India's spin-playing endemic
The decline in performance against tweakers from the top batters is becoming a worry for the hosts
INDORE: Want to claim Virat Kohli's wicket in Asia? Bring a spinner, preferably a left-armer, and target the stumps. Chances are he will be out leg-before or bowled.
He has been dismissed 13 times in Asia since December 2021. Nine of those have seen him leg-before (7) or bowled (2). The other pattern that's clear is to get them to bowl around the stumps. To be fair to Kohli, an apex predator in all terrains and across all formats till recently, playing high-quality spin on helpful tracks isn't a Kohli-specific problem. It's endemic and it's been highly contagious of late.
Forget what happened in Indore. The state of the pitch is an obvious mitigation but India's weaknesses in the face of spin (irrespective of the status quo of the spinner) have been bothering them for some time now. It's very clear they are not bad players of spin bowling, per se. Against that bowling type away from home, India's top six, between them, maintain a healthy average. In four of the years since 2017, they averaged over 70 runs per wicket (2017, 19, 20 and 21).
However, there's a very clear downward trajectory if you consider their averages against spin at home since the time they dominated the South Africans in 2019. The law of diminishing marginal returns has been in effect since then (37.48 in 2021, 34.78 in 2022 and 18.96 in 2023). What those numbers don't tell you is that they are slightly inflated because of a few knocks from the blade of Rishabh Pant.
|Players*||Avg (from debut to Jan 1, 2020)||Avg (from Jan 1, 2020 - till now)|
|Kohli||68.42 (39 Tests; 13 100s)||25 (10 Tests; 0 100s)|
|Pujara||59.84 (41 Tests; 10 100s)||23.28 (9 Tests; 0 100s)|
|Rahane||39.28 (27 Tests; 4 100s)||18.87 (5 Tests; 0 100s)|
|Rahul||44.25 (14 Tests; 1 100)||12.66 (2 Tests; 0 100s)|
|Rohit||88.33 (14 Tests; 6 100s)||45.85 (9 Tests; 2 100s)|
|*Current batters who played at least 10 Tests at home before Jan 1, 2020|
That becomes clear when you individually analyse the numbers of the players who have played at least 10 Tests at home before 2020. Take Kohli, for example. His average against spin in India has dipped from 68.42 in the first 39 Tests to 25 in his last 10 Tests. Rohit Sharma, generally recognised as one of the country's top batters against red-ball spinners, averaged 88.33 in his first 14 Tests. It's 45.85 over his last nine games. Cheteshwar Pujara went from 59.84 in his first 41 Tests to 23.28 in his last nine Tests. Even giving the caveat that some of the pitches they have played on have been very challenging, this is unbecoming for an elite set of batters for whom playing spin was meat and drink not very long ago.
|No. of times dismissed by left-arm spin|
|Batter||Till Jan 2021||Since|
|Shreyas Iyer, who made his debut in Nov 2021, has lost his wickets nine times to spinners. Out of that, six have come against this bowling type.|
Former India batting coach, Sanjay Bangar, during the 2015 series against South Africa, had explained how to play on turning tracks. He had noted using the depth of the crease or going right forward to smother the turn or just trusting your defence. The ones who have occupied the crease like Axar Patel (361 balls) and Marnus Labuschagne (375) have done that. They have gone right back or used their feet to get to the pitch of the ball before ensuring they don't swipe across the line, a tricky shot on surfaces. This is what's been causing the likes of Kohli problems.
|Indian top six's avg vs spin|
|Year||Away Tests||Home Tests|
While there is some merit to the theory that Kohli has been extremely unlucky in that he has been getting out to practically what has been his first mistake, those mistakes have been bad when you take a look at it. Take both the leg-before decisions in the Indore Test. In the second innings, he went back to a short delivery looking to pull it but the ball scooted off the surface. In the first innings, he tried to whip a delivery that pitched on middle and off before straightening a touch and Kohli was all in all kinds of trouble.
That first-innings wicket claimed by Todd Murphy is one to keep an eye on. After his eight-wicket haul in India's second innings, Nathan Lyon was asked about coming around the wicket to right-hand batters. "I know a lot of people see it as a negative. I see it as the total opposite," he had said after the second day of the Test. "I think it's very attacking, you are bringing all modes of dismissal. Times have changed when you were able to bowl over the stumps and still get guys in line." In the context of this series, multiple batters on both sides have fallen for it because of the big spin and the natural variation on offer (Moeen Ali had removed Kohli coming around the wicket in the second Test at Chennai in 2021. It was a similar delivery and Kohli went back but failed to make contact with the ball).
Speaking about the context of this series, it was a big surprise when Australia didn't play Ashton Agar in the first Test. It wasn't a surprise when they flew Matthew Kuhnemann for the second Test and to see him given the ball ahead of Lyon. It also wasn't a surprise to see him pick a five for. India have developed a recent weakness when facing left-arm spin in all formats. Sticking to red-ball cricket, Taijul Islam, Jack Leach, Ajaz Patel, Praveen Jayawickrama and Lasith Embuldeniya have all been amongst the wickets in the last 16 months or so.
Batting coach, Vikram Rathour, defended the team when he was questioned about the batters' performances against spin. "Of course, you can get out as a batting unit at times but we do prefer to play on turning tracks," he had said after the first day. "That is our strength. To be fair this is a one-off wicket."
It may have been a one-off wicket but the diminishing returns are an increasing cause for concern.