In the Second Test at Vizag, England attempted to stage a mammoth ‘blockathon’ to deny India a seemingly inevitable win. Things were looking good for England with the score at 75-0 off 50 overs. However, when the impressive young opener Haseeb Hameed fell to an unplayable delivery and when Alastair Cook departed on the last ball of Day Four, England’s fate changed. It appeared that England had decided to employ the same tactics on the morning of Day Five as well. This proved to be a vital mistake, as England proceeded to lose five wickets in the morning session alone.
In his post-match press conference, India captain Virat Kohli even admitted to being shocked by England’s defensive tactics. Kohli said:
“We thought they would come out with more intent, to be honest. To see them approach [it like] that, they had obviously given us assurance that once we get a couple of wickets, it would crumble pretty quickly because there wasn’t much intent from the batsmen.”
To play for a draw is never Virat Kohli’s style. The best example of this is Kohli’s first Test as captain against Australia in Adelaide, 2014. Needing to score an unlikely 364 runs in the final day, Kohli encouraged his batsmen to go for the win. Unfortunately, India fell tantalisingly short by 48 runs. This shows Kohli’s aggressive drive, showing that he’d rather risk everything than settle for a draw. In fact, Kohli’s captaincy has arguably grown to be even more aggressive since then. In this Test, Kohli was frequently seen to be urging the crowd on, by appealing to their enthusiasm. Moreover, he constantly had a ring of men around the bat and refused to drop them even after a few boundaries were it.
Perhaps this difference among both captains is a sign of Kohli’s inexperience. While Kohli has barely been captain for two years, Cook has been captaining England’s test side for over six years. Kohli is much younger and rash whereas Cook is more composed and balanced. Cook happily defended his tactics in his post-match interview:
“We made a conscious effort to play that way [defensively]. Everyone bought into it. It’s not some people’s natural way of playing. But you say, ‘play your natural way and suddenly you’re four down then lower order start digging in and you think, ‘why didn’t we start that right at the beginning of the game’. So we made a very clear policy. Of course, when it does not work you feel you could have been more positive. Get the men out around the bat. You make a decision as a captain or as a leadership group. Everyone bought into it and we came up a bit short.”
In a later interview, Cook made a reference to South Africa managing to block out 143 overs against India.
The South African Example
This was not the first time we’ve seen a team attempt to block out over a day’s play in the subcontinent. In 2015, South Africa tried to achieve a similar feat in the Fourth Test in Delhi. Having gone into bat just before lunch on Day Four, South Africa managed to take the Test into the last session of Day Five. Indeed, they only needed to block out thirty overs with five wickets in hand to save the Test. However, a few unplayable balls later, South Africa were skittled out, losing five wickets in just 19 overs.
As we saw in the delivery that dismissed Hameed on Day Four, some balls in the subcontinent are simply unplayable. On a pitch that is constantly turning and displaying variable bounce, there is always a ball with a player’s name on it. By sitting back and defending, batsmen are inviting the immense pressure and overthink basic principles. However, by employing a more aggressive stance there is less margin for error. When you push your head over the ball and get forward constantly, looking to assert yourself, you are less likely to be found out. That is according to Virat Kohli at least. Speaking on his own batting, man of the match Kohli said:
“That was the plan. To have intent. It is only if you have intent that you will be able to play the ball accordingly because you are looking to play with the bat. If you don’t have intent, and you are looking to control the ball, and if it does something, then you are in no position to control it. So the edges fly off and you are not in position.”
It is never a good call to attempt to rigidly block out a day’s play in India, as supported by Virat Kohil. In this case, Alastair Cook called wrong. Batsmen like Ben Duckett and Ben Stokes were dismissed trying to suppress their natural game. They would have definitely lasted longer playing how they are used to. Going into the next Test in Mohali, Cook will have several tough decisions to make. Among his selection dilemmas, Cook will need to reassess his team’s tactics. Equally important is that Kohli manages to stay composed and calm in his captaincy. Several times in the last Test Kohli was excessively appealing. He is a young captain and needs to make sure he doesn’t get swept along by the thrill of the game.