You have to get ugly runs’: Laxman’s expert guide to batting in India

Sport

One of the great sights in cricket was to see Shane Warne in his follow through with his hands on his hips, shaking his head in disbelief. Two identically pitched deliveries had just gone for four. The first, inside out, through cover; the second, whipped through midwicket. The batsman was VVS Laxman.

Not everyone can play spin like Laxman, but you can certainly learn from him. “There is no doubt it’s possible to score on these pitches. You have to have the right mix of technique and mindset,” Laxman tells the Observer.

“You have to have belief in your defence. If you don’t, your mind is restless, shot selection becomes problematic, decision-making translates into poor footwork, into reaching towards the ball, picking the length wrongly, and that will lead to your dismissal. You will look out of place batting on these surfaces.”

So what does this defence entail? After all, batsmen have not necessarily got out swinging for the fences in this series. “Defence doesn’t mean just taking a long stride forward. Defence is where you’re transferring your body weight, and your stride is just so long that you can get bat in front of pad,” Laxman explains.

“If the stride is too long, the bat is behind pad and you’re giving a chance for lbw and [a] catch close in. Once you get the stride right and the body weight is transferring forward, you will automatically play with soft hands. Even if you’re beaten by the bounce at the last moment, you can adjust. Your bat and hand position should be such that, at the last moment, you can drop your wrists or take your bat up and leave the ball. Once you take a long stride, you’re locked.”

But defence, while non-negotiable, is only the beginning. “Once you’re comfortable with your defence, you play to save one edge, not both. On a turning track you always play for the ball that comes in. Your bat should be vertical and you look to play back to the bowler. More often than not you won’t get bowled because you’re covering the line of the delivery,” says Laxman.

“If the ball turns in a lot, it will go to square leg off the inside part of your bat. If it is turning away it will roll to point off the outside part of the bat. But because you’re playing with soft hands, very rarely will it carry to gully or slip.”

With the building blocks in place, it is then time to take the game to the bowler. Laxman reveals how he did that: “It’s important not to allow the bowler to pitch the ball on the same length repeatedly. There are various ways to do that.

“Because I never swept, there were two options: step down the wicket, or go right back and play late. Go back early and play late, after allowing the ball to finish doing whatever it is. That’s how I disrupted length. The bowler will think he is bowling too full or too short, adjust his length, and in the bargain I would get overpitched deliveries to drive or short balls to pull.”

The kind of surface you are batting on and the bowler you are facing dictates the shots you play and the ones you put away. Laxman shows how he went about this process. “I rarely played an aerial shot. I used my feet and played along the ground. If I did play the aerial shot, it had to be a high percentage one,” he says.

“On a turning track, hitting a left-arm spinner over extra cover is not high percentage, because you don’t know how much it is going to grip and how much it is going to bounce. The risk of a leading edge to point is high. The slog sweep, where you’re covering the bounce, is a smarter option. If you hit hard and connect cleanly, it will go over midwicket. If you edge, it will go over point.”

As England’s batsmen are finding out, there is no single solution that works for everyone. And Laxman says a uniform approach is not even the right way. “You have to know your strengths, what your boundary shots are, and where you can rotate the strike. For me, against the left-arm spinner, my strike rotation options would be play with the turn, towards mid-off. Against Axar Patel or Jack Leach, even if I was using the depth of the crease I would not cut.

“Against quicker spinners, play with a vertical bat. If you set yourself up to play towards mid-off, even if the ball turns a bit more, you can play to cover. But if you try to play towards cover, as you do on a good wicket, and the ball comes in with the arm, there is no time to alter your shot.”

When you have got the right technique and shot selection in place, it is time to plan your innings and get into the mental space to succeed on trying pitches. “Most importantly, on tough tracks, turners or seamers, you have to get ugly runs,” says Laxman, having never played an ugly shot in his life.

“As a batsman, you will not have rhythm or flow. Even if you’re batting on 50 you will feel that you’re not in and you may not middle the ball. This is the challenge for England. It will take a lot of mental toughness to score runs. At the highest level, you’re talented, experienced, you’re a good batsman, and you feel that you should always dominate. When you dominate you will look good and you will look comfortable. On these pitches you will not look good. If you’re expecting to dominate, it will not happen and play into the hands of the bowler.

“You shouldn’t be thinking about a 50, just about giving each ball maximum focus. And [when] suddenly you’ve reached 30, and you build a partnership, that will create desperation in the minds of the opposition captain and spin bowlers, because they are expected to take wickets.”

At the moment, with India 2-1 up in the series, the desperation is only in the England camp. The third Test may have finished inside two days but even in that short period, England were a distinct second-best in how they played spin and bowled it. The edge that India had in terms of the knowledge and ability to deal with and dish out spin is obvious when you hear how simple Laxman makes it all sound.