India, on Your England Tour, Please Remember the Humble Front Foot Defence


India, on Your England Tour, Please Remember the Humble Front Foot Defence

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

“Move the back foot across, get the front foot in the line of the ball, and show the full face of the bat.”

Earlier this month, while watching the Indian team crumble to an innings defeat in a Test match against England at Lords, the voice of Sharma Sir, the pot-bellied coach from the cricket camps I attended during childhood, echoed in my ears. In overcast conditions, our batsmen were struggling to negotiate with both seam and swing. Phenomenal stroke players, all of them, finding it difficult to settle in. Some pushed at deliveries they shouldn’t have, some didn’t move their feet, some didn’t give themselves enough time before commiting and others just ended up playing extremely rash shots. Sharma Sir would have had a fit.

As a 10-year-old at cricket coaching camp in the ’90s, the front foot defence was the first thing we were taught. It was hammered into our minds. I was struggling with multiplication tables in class, but you could wake me up in the middle of the night and I could have blocked a delivery like Rahul Dravid. Sharma Sir, always the poet, called the sound of the ball hitting the middle of the bat the most beautiful sound in the world.

In the era before T20, batting in the nets was all about being solid and compact with technique. You had to get your eye in by leaving some deliveries and getting your defensive shape right. A good left alone and strong forward defence would get a “Shabash!” from the coach, and trying a cavalier aerial shot meant you ran the risk of being thrown out of the nets and being lectured in front of the entire group. Sharma Sir would keep a count of every ball that we’d hit in the air, and after the net session, we had to run that many rounds of the ground as “punishment”, with our pads on. Shahid Afridi would have ended up a marathoner if his coach had adopted the same measures.

In those days, putting on a technically sound performance was seen as a virtue. To say times have changed, would be an understatement.

Like an Ekta Kapoor serial taking a 20-year leap, cricket has also vastly changed over the past two decades. The shorter formats of the game draw more money, crowds, and eyeballs, and that’s impacted the way cricket is played, and coached as well. India’s hapless batting performance at Lords made me wonder what had happened to the art of the defence, but a recent trip to my childhood cricket gymkhana answered my question.

Aerial drives, hooks, pulls, reverse sweeps, charges down the pitch, the kids played them all.

For one, Sharma Sir is no longer around. The middle-aged father figure with a paunch who couldn’t run to save his life has been replaced by a lanky fit man who could pass off as the Milind Soman of cricket. The gear, facilities, and infrastructure were drastically improved from what I remembered. But what really made me feel like I was in a Black Mirror episode was watching a young kid bat in the nets for 20 minutes. He didn’t play a single defensive shot! Watching him, I realised, getting beaten in the air, edging a few, or hitting over the top aren’t alarming signs anymore, they’re signs you could be the next Chris Gayle or Brendon McCullum.

Aerial drives, hooks, pulls, reverse sweeps, charges down the pitch, the kids played them all. Echoes of “watch out” rang out across the ground every few seconds, warning everyone to protect their heads as balls kept flying off the willow. The stroke play on display by young kids was so impressive that I was embarrassed of how mediocre my skills were in that department. My whole batting game was premised around the feeble ability to block and defend – it made me feel like a dial-up connection in the world of 4G.

I went to the gymkhana restaurant, hoping to chase away my sorrow with dosas and vadas, and the TV was showing analysis of the ongoing India vs England Test series. Veteran players and expert analysts sat on panels and dissected the collapse of the Indian team, and one of the most glaring flaws they highlighted was the mentality of going after every delivery.

In that moment, I saw the value for the staple left alone and forward defence that Sharma Sir had hyped all my childhood. Of letting a few deliveries go so you can make better judgements about the pace and movement of the wicket. Of defending with the whole body behind the line of the ball so you can let the bowler know you’re on top.

It may be the era of the switch-hit, and while today’s batsmen are phenomenal hitters, maybe, just maybe, there is still place for the front foot defence alongside some of the more eye-catching shots in the game. After all, Team India has proved it can tear apart a bowling lineup on a cement track passing off as a cricket pitch, but on a windy day, in overcast conditions, at the Mecca of Cricket, it was the humble front foot defence that could have been their salvation.