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Why England might hound Iyer with short balls — even on rank turners

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Last updated on 24 Jan 2024 | 06:13 AM
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Why England might hound Iyer with short balls — even on rank turners

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this England side under Stokes & McCullum, it’s that they take sadistic pleasure in pounding opposition batters’ weakness

You might have your reservations about Shreyas Iyer the Test batter outside Asia, and understandably so, but when it comes to the subcontinent, Iyer the batter is different gravy. 

Unlike most Asian batting behemoths, Iyer’s hype is not a byproduct of great numbers. His average of 48.61 in the subcontinent is great but not elite, and moreover, he’s struck just one ton in 14 innings. 

For a player who once scored 1,321 runs in a single Ranji Trophy edition, Iyer has rather surprisingly not made a name for himself by scoring a truckload of runs, which ironically was what he was initially brought into the team for.

Instead, it’s with his ability to dominate spin and take matches by the scruff of their neck batting in the middle-order, that the Mumbaikar has carved a niche for himself and has pretty much made himself indispensable.

Since Iyer’s Test debut in November 2021, 14 batters have managed to score 400+ runs against spin in matches in Asia. 

Among them, no one has registered a higher strike rate than Iyer (66.3). He has, in this period, hit a six every 49 balls versus spin, and he’s done that while averaging 50.44.

These are supremely impressive numbers without context, but they are extraordinary when you consider the fact that India have played in some real rank turners since Iyer’s debut. 

And the way he’s dominated spin on rank turners — whether it be the 92 against Sri Lanka in Bangalore or the match aggregate of 116 in Mirpur in which India were on the brink of defeat — is precisely what’s made him a genuine x-factor in the subcontinent. 

It is understandable, then, why Iyer is being earmarked to be a difference maker in the upcoming series against England, which is expected to be played on some proper dust bowls. 

But if Iyer and India are of the thought that Ben Stokes and England will simply feed their premier spin-basher slow bowling and hope to dismiss him the conventional way with the help of the surface, they could be in for a very unpleasant surprise.

For if there’s one thing we’ve learned about this England side under Ben Stokes & Brendon McCullum, it’s that they are tactically extremely shrewd and take sadistic pleasure in pounding opposition batters’ weakness. 

When Travis Head mauled India in the World Test Championship (WTC) final, it took Rohit Sharma’s side about 90 runs and 100 odd balls to realize Head was uncomfortable against short balls, and pepper him with the short stuff. They eventually got him with the short ball ploy early on Day 2, but, by then, it was too late. 

However, Head had no such respite in the Ashes; England came prepared and tested him from ball one. 

A whopping 61% of the balls the England pacers bowled to Head in the series were 8m or shorter. Head still had a very decent series (362 runs @ 36.2), but England’s persistence went a long way in curtailing the left-hander when he was in the form of his life. As it turned out, 4 of Head’s 6 dismissals to pace in the series came off short deliveries.

The point, though, is that England threw EVERYTHING they had at Head, once they realized there was a discernible weakness. They did not relent; the left-hander had to work hard for every single run. 

Admittedly, the surfaces in the forthcoming series will be extremely different, and the England pacers will not generate anywhere near the amount of bounce they did in The Ashes to target Iyer the same way they targeted Head.

However, it’ll be quite the shock if the visitors don’t go for it and set up the short-ball trap for Iyer from ball one, unless there is stupendous turn on offer. 

After all, it is precisely what they did in the one-off Test at Edgbaston two years ago, in these two sides’ previous meeting. And the plan worked like a charm, with Iyer falling to the short ball twice.

Considering Iyer’s reputation of being susceptible to short balls has only gotten worse since (across formats), it’ll likely be a bouncer barrage the moment the 29-year-old walks to the crease. 

The plan sounds menacing in theory, but it’ll be a herculean task to actually execute it, particularly on surfaces in India where the ball tends to sit up. The margin of error will be very low, for even getting the execution slightly wrong could result in leakage of runs, with Iyer actually being a very destructive player against waist-high deliveries.

But England will take heart from how they strangled the Pakistan batters with a similar strategy, on a lifeless Rawalpindi wicket, 18 months ago.

Or, for that matter, the second innings of the Lord’s Test against Australia last year, where, on a docile surface, a staggering 90% of the deliveries the England pacers bowled with the old ball (after the 50th over) were 8m or shorter. 

There, the Australian batters that tried to kill the bouncer barrage with ‘patience’ failed. Those who tried to take it on, whether it be Smith or Khawaja, failed too. England’s stubbornness and relentlessness eventually paid off. 

At Lord’s, it was with Ollie Robinson, James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Josh Tongue that England targeted Australia. Robinson and Anderson were also the wreckers in chief in Rawalpindi. 

This time around, Stokes will also have up his sleeve both Mark Wood and Gus Atkinson, who are express pace. 

Whether both Wood and Atkinson will feature in the XI remains to be seen, but one of them is almost certain to be in the starting XI, and it’ll be the tearaway that gets the nod that Stokes will use to target Iyer. 

Word going around currently is that the visitors are set to field Wood as the only seamer for the first Test. If that's the case, expect him to be unleashed on Iyer. 

As it stands, in Tests in the subcontinent, Iyer has only been dismissed 4 times in 290 deliveries by quicks, and has an average of 44.50. He’d have to fare extremely well to keep this average intact at the end of the five-Test series. 

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