By Yajurvindra Singh
The COVID-19 crisis has made cricket come a full circle. The restrictions that were imposed, especially as regards the use of saliva on the ball, has shown what a difference it has made to a bowlers’ armory.
The England versus West Indies Test series is wonderfully placed at one match all, with the third Test being the decider. One did get a feeling that the break for the cricketers, because of the pandemic, has brought an element of rustiness to their performance. However, with time, one is sure, it will all sort out.
England have shown aggression in their approach to revitalise the game and with two major back to back series to follow against Pakistan and Australia, they should be a side that will be well tuned and ahead of the rest.
Both the Test matches played in England have shown that cricket has gone back to the way it was played in the earlier days. Bowlers then had no idea of the reverse swing and so needed to master how to cut the ball off the docile wicket or use the bouncer effectively. The out-cutter was what one used to get batsmen to edge the ball, however, the in-cutter was the one that either bowled one or got one out LBW. Dennis Lillee and Sir Richard Hadlee were masters of these deliveries and Lillee’s out-cutter at times deviated as much as a leg spinner’s turn.
The West Indian speedsters on the other hand had the fire power to bounce a batsman out and this they used effectively when the restrictions of bouncers were still not in place.
The new ball has once again become an important weapon to get batsmen out to because of the swing and movement that a bowler can derive from it initially. Unfortunately the sweat, as one noticed recently, has not assisted the bowlers as much as the saliva, in getting an appreciable amount of reverse swing when the ball becomes relatively old.
The spinners from both sides, therefore, played an important part in the way in which the match progressed. The irony of it all was that, although, the bowling requirements went back to the days gone-by, the present bowlers lacked the skill to do so. The pacers could do very little once the shine had worn out and the spinners did not have the ability or the loop, flight or subtle variations that top level spinners possessed earlier.
What actually surprised one were the tactics used by England to finally get the West Indies batsmen out in the second innings of the second Test match played at the Old Trafford. The famous body-line tactics, used by Douglas Jardine in 1932-33 to win the Ashes for England, came to ones’ mind. England in 2020 were no better. A leg side field placement, making sure to keep to the field restrictions and bowling a barrage of short deliveries were the tactics used to get the West Indian batsmen out.
The game of cricket from these initial encounters has shown that the bowlers will need to learn the art of how to use the old ball more potently. Fortunately for them, the greats of the game are still living and learning from their wisdom which could be useful till a substitute to saliva is found and approved of in the future.
This also applies to the slow bowlers, as once the ball becomes old and soft, the bounce and turn that they got earlier disappeared. The batsmen, therefore, were able to adjust and improvise without much problem.
Batsmen will now need to relook at improving the way in which they approach their batting. The old ways of getting runs by staying at the wicket and seeing off the new ball has become the way to success. They will need to master playing the short ball with a leg side round the wicket attack. Furthermore, their defense and offence against spin will need to be strengthened.
This is why one feels that cricket has taken a complete circle, as the tricks that made the present bowlers successful have become redundant with one stroke of the pen, “the ban on the use of saliva”.
One was surprised that England’s best and most experienced bowler, James Anderson, was rested after playing just one Test match and in a very crucial game to boot. England did manage a victory with his replacement. This is what makes selection such a questionable issue. This is also where one does not agree with the idea of resting players on the grounds that they will come back fresh and better.
In cricket one has to be in constant touch to keep the body and mind synchronised. It is a one ball sport, very different from many others. It is similar to “Russian roulette”, as one never knows when the bullet will fire. Among cricketers the common saying is “that you are as good as your last performance. The next innings starts from a zero on the board”.
Indian cricket, one gathers should, in a few months be back on track. One hopes that they have seen the subtle changes that have emerged in world cricket. With Ravi Shastri and Rahul Dravid to guide them, they should be suitably ready to play the Australians Down Under. After all, they need to retain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy that they won gloriously a year ago.
(Yajurvindra Singh is a former Test cricketer. Views expressed are personal)