Ben Jones looks at how the two batsmen played on a tough surface in Chennai.
The conditions in Chennai have been a topic of much discussion. When the ball starts to rag, tongues start to wag, and there has been no shortage of opinions on the validity of this surface. Some have suggested it is simply unfair to see a ball turning this much; some have suggested you’d be naive to expect anything else.
Without judgement, the pitch in Chennai has been extreme in its bias towards spin. 78% of the deliveries bowled in this second Test have been by spinners; the last time a Test in India saw more spin was also the second game of an India v England series, way back in 2012 when 83% of the bowling in Mumbai was done by spinners. That’s the only game this century where India has seen more spin bowled, as a proportion of the entire match; only 14 matches have seen a higher degree of spin anywhere in the world. On a straightforward level, the cricket this pitch has produced is at the extreme of what Test cricket can be.
When England collapsed on Day 2 – their lowest ever first innings score in India – the natural response was to place significant emphasis on the pitch. For the vast majority of their innings, Joe Root’s side looked genuinely incapable of scoring runs, in a manner which we are not used to seeing at this level, on the second day of a Test match. The extent to which they struggled, and the manner of their struggle, was rare.
However, the cricket we saw today, on Day 3 in Chennai as India moved to 286 all out, demonstrated that there was far more to England’s collapse than met the eye. If there did need to be a demonstration that this wicket was not unplayable, then India provided one. In the shape of Virat Kohli and Ravichandran Ashwin – the best batsman, and the man who knows better than anyone how to exploit these conditions with the ball – the hosts demonstrated that the surface was tough, but by no means impossible. Their 96-run partnership, made in just under 30 overs, joined Rohit Sharma’s first innings century as clear examples that runs were not forbidden.
What was particularly instructive, for England’s batsmen at least, was that the contrasting styles of Kohli and Ashwin showed, in tandem, the ways in which you can approach batting on a turning surface.
On the one hand, Kohli was a model of control. In circumstances like these, where consistent movement isn’t going to go away, one way to go is to be hyper-controlled, and hyper-cautious. Coming to the crease with England getting a bit of momentum late on Day 2, he took 20 balls to get off the mark. Across his Test career, only once has he faced more balls before scoring his first run, way back in 2012 at Ahmedabad, also against England, when he took 29 balls.
Once he was into his stride, he maintained this caution. Across the innings he attacked only 14% of the deliveries bowled to him, well down on the Test average of 25%, and right at the bottom of his gearbox. Only once has Kohli faced 100 deliveries in a home Test, and attacked less.
You can see on that graphic that despite his caution, his control was comparatively poor when viewed alongside his other efforts. However, it’s important to consider two things: one, that the average false shot percentage in Test cricket is 15%, and two, that Kohli was substantially more controlled than everyone else today. Kohli’s false shot percentage today, 11%, was 10% lower than the match average of 21%.
Kohli was mixing up his approach to the spinners. He played off the front foot 58% of the time, and the back foot 42% of the time. He was riskier off the back foot, 16% false shots compared to 9% on the front, but in the context of the game and the conditions, neither was too treacherous.
At the other end, Ashwin wasn’t controlled in the slightest. His century, in front of a bouncing Chennai crowd welcoming their hometown boy home, was an example of what else you can do on a surface like this – gamble, and try your luck. Ashwin is no tailender – this is now the third Test where he’s registered both a century and a five wicket haul – but there was a joyful abandon to the way he went about his business, charging towards a ton from the moment he came to the crease.
Of his previous four centuries, the highest false shot percentage he recorded in any of them was 15% – today, that figure was 22%. Yet that was a natural consequence of his intent, Ashwin playing an attacking stroke to 45% of the deliveries bowled. Of the 162 centuries we have seen in India in Tests since 2006, only five have seen a higher attacking shot percentage.
Beyond the adoring crowd, and gleeful irony of making runs on the very pitch where he’d tormented England less than 24 hours before, the most notable aspect of Ashwin’s innings was that he was sweeping, and sweeping a lot. In a 76-Test career, he’s played 58 sweeps or slog sweeps; 15 of them came today in Chennai. Before today, the maximum number of sweeps he’d played in a single innings was six. This was an expansive, exciting new addition to Ashwin’s strokeplay.
