Leg-side traps are a tricky proposition. Variables like bounce and the ability (or the lack) of batsmen to keep the ball down need to factored in, not to forget placing the best fielder for the job. Unlike at slip, fielders at leg slip or backward short leg are often blindsided by the batsman for a while. They need quick reflexes and soft hands to compensate for that. Be it the angle of delivery, the bounce or the fielder’s placement, leg-side traps can’t be pulled off without accurate coordination. On Saturday, India did exactly that thrice.
On an MCG pitch bouncier than usual, they lured batsmen with that bait. R Ashwin’s off-spin did that twice, fooling Steve Smith and Tim Paine. That’s quite an achievement considering Smith is possibly Australia’s best player of spin while captain Paine was their highest scorer in the last Test.
Ashwin’s record in Australia isn’t exactly awe-inspiring. He averages over 40 per wicket and has a strike rate of over 81, the second worst overseas statistics for the off-spinner after South Africa. There is no reason really to toss him the ball in the first hour itself, not at least on a Day 1 pitch. But without Ishant Sharma and Mohammad Shami, and Mohammed Siraj not featuring in India’s first session’s plans, Ashwin had to step up. Moisture in the pitch and presence of a left-hander in Matthew Wade too may have played a part in captain Ajinkya Rahane introducing Ashwin to the attack. And he didn’t disappoint, snaring Wade in his second over.
India vs Australia live cricket score 2nd Test Day 2
Wade was done in by a reckless shot but Ashwin quickly realised the potential of the MCG pitch that was offering grip and bounce. CricViz calculated Ashwin’s average spin on the ball on Saturday to be 3.8 degrees. In contrast, Ashwin’s average first innings spin at the MCG in 2011 tour was 3.4 degrees while in 2014 it was 2.4. He was also giving the ball more air, slowing it down just enough to stoke confusion. His first five deliveries to Wade were almost 90 kph but the ball that dismissed him dropped to 83 kph. Even slower was the ball to dismiss Smith, just 79 kph. Ashwin was pure guile and craft, all within the first 15 overs on Boxing Day at MCG.
Confirming Ashwin’s astuteness was the way he plotted Smith’s dismissal. Smith is fidgety at the start of his innings, never too keen to drive. So, Ashwin brought in a bat-pad and a leg slip and tested Smith with a delivery spinning from a length around off. Smith couldn’t connect the glance. Next delivery, Ashwin just tightened the line bit more sending the ball down the leg, almost asking Smith to have a go at it again. Smith walked into the trap, turning the ball straight to Cheteshwar Pujara at leg slip. Ashwin now has dismissed Smith on both sides of the wicket this series. And unlike in Adelaide, only a slight deviation worked for Ashwin this time.
The one that got Paine though was an absolute ripper, spinning 5.7 degrees. This was a classical off-spin delivery, dipping and luring Paine into trying to flick off his pads. Hanuma Vihari made no mistake at leg slip. Marnus Labuschagne’s dismissal was the final validation of India’s strategic superiority on the first day. It wasn’t easy to break him though. He was extraordinarily cautious, trying to mend the innings over by over after the early wobble. Normally an aggressive batsman, Labuschagne stayed inside the crease and attacked only 8% of the deliveries bowled by India’s pacers. Close-in fielders breathing down from the leg side, he didn’t commit to playing Ashwin on the front foot either.
But the temptation to break free was there. And fast bowler Mohammed Siraj fed that with an incoming delivery from wide of the crease. If left alone, the delivery would have gone down leg but Labuschagne tried to whip it off his legs. Only this time, he couldn’t keep it down. Turns out it was the second most legside delivery he had faced from seamers all day. In hindsight, Labuschagne had no business going after it. But India won the tactical battle by making him do exactly that.