- India ended day one of first Test in control after England bowled out for 246
- Ashwin was Duckett’s tormentor during the last series he played in India in 2016
- India off-spinner dismissed the England opener with his eighth delivery to him
For a left-hander, playing Ravichandran Ashwin in India is about as tough as it gets. Ben Duckett acknowledged as much before a ball was bowled in this series.
On Thursday, Duckett was excellent in setting the tone alongside his opening partner Zak Crawley, the pair of them realising that India’s period of seam bowling with the new ball was the best time to score.
However, the threat changed in the 10th over when the Indians turned to Ashwin, his tormentor during the last series he played in India in late 2016.
With the eighth ball he bowled to him, Ashwin dismissed him, taking Duckett’s return in this particular duel to 17 runs off 48 deliveries and an average of just 4.25.
What Duckett learned from his experience seven years ago, he said, was that his method of playing spin on English pitches that don’t turn much – exposing his stumps, getting his right leg out of the way to open up the off side – couldn’t be used on the Subcontinent because with Ashwin spinning it so much, it left him vulnerable to deliveries going past the outside edge.
Ben Duckett was excellent in setting the tone alongside his opening partner Zak Crawley
Therefore this time he’s been looking to get less leg-side of the ball, and you could see the results of his tinkering in his innings of 37 because he got that bat and pad together towards the off side.
That in itself introduces issues, though, when you are up against Ashwin, not only one of the greatest off-spinners of all-time but perhaps the very best against left-handers.
Using that method against Ashwin, brings LBW into the equation if you miss the ball on the inside edge as Duckett did.
Twenty years ago, pre-technology, he wouldn’t have been given out, but umpires now raise the finger because they know even if the ball is deemed to be just clipping the stumps, they’re proved right.
People will counter ‘well, just don’t miss the ball,’ but that’s easier said than done facing someone as high-class as Ashwin with the natural variation of a pitch also in their favour.
Yes, occasionally he will undercut a delivery on purpose, so that it doesn’t spin but he will also try to bowl an off-spinner, and rather than turn it will go straight on. That’s the challenge: you might not even be beaten on the edge of the bat the bowler is aiming for.
India’s Ravichandran Ashwin returned to haunt Duckett on the opening day of first Test
It was hard enough batting against India against spin in my era, but DRS has raised the bar because now you know you can be given out on the front foot.
The challenge for Duckett is to react going forward, because now his nemesis has dismissed him at the first time of asking, Rohit Sharma will not be waiting until the 10th over to bring Ashwin on again.
The great thing about Test cricket compared to white-ball formats is that you must solve problems against the same opponent. You don’t get the respite of belting another set of bowlers to get you going again.
His dismissal to the off-spinner was the mirror image of what Kevin Pietersen once experienced against left arm spin.
During Pietersen’s struggles, he turned to Rahul Dravid for advice. Unfortunately, it was the stay leg side of the ball theory Duckett has already struggled with and so he will need something in-between or to go even heavier on the sweep shots that are such a strength of his batting.
The perils of Dravid’s tip were highlighted by the dismissal of Jonny Bairstow here.
Bairstow was playing beautifully in staying leg side, finding the gaps and the boundary on several occaions, but then got an absolute jaffa from Axar Patel that pitched on middle and crashed into the top of the exposed off-stump.
Off-spinner Ashwin dismissed Duckett with his eighth delivery to him on Thursday
It emphasised that as well as Bairstow, Root and Stokes in particular played the spinning ball, on a pitch like this it is never an easy task.
But they got England to a total 30-40 runs short of what they would have wanted.
A par score is always dependent on the quality of the opposition and in addition to the three spinners, there was Jasprit Bumrah. His ball that dismissed Stokes nipped a very long way. Whether it just hit a crack, who knows? But the deviation made it unplayable.
The concern for me from the first innings of the tour was Ollie Pope at three.
Frenetic is a word that is used about him regularly, and it summed him up yesterday. Not playing a first-class innings since last June will only have exacerbated that.
It led to him not picking up length well. The best players of spin in India have great judgement and therefore do so quickly.
But because he’s frenetic, his head moves up and down quite a bit when he’s batting, and he also tends to go at deliveries a bit harder.
Captain Ben Stokes fell to a near unplayable delivery from the masterful Jasprit Bumrah
Towards the end of the day, there was a ball to Shubman Gill that Pope would have gone forward to. Gill played it off the back foot, with really soft hands and it landed at his feet.
In contrast, short of time in the middle and a bit eager, Pope pushed out feeling for bat on ball and nicked it to slip.
This isn’t anti-Bazball, but I feel if Pope can just get his heart rate down when he first goes in, and his body language a bit more relaxed, it will help him.
The first half hour is the toughest and if he can just be a bit more composed – easier said than done with men around the bat and the ball spinning miles from the off – he will discover the benefits.