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AUSTRALIA V INDIA TESTS

The biggest test of a homespun technique

10 March 2017

Handscomb's technique faces its biggest challenge against India's spinners // BCCI

From Melbourne to Mumbai, a closer look at the journey of Australian Test batsman Peter Handscomb

In the winter of 2015, Australia A toured India for two first-class matches. In his maiden first-class innings on Indian soil, a 24-year-old Peter Handscomb walked in at 2-57 on a slow, turning pitch at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai and scored a composed 91 against a well-credentialed India A bowling attack featuring Test spinners Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra.

2015: Handscomb impresses against India A

Handscomb's proficiency against spin came as little surprise to those who know him. Growing up in the south-eastern Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley — the same suburb which produced Dean Jones — he had plenty of practice against high-quality spin bowling: his late father John was an off-spinner who played minor counties cricket in England and first grade cricket in Melbourne, and his older brother James was a leg-spinner who played second XI cricket for Victoria.

James was so highly rated that, up until the summer of 1989-90, he was keeping a young, blonde-haired leggie by the name of Shane Warne out of St Kilda's first XI. A wrist injury that summer opened the door for Warne to make his first grade debut for St Kilda.

That injury cruelled James's hopes of playing for his state and country and would eventually bring his first-grade career to a premature end but, fortunately for Victorian and Australian cricket, it still left his wrist strong enough to send down leggies to his little brother Peter in the backyard.

Like every Australian kid facing up to his big brother in the backyard, Peter just tried to hit the ball as far he could. He soon discovered that the best way to do that against quality spinners like his dad and brother was to use his feet.

However, he never felt comfortable sweeping spinners. As he himself admitted after his 91 against India A in Chennai: "I've never really played it (that is, the sweep shot)". What he didn't reveal in that press conference was that with the help of Australia A's spin and batting consultant, the former India allrounder Sridharan Sriram, he was already working diligently to add the sweep shot to his armoury.

Feb: Handscomb's spin-heavy training focus

It had not taken Handscomb long to realise that Indian spinners "on Indian wickets … can bowl a lot faster so it's a lot harder to get down the track".

That substantially reduced the viability of what, in Australia, is one of his favourite get-off strike shots against the spinners: skipping down the pitch and pushing the ball into a gap for a one or a two.

A suitable replacement shot would be needed for Indian conditions. He and Sriram settled on two.

Firstly, the sweep, a shot which the likes of Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Matthew Hayden utilised to great effect in India.

Secondly, a shot which Handscomb noticed that Indian batsmen play very well on their own soil — moving back deep into the crease to balls which, on faster, truer Australian pitches, might be played off the front foot. By doing so he could allow the ball to spin then work it with the spin into a gap.

Some of the fruits of Handscomb's hard work with Sriram — whom he describes as an "absolute legend" who was always "happy to just keep throwing balls" at the Australia A batsmen — could be seen earlier this summer when, during the Boxing Day Test, he confidently – and repeatedly – swept the world's best leg-spinner, Yasir Shah, from outside off against the turn.

But, two Tests in to Australia’s Qantas tour of India, it’s a skill he’s yet to master against Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin on pitches that have offered much more assistance to the spinners than this summer's docile MCG deck.

First Test: Handscomb, Wade dominate in the field

Handscomb himself is well aware of the sheer difficulty of the challenge facing him and his batting colleagues. Like most of Australia's best players of spin, he tries to play spinners out of the hand, rather than off the pitch, as much as possible.

That's hard to do in India where, he says, the pitches are "a little bit unpredictable with their natural variation" and world-class spinners such as Jadeja can, with "just a slight change in … his wrist or in the trajectory that he bowls" make the same-looking stock ball turn square or skid straight on.

In meeting that challenge, Handscomb's greatest asset won't be his late cut or cover drive, but his impressive capacity for self-learning. His highly unusual batting technique — which became a regular talking point for the batsman-heavy Channel 9 commentary box this summer — is largely a product of that autodidactic bent.

Handscomb grew up with the same technique that practically all Australian batsmen born before 1995 had — he tapped his bat on the ground as the bowler ran in to the bowl, then lifted it at around the time the bowler jumped into his delivery stride.

Handscomb's technique gets the Windows 10 Analyser treatment

As he progressed through the under-age ranks, he discovered what every Australian batsman before him had found: the bowlers just kept getting bigger and faster.

At a Victorian under-17s carnival a coach suggested he start holding his bat up in the air as the bowler ran in to bowl. He felt that having his bat up in the air "ready to go" would give him an extra split-second to react to the fast balls. At that stage, he was holding his bat up parallel to the ground, so that the toe was pointed straight at the keeper's stomach.

When he reached Shield level, the bowlers became faster again and he found that he was at times a fraction late on the quicker balls, falling LBW or bowled through the gate. Jesse Hogan, the respected Fairfax journalist who is one of the handful of people who watched Handscomb regularly throughout his early Shield career, was often heard saying that he was excellent against spin, but needed to improve against pace.

Handscomb's technical solution, in conjunction with the then Victorian coach Greg Shipperd, was two-fold and came in the winter of 2014.

Firstly, he started holding his bat higher — above his shoulders like a baseballer — as the bowler ran in. Secondly, against the quicks he started batting as deep in his crease as the stumps would allow.

Handscomb in a hurry through the nineties in Brisbane

Both changes were designed to give him a fraction more time to react to fast balls. They worked.

In his first Shield match with his tweaked technique Handscomb scored a chanceless, unbeaten 108 — his second first-class century — at the MCG against a strong New South Wales bowling attack featuring Josh Hazlewood, Gurinder Sandhu and spinner Will Somerville in early November 2014.

Since then, he hasn't looked back. Before the winter of 2014 Handscomb had a first-class average of 30 and one hundred to his name. Since the winter of 2014, he has scored 2597 first-class runs, including 10 centuries, for Victoria, Australia A and Australia at an average of 54.1.

He has the cricketing intelligence necessary to not only comprehend the downsides of his peculiar technique, but incorporate the counter-measures necessary to ameliorate them.

Critics of the bat-up method — of which Handscomb's father was one — often say that it makes the batsman stiff, statuesque and less able to quickly and fluidly move into the optimal position to play the ball. Like all successful exponents of the bat-up method, Handscomb developed a technical counter-measure to get himself moving.

"I wiggle my bat a little bit (at around the time the ball is released) which means that I can shift my weight a little bit between my front and back foot, which gets me moving so I am not still," Handscomb says. "I can go forward and back quite easily."

Handscomb tons up again in golden summer

The second major criticism levelled at the bat-up method is of particular relevance to a batsman with Handscomb's fine reputation for using his feet to spinners — that it undermines the batsman's synchronisation of the movement of his hands and his feet, especially to spinners.

"Took me a while to get comfortable again (using my feet to the spinners) with the bat up," Handscomb happily admits, but, again, he believes that the combination of his bat wiggle and plenty of batting has ameliorated that issue.

During the 2015 Australia A tour of India, Handscomb asked the selector on duty, Trevor Hohns, about his pathway into the Test team. Hohns gave him the same sensible answer that he gives every aspiring Australian batsman: sheer weight of runs. Back yourself, he said, make sure you're making runs in the top four for your state and you'll be picked if there's a spot.

Handscomb held up his end of the bargain and the Australian selectors held up theirs.

And with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy on the line in the coming weeks, Australia will be looking to Handscomb to deliver again.

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