Kevin Pietersen’s struggles against left-arm spin have continued in India. Does this failing indicate a mental fade-out while facing bowlers of this ilk or does he have technical issues to sort out? Or is it a combination of both?
The gifted right-hander with a creditable Test record — 7,095 runs in 89 matches at 48.93 — finds himself under increasing scrutiny after his twin early dismissals — tentative in his forward movement in the first innings and bowled while moving across to sweep in the second — against India left-armer Pragyan Ojha in the first Test at Motera.
Pietersen has now fallen a whopping 25 times to left-arm spin in Tests.
To start with, Pietersen possesses a rather open stance and has this natural inclination to whip the ball between mid-wicket and square-leg even at deliveries spinning away from him. And given his stance, he is not perfectly side-on while meeting the balls delivered by left-arm spinners.
The body balance
The alignment between the bat and the feet is of primary importance. The body balance, consequently achieved, holds the key.
And like India’s left-arm spinning legend Bishan Singh Bedi pointed out, Pietersen often committed himself to the front foot. Talking to The Hindu, Bedi said: “As a left-arm spinner, I am happy when the batsman plays me off the front foot. He is playing me without knowing how or how much the ball would turn.”
The 66-year-old Bedi, who claimed 266 wickets in 67 Tests at 28.71, said: “You need to use the depth of the crease. When a batsman plays me off the back foot, he opens up a lot of options on both sides of the wicket. He knows the extent of turn and bounce and makes it that much harder for the spinner.”
Bedi felt Pietersen had to clean up his mind also. “I do not know what’s cooking in his head. The two shots he got out to in the first Test do little credit to him as a frontline batsman. (Pragyan) Ojha did not get his wickets. He got himself out.”
The master of flight and control added: “He (Pietersen) appeared a cat on a hot tin roof. I could see the restlessness in him as a batsman. He did not seem to trust his defence enough. You cannot play spin like that. A batsman needs to be at peace with himself.”
Variations of trajectory
A left-arm spinner can open up a right-handed batsman, not only due to variations of trajectory and turn, but also because of the angles he can create by using the crease smartly. Given his tendency to commit himself to the front foot, Pietersen was not just allowing the bowler to settle down but opening himself up to a variety of deliveries.
Interestingly, it was another Englishman, Ken Barrington, whom Bedi rated as the toughest right-handed batsman he had bowled to. “All the four of us (the famous spin quartet of Bedi, B.S. Chandrasekhar, Erapalli Prasanna and S. Venkatraghavan) agreed that Barrington was the hardest batsman we operated at,” said Bedi.
Barrington had an exceptional Test record of 6,806 runs from 82 Tests at 58.67. And his displays in India — he made 674 runs in six Tests at 96.28 — were imposing.
Equipped with one of the tightest defensive techniques — those who watched him say there was hardly ever any gap between his bat and pad — he had several strong scoring areas as well. Bedi revealed: “He was known as a stone-waller but was a complete batsman against spin. He knew his scoring options and used them judiciously. In fact, he treated spin and spinners with contempt.”
Bedi threw more light on Barrington’s style of play. “There was an occasion when he gave maiden after maiden to Bapu Nadkarni but was otherwise an attacking batsman against spin. And it was his back-foot play that made him so effective against spin.
“He was confident too against spin. In 1967, he was bowled by Chandrasekhar while on 97 in the Lord’s Test. Barrington stood there for a long time in disbelief. He could not believe that he had fallen to a spinner.”
The message that came out was that Pietersen was committing himself far too much onto the front foot, did not back his defence and displayed a worrying lack of patience. A batsman who played cleverly off the back foot would force a spinner to alter his length. Pietersen was just not doing that.
Can he prove critics wrong? Time will tell.