England’s assistant coach and one of their best batsmen, especially against spinners, Graham Thorpe, issued a statutory warning a few days ago when he said his boys better not overdo the sweep while tackling the Indian spinners during the four-match series that gets under way at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai from Friday.
“It’s a handy shot to have but sometimes the surface might not turn straightaway in India,” opined the former left-hander.
Thorpe is right. Under Virat Kohli, especially after the 2015-2016 series against South Africa, India have developed a more well-rounded attack of quality seam and spin, which makes the toss, such a factor on dustbowls, redundant.
Despite India winning the corresponding five-match series 4-0 in 2016-2017, few would argue that those pitches turned from Day One. That India recorded three of those four wins on Day Five, proves this as is the fact that in three of their five first innings performances, England got 400 runs or more. England basically lost to the genius and run gluttony of Kohli.
But there has been a school of thought that for visiting batsmen to succeed in India, possessing a good sweep, is a must.
Graham Gooch would endorse that view. Before conjuring that epic 115 in the 1987 World Cup semifinal, he managed to summon all the left-arm-spinners in Mumbai to come and bowl to him in the nets two days prior to the game to help him counter the twin threats of Maninder Singh and Ravi Shastri from the rough. Zimbabwe’s Andy Flower, also a former England coach, during the 2000 series vs India, followed the sweeping for success mantra.
Mike Gatting and Graeme Fowler frustrated India employing similar tactics in 1984-85.
So how does it affect the spinner when batsmen start sweeping?
Thorpe, despite his warning, feels it opens up spaces in the field allowing batsmen to get off strike.
“It puts the spinners off if a batsman starts sweeping well,” says former Indian left-arm spinner Venkatpathy Raju. “Of course, you have to be skillful enough to do it well and consistently,” he adds and cites the example of England skipper Joe Root.
Raju formed a potent trio with the legendary Anil Kumble and off-spinner Rajesh Chauhan to famously whitewash England 3-0 in 1993 and hardly allowed England any leeway with the sweep.
Another former left-arm spinner, Pragyan Ojha, who played against England in 2012, feels that the sweep stroke is ingrained deeply in the minds of England batsmen.
He should know it well.
Ojha dismissed the talismanic Kevin Pietersen cheaply in both innings in the first Test at Motera, but in the second Test in Mumbai, on a raging red soil turner, the maverick and mercurial KP, swept and slog swept his way to a bullying and series-turning 186.
It was a stunning counterattack, achieved after undergoing hours of sweaty practice with spin bowling consultant and former Pakistan leggie Mushtaq Ahmed, and coach Flower, in Motera, immediately after his second innings dismissal, and in Mumbai on the eve of the Test.
“They will keep sweeping us,” predicts Ojha. “If you see how Root played against Sri Lanka, he will sweep here too. As will players like Jos Buttler,” he adds.
Ojha’s point is proved by the fact that during Root’s masterly 228 in the first Test of the two-match series in Galle vs Sri Lanka, stats illustrated that his innings comprised more sweeps than any played during a Test innings.
Ojha also stresses though that DRS and the quality, experience and variations that R Ashwin possesses today will attach considerable risk to the stroke. “Umpires did not give certain decisions earlier, but with DRS, things have changed. Batsmen will be wary,” he stresses.
Raju says, the injured Ravindra Jadeja’s quicker pace would have made sweeping him risky. “But Sundar’s speed and trajectory won’t make things easy. Axar too is tall and won’t allow the sweep to be played easily. In fact, these days, batsmen play the reverse sweep more proficiently and more often than the traditional sweep. Andy (Flower) was the first guy I saw playing it so well in a Test match. But you need exceptional skill to pull it off,” he concludes.
So, what will it be when hostilities begin in Chennai in four days, a clean sweep for the hosts, or a sweeping success for England?