Published on August 13th, 2018 | by Arunabha Sengupta0
To Block or not to Block: Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay and the rest🕓 Reading time: 4 minutes
“It is time illusions of correct Test match batting are ignored and the top order is laced with some amount of positive intent … to allow the team to take their first steps in effecting a comeback in the series”
For many that is the hallmark of Test cricket.
When one mentions that the greatest in the game, from Don Bradman to Jack Hobbs, from Viv Richards to Sachin Tendulkar, from Garry Sobers to Brian Lara were all top class stroke-players who could score fast, they tend to ignore the argument. The argument that Test cricket is all about scoring runs quickly enough to give your bowlers the time to get the opposition out twice falls on quite a few pairs of deaf ears.
There are many who succumb to the illusion of a sedate approach as the ideal Test match temperament. This illusion affects not only fans but also selection policies.
And thereby Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, in spite of their abysmal away records, remain rather popular picks.
Vijay, whose strike rate in England is currently 37.90, and whose once decent average in the land is down to 30.57, continues to open the innings. Pujara, whose strike rate in England is 38.58 and the average a shocking 20, continues to walk in at No 3.
Yet, there are proponents of the theory of attritional batting, who maintain that in England that is exactly the way to play. The ball moves around for the first 40 overs. If one bides his time and manages to survive through that period, things get easier and the chances of a big score increase.
True. Slow batting does not really seem to help in places like South Africa and Australia. This can be shown with simple statistics. That is primarily because the conditions don’t really become easier … If one bats slowly, run making remains as arduous as ever. In fact, if one plays too many balls and remains scoreless, there always remains the possibility of getting a ball that is too good to negotiate. Hence poor strike rates generally mean poor batting averages as well, in these two lands.
However, England is different. Biding one’s time and playing off dangerous sessions actually help in this land. The more you spend time in the middle, the more you tire the bowlers, see off the shine and make hay when the sun, either literally or figuratively, shines.
There have been successful performers in England who have done it in the past. Dilip Vengsarkar’s Lord’s hundreds are excellent case studies. Both the 1979 and 1986 centuries were crafted to perfection. He grafted it out during the difficult periods, gritted it out when the bowling remained threatening and scored fluently when things became easier.
Rahul Dravid made plenty of runs in England and his style naturally suited these conditions. He too started slow, stuck it out through the tough periods, and reaped the benefits when things became simpler. It was different from Dravid in South Africa where he often became strokeless because he could not force the pace. His game was tuned to the English conditions a lot more. As a result, he has a significantly better record in England and a strikingly poor one in South Africa.
Even in recent times men like Azhar Ali have spent hours at the wicket and have been pretty successful in their methods.
One may thus question why are we critical of the slow approach of Pujara, Vijay and co when we have seen this method bear fruit in the past.
Because, I will argue, the slow scoring tactics of the successful batsmen out here were completely different from the methods of Vijay and Pujara.
There is slow batting and then there is slow batting
One can decide to minimise risks and take no chances whatsoever and bide his time. That is batting with purpose and intent where intent translates to defending.
When this is taken to the levels of frequently successful blockathons carried out by South Africans in the relatively recent past, one finds batsmen perfectly capable of belting bad deliveries deliberately patting back half-volleys. That is deliberate, that is part of a tactical manoeuvre and that frustrates bowlers.
In this case, the batsmen defend, but they do not struggle in doing so. They do exactly what they want to do.
However, the way Pujara and Vijay have played in the recent past have been a story of painstaking struggle.
It has not been due to the inclination that they have scored slowly. It has simply been that they had been unable to break free. They have been restrained not by intent but by inability. They have not really defended, they have just managed to survive for the duration of their innings. They have not defended with a purpose. They have pushed and prodded tentatively.
That does not frustrate the bowler. That puts him on top. He is encouraged by the lack of initiative and the visible discomfort of the batsman. He backs himself and tries out more things.
In the first case, the control rests with the batsman. In the second, it is very much with the bowler. And it becomes just a matter of time before all those misses outside the off stump, the inside edges and the balls rapping on the pads finally ends in dismissal and end of excruciating agony.
Slow batting is part of cricket, and often a strategy that bears fruit in Test matches. But there are different ways that people can play slowly. The important factor here is to be in control.
The 25-ball 1 and the 87-ball 17 essayed by Pujara at Lord’s did not give us any hint of his being in control of the situation. Vijay, of course, has not stayed long enough at the wicket for us to categorise his innings as fast or slow. But he was a phenomenal blocker in South Africa.
If the top order of a side is prone to batting shows that suffer from such lack of intent, defensive or attacking, it is very difficult for the unit to emerge victorious.
It is time illusions of correct Test match batting are ignored and the top order is laced with some amount of positive intent … to allow the team to take their first steps in effecting a comeback in the series.