A look at how this unglamorous snap made all the difference for India and why Australia couldn’t use it effectively themselves
Cheteshwar Pujara faced five of the last six balls in Delhi’s Test match. First, he evened the scores with a single shot to a deep square leg after jumping to Travis Head. Then, recovering the strike early in the next game, he played Todd Murphy two more flicks, one square-legged, one short-midwicket.
After another points ball not involving a film, Pujara hit the winning points: on the run again and a firm whip on the midwicket for four.
Five bullets, four variants of leg side film. And therein lies a story, maybe even THE history of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy 2022-23.
The film can be a delightful hit to watch, but it’s not always glamorous. ESPNcricinfo, for example, broadcasts a series of videos titled Build Your Dough 360, where current or former players choose their favorite exponents of eight shots that circle the dial: straight drive, cover drive, cut, reverse sweep, scoop, sweep, pull, and the ground loft. The film, as you may have noticed, is not one of them.
The film, however, is the lifeblood of the test hitter. Since the start of 2021, according to data from ESPNcricinfo, the film has brought hitters more tests than any other hit – 17,697, to be precise – with coverage a distant second at 12,979.
During that time, batters played the movie 22,373 times. He’s in third place behind defended (62,637) and left alone (25,277), sure, but those aren’t shots scored.
The reason film is such an important part of Test cricket is simple. Bowlers are constantly targeting the top of the stump, and when they miss their lines and lengths at the Test level, they usually only miss it by small margins. So, while the long skip and the wide half-volley are rare, the ball that is a little straighter than ideal, or a little fuller or shorter, is more common. Test hitters can throw balls of all kinds of lines and lengths – if the angle is right, a one-length backball can be worked to the back square leg deep from a fourth line of strain.
Spinners are especially prone to getting grazed, and not just with the turn. The best hitters can use their feet to reach the court of the ball, or go deep into their crease to give themselves time, and rotate their wrists to play the shot against the turn as well. Due to the pace at which spinners play, their margin for error is smaller, and the more turns, the smaller this margin becomes – the ball spinning in the batter is more likely to end up on the pads, and the deflected ball is more likely to start from a line closer to the stump of the leg.
The first two events of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy were played on fields with a lot of help for the spinners, and the margins of error were therefore quite small.
During these two tests in Nagpur and Delhi, Indian batters were able to play the film much more frequently against spinners than Australian batters. They also had to defend far fewer balls.
There are several ways to look at these numbers. You could say that Indian hitters are naturally wrist and love to play the movie. You could say they use their feet best to get down the pitch or go deep into the crease, to create opportunities to play the movie. You could say that the two teams used different batting game plans, with India revolving around positive footwork and shooting on the ground or through the side, and Australia around sweeping.
This last argument is particularly compelling if you’ve watched the final stages of the Delhi test, and watched and read the post-mortems. Australia lost a lot of wickets to sweeps and reverse sweeps, and India almost never played those moves. The pundits shook their heads and told you how reckless those shots were on that day three surface, where the ball fired frequently at low altitude.
But here’s the thing. Australian players and team management know this. They know how dangerous crossfire can be on pitches like this. But R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja played with the kind of control that left them with few other scoring options. They certainly don’t get practice balls and cut balls, and they don’t get a lot of balls either.
They chose two different responses to this challenge in the two tests in this series. In Round 2 at Nagpur, Australia defended for their life and were knocked out in 32.3 overs. In Round 2 in Delhi, they swept it all and were knocked out in 31.1 overs. Their captain Pat Cummins said their batters underplayed their hand in Nagpur and overplayed it in Delhi.
Against spinners with control from Ashwin and Jadeja and on pitches with both a turn and natural variation, these may be the only options for hitters to visit. Neither is the correct answer, but there is also no real middle way, unless the bowlers have a day off.
And in Delhi, the sweep helped Australia to compete on a level playing field with India in the opening two days. It was a defining feature of Usman Khawaja’s 81 on day one and Marnus Labuschagne’s stick as Australia got off to a fast start in the third session on day two.
The sweep was therefore a symptom of Australia’s problems, not its cause.
And the problem is not that they are a bad team. The problem is that they are just not as good as India in Indian conditions. You would only back a handful of teams in the history of the game to beat this Indian team on Indian terms.
Australia’s rotational attack on this tour is among the best to have visited the country in a decade – Nathan Lyon is a world-class offspinner with over 450 Test wickets, while Todd Murphy and Matthew Kuhnemann have played with terrific control for visiting spinners who’ made their test debut on this tour. They played with better control than many foreign spinners who came to India with far more test experience, and they barely played long jumps or true half volleys.
But it’s only natural that the Aussie spinners don’t have perfect control of Jadeja and Ashwin on Indian grounds. The margins of error are minimal. The little line and length errors won’t jump out at you in real time, but they all add up over the course of a series, one movie at a time.
Karthik Krishnaswamy is Deputy Editor at ESPNcricinfo