on offer, but they have provided more loose balls - cuttable ones being one kind - than their opponents. There has been enough assistance in the pitches for bowlers to keep pitching the ball up, except in Centurion where lengths were pulled back to avoid being driven.
The second and more important cause for this is that India have been so obsessed with their off stumps and cutting the movement that they are making cuttable balls seem fuller and narrower. Former India player and commentator Sanjay Manjrekar has been making this point since 2015. "You are allowed to get on to the back foot, you know?" he keeps saying. "Batting is about both front foot and back foot, and knowing when to play off which one." As with many things, you can paper over this when winning at home or in home-like conditions. It is when you need all hands on the deck you wonder if this drawback is costing valuable runs.
It is almost as if India's specialist batsmen have trained themselves to forget back-foot play. Most of them stand outside the crease with a wide stance, which is the foundation of a forward press. Then they press forward as their trigger movement, and they get a big stride to get close to the ball. It has its advantages. You can leave alone balls outside your eye line. There is less time for the ball to deviate. The movement of feet is economical: two small ones instead of one big lunge. You are in a good position to drive should you choose to do so. Still the advantages have to be evaluated against the cost of it. A bigger casualty still might be the punch through the covers.
According to ESPNcricinfo's logs, India have played only 128 of the 283 balls bowled short or short of a length to them this series off the back foot. England have gone back to 266 of 358 such balls. In the process, India have missed out on scoring opportunities, something that is represented by England making 4.13 runs per six such deliveries to India's 2.77. You restrict it to just short balls, and you will find India have gone back only on 11 of the 40 possible occasions. England have done so to 48 balls out of 69. What is not represented in these numbers is the overcompensation when you punish these errors ruthlessly.
It is not as if India haven't been presented with balls short and wide. Look at the pitch maps from all four innings India have played. There is plenty that can be cut away. Now compare it with the pitch maps for their oppositions. A lot of that red real estate is blue, and some of it is yellow. Blues are non-boundary runs, yellows are boundaries, and reds are dots. Is it possible that because India are moving forward to almost everything they are not in a position to take advantage of short balls?
Just contrast it with how well India play spinners. They meet spin on the half-volley to not let it turn, but are equally quick to cash in on anything short. The spinner is afraid to pitch it even slightly short. The fast bowlers are not under such pressure. They know they can at times err on the short side without getting cut away. There's also a risk they are converting short-of-a-length balls into length ones and edging them off the front foot instead of watching them off the back foot and either playing or leaving them after they have seamed.
Now not every batsman needs to play every shot, but when almost everybody plays in a similar way, it could be a matter for concern. Among the specialist batsmen, Ajinkya Rahane comes across as the only natural cutter. Virat Kohli has managed to find a way around it, either through a square-drive or just a slap off the front foot, like he did to a Ben Stokes long hop to bring up his hundred at Edgbaston. Others have been leaving these balls alone or sometimes even defending them off the front foot.
It is never a great idea to muddle with set techniques in the middle of a series, no matter how bad it is going, but this is something to weigh against the advantages of their current techniques once the series is over. Especially before going to Australia where the bounce is true and batsmen can afford to hang back even to length balls. You don't want to lose out on scoring off the back foot there unless the payoff is really big.