It was an addition reflected in his scoring zones; throughout the day he hit Leach against the spin (or into the spin, as some prefer), but hit Moeen with it. Cross-batted shots are not always successful on pitches where the bounce is inconsistent, but given that the pitch was also taking big turn – which the sweep is naturally well suited to countering – Ashwin may have decided it was the lesser of two evils. With an arcing backlift he backed himself to respond to any movement late, and hit to midwicket consistently. It was aggressive, calculated batting, which acknowledged the risk and played into it.
Again, a sharp contrast with Ashwin, Kohli played with the spin almost exclusively. 40 of his 57 runs against spin were scored in the direction of the turn, angling the bat late – to either drop the ball into the offside, or flick it into the legside. Two different solutions, for two batsmen trying to deal with the same problem.
Kohli played with control, Ashwin went all out. Extreme conditions, with extreme approaches.
Conditions like these also tend to provoke extreme responses with keyboard, and with microphone. English fans and pundits are frequently too quick to criticise spinning tracks for being an unfair balance between bat and ball, but it is a simplistic, hypocritical view. As has already been said plenty elsewhere, there are huge similarities between the prodigious spin seen in Chennai this week, and the vast sideways movement we see every summer in England.
There are some limits to this comparison. To say that spin on Day 1 is the same as seam or swing movement on Day 1 is a false equivalency; spin deviation almost always gets greater as a Test match progresses, inherently giving more advantage to the side batting first, the side who have generally won the toss. Seam movement in England does not see this progression.
The main characteristic of Indian pitches, for a while now, has been the drop off across the match. In the five years prior to this series, the difference between first innings and second innings averages in India was 12.62, the largest difference for any Test nation. That degradation, from hard and flat to turning and bouncing, is a recognised pattern of play. Perhaps it is more accepted, by overseas viewers and fans, because it’s simply an amplified version of what we think “normal” Test cricket looks like. Spinners come into the game more as the game goes on everywhere – on the classic Indian pitch, this happens in a more extreme way.
In this specific match, that hasn’t quite been the case. Apart from the first session, when the pitch was at its absolute freshest, it has spun consistently and evenly throughout the game. There benefit of winning the toss is always going to be there, in any match, but the straightforward benefit of batting first was not as pronounced in this Test as it was in the opening game of this series. In this second Test, the primary factor in whether the bowling is unplayable, or manageable, is the stage of the innings, not the stage of the Test. Specifically – whether the new ball is still hard.
The first 30 overs of the innings, throughout the game, have produced tough batting conditions. The easiest batting conditions have come in Overs 30-59, when the ball has gone soft, and the exaggerated turn and bounce is less.
Thus, Day 2 appeared to offer worse conditions than the rest of this Test, because of this old ball lag – a huge proportion of the day’s play was bowled with a new ball. Of the 514 balls bowled, 335 were bowled with a ball less than 30 overs old – 65% of the day. What we saw was repeated new ball spells, rather than the gradual degradation of the ball you would typically see over 80 overs, before being replaced.
If India did attempt to create a ragging turner, where you win the toss bat first and are guaranteed to win the game, then that is a) completely their prerogative and b) one hell of a gamble. 1-0 down in a series where you’re expected not just to win, but to sweep through the opposition, producing a pitch which all but eliminates the draw and perhaps places your faith in the hands of a coin toss, would be to effectively lump the whole series on red.
However, India have not created that pitch. Instead, what the curators at Chepauk have offered up is a pitch which strongly favours spin bowling, due to exaggerated turn and bounce, and inconsistency for both, all of which is amplified further by when the ball is new, and hard. In this sense, it is far more like a “traditional” wicket – in terms of the pattern of play it creates, rather than the conditions themselves – than you might initially think. Get through the new ball, tough it out, and things get easier. That is not extreme.
In amongst all the chaos of a game which has seemed to be accelerating towards a finish from the moment the first wicket fell, are patterns, familiar to us from every game. The joy of cricket, particularly Test cricket, is the variety of conditions it conjures up, the wide range of challenges – yet generally this range is a question of technique. The technique to deal with the swinging ball; the technique to deal with reverse swing; the technique to deal with spin. What pervades across these conditions is the principle that things generally get easier, the longer you survive. This Test, as with almost every other, has shown that enduring principle.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.