England, India must face up well to pace challenge

Ian ChappellEngland is currently being discomforted by it and India is about to be confronted by a batsman’s greatest challenge; the trial by pace. It’s a challenge that most dread and very few relish. When umpire Max O‘Connell warned Australian fast bowler Lennie Pascoe at the Adelaide Oval in 1980; “That’ll be enough bouncers for this over Len,” a voice piped up from the other end; “Don’t stop him Max.”

That intimidating response put West Indies Master Blaster Viv [later Sir Viv] Richards in the minority. He relished pace, never wore a helmet or took a serious blow to the noggin and was in the words of Pakistan’s revered all rounder Imran Khan; “An intimidating batsman.”

Unlike Richards, many batsmen can empathise with England’s current crop. Having been bounced into submission at the Gabba, they then failed to quell the uprising in Adelaide and England now face the daunting task of trying to get on top of Mitchell Johnson on the bouncy WACA pitch.

Stuart Broad and Mitchell Johnson
England’s Stuart Broad avoids a short ball from Australia pacer Mitchell Johnson (inset) during the second Ashes Test on December 8. Pics/Getty Images

This is no easy task but it has to be achieved if England hope to remain competitive in this Ashes series. The England batsmen might take heart from some of the great fast bowler Dennis Lillee’s experiences on his home patch.

I’ve seen batsmen who shouldn’t have made Lillee raise a sweat, drive him to distraction because he got so carried away with the WACA bounce it seemed he was more interested in physically harming his opponent rather than getting him out.

He would usually rectify his mistake quickly but not before the batsman had cut and top-edged more than his ration against such a skilled and fearsome competitor.

That is what England has to do - drive [or cut and pull] Johnson to distraction. They have to push him to the point where he becomes angry and stops thinking rationally. That will take a lot of judicious stroke play and mental courage rather than becoming involved in a slanging match.

If England need a blueprint for how to dispatch the short-pitched delivery they only had to watch closely as the ebullient Steve Smith dispensed a timely lesson in playing horizontal bat shots.

There’s a distinct difference in the pace and intimidatory level of England’s attack when compared with Johnson in his current form but Smith dealt their Ashes hopes blow after blow with his confident and controlled pull shots.

Most of them went straight to ground via a technically efficient roll of the wrists and the bulk finished up skipping over the boundary rope before any England fieldsman could move into top gear.

England’s hopes of retaining the Ashes plummeted with each successful Smith pull shot, while Johnson looked on with mounting glee from the other end. Thanks to Smith, Johnson had a total to work with and that could only spell trouble for the battered England batsmen.

India’s talented young batsmen face a slightly different challenge in South Africa. They are confronted by the toughest task in cricket; adjusting from low bouncing pitches to strips that encourage the faster bowlers to try their luck by banging a few in their half of the wicket.

India will be comforted by the fact that there’s no bowler of Johnson’s pace but they’ll be facing the highly skillful Dale Steyn, the canny accuracy of Vernon Philander and the steep bounce of Morne Morkel.

This is an extremely difficult challenge and they won’t have Sachin Tendulkar to show the way.

Nevertheless, they do have Virat Kohli who has experienced success at the WACA and some young comrades in Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and Shikhar Dhawan who all play the horizontal bat shots.

Trial by pace isn’t a lot of fun for batsman while it’s occurring but when the challenge is met, the after glow does provide a lot of satisfaction. In the case of England, success would mean staving off the Ashes death throes and for India it would be an enormous boost to their post-Tendulkar endeavours. 

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