Shreyas Iyer’s arrival at the crease made Brendon McCullum active in the dressing room balcony. McCullum flicked his neck with his right hand; the ominous visual looked straight out of a gangster move but the instruction from the England coach to his players was to start chin music, with a couple of close catchers on the leg side. By now, Shreyas’s weakness against fast, short-pitch bowling is well-known to the cricket world.
A short ball angling across the body from James Anderson had accounted for the Indian middle-order batsman in the first innings. At the second dig, Matthew Potts, slippery but never going past 85 mph, became his tormentor-in-chief. With both Mark Wood and Jofra Archer out injured, England don’t have a tearaway quick in their ranks.
Fell into the trap 🪤
— England Cricket (@englandcricket) July 4, 2022
After being duly softened up by Potts, Shreyas perished to the fast-medium bowler, picking out Anderson at mid-wicket on the pull to another short delivery. The dismissal put him out of his misery, it has to be said.
About a couple of months ago, during a conversation with this correspondent, a former India captain was pointing out how Shreyas could be in trouble at the T20 World Cup on bouncier tracks in Australia later this year despite it being a limited-overs tournament, where only one bouncer is allowed per over.
Shreyas is aware of his shortcomings, and it sort of plays on his mind. At the IPL, he was shuffling towards leg, expecting a short ball all the time and missing some regular stuff outside off in the process.
It’s not yet clear if there is any clarity of thought behind his approach. Some batsmen like to duck, weave, and avoid. Some like to attack. Shreyas seems to be caught in between – neither here nor there. Attacking without the required skill isn’t easy in Tests with two men at deep, a short-leg, and a midwicket waiting for the miscue. England also keep a leg gully for him, as he has a tendency to stab the balls on the rib cage. With all areas cut out, and both attack and defence looking tough, unsurprisingly, he has been a bit like a rabbit trapped in front of headlights.
Not that any of this is new. A couple of years ago, during an ODI series Down Under, the Australian fast bowlers were bouncing him with a short-leg and a leg-slip and the ploy worked. At the time, Shreyas had spoken about taking this as a challenge. “I definitely know that they have planned against me, so I’m really happy. At least they are coming up with a plan against me to get me out. I feel very overwhelmed and take it as a challenge because, you see, I thrive under pressure,” he had said.
A pinch of bravado aside, things haven’t improved much over the next two years.
Shreyas is certainly not the only batsman to have limitations against short-pitch bowling. Good players adapt and get better. Steve Waugh is a case in point. The legendary former Australia captain played 168 Tests and scored nearly 11,000 runs, overcoming his problems against the short ball, especially during the early stage of his career. His counter-ploy was mainly to avoid it by ducking or swaying away from the line of the bouncer. He was ready to take blows on the body and didn’t mind being looked ugly.
Closer to home, both Mohinder Amarnath and Mohammad Azharuddin tinkered with their technique to crack the short ball code. The 1983 series in the West Indies was Amarnath’s finest hour, against a fearsome pace attack. He played with an open stance, hooked the bouncers that were over his left shoulder and took the deliveries on the body that angled in off a length from outside off. It was extreme courage and so good that Imran Khan called him the best player in the world against short-pitch bowling. Only a few years previously, an Imran bouncer had knocked Amarnath unconscious.
Azhar, too, opened his stance a bit against express pace. But he always had wrists like a ball bearing to punish the fuller ones. Even if he was setting himself back inside the crease, the bowlers couldn’t catch him by surprise with the full ones as he would whip them away. Shreyas doesn’t have that luxury.
Much depends on coping with the problem mentally. “A lot of people felt I couldn’t play the short ball. Maybe I put too much pressure on myself to play the short ball well. If I had my time again, I would approach it a little bit differently,” former Australia middle-order batsman Michael Bevan told Cricinfo in 2008.
Bevan, a white-ball legend, failed to flourish in the longer format, as the short ball became his bugbear. Suresh Raina, too, suffered from this. Unlike Virat Kohli, who was harassed by bouncers from Fidel Edwards in his debut Test series in West Indies, he failed to adapt, couldn’t take his horizontal-bat game to the next level and also, couldn’t get rid of his mental block.
Shreyas is only into his fifth Test, his first overseas, in seaming conditions. He made a fabulous start to his red-ball career with a century on debut in the home series against New Zealand last year. At 27 years of age, he has time on his side to rectify his flaw. As he trudged off the field today, David Gower, on air, drew the Waugh analogy, with a piece of advice: “He has to work on this.”