This article was written after the first test, at Nagpur, of the 2023 Border-Gavaskar series.
When Harry Potter and party, in their search for a Horcrux, had to break into the Lestrange Vault in the Gringott’s bank and were confronted by a seething dragon, they held their nerve, rang the Clankers to avert the beast, and entered the vault in haste.
It’s a bit like that: facing the red spinning ball in India, particularly the relentless dragon that is the Indian spin trio of R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, and Axar Patel. You have to be proactive, stay vigilant, watch the ball like a hawk, and remain on your toes.
Sweeping away spin is a sensible tactic, one which several visiting southpaws have employed successfully – Alastair Cook in 2012/13 and Mathew Hayden in 2000/01, to name a couple. Sweeping, and sweeping well, has the power of disorienting a bowler and at times, making him feel hopeless, by neutralising the spin and putting him off his line and length.
Alex Carey loves the sweep, especially the reverse. After being haunted by Jon Holland, who spun a web around him and dismissed him eight times in seven first-class matches between 2015/16 and 2016/17, he added the broom shot to his armoury as a coping mechanism.
What began as a way out versus spin, has now transformed into the way of his batting. “I tend to sweep spin no matter where it is,” he said after the Nagpur Test. From the conventional sweep, the premeditated paddle, and the slog over mid-wicket to the reserve sweep behind square and in front of it, Carey can brag of almost the full spectrum of the sweep shot. But it’s the reverse, which he employs to counterattack, spread the field, and then milk singles, which is the dearest and nearest to the southpaw.
By now, it is well-established that Carey’s determination to use reverse sweep as frequently as possible is a matter of great anxiety for his wife. However, the 31-year-old wicketkeeper is grounded in reality and knows his truth. “It will be my downfall at times, I'll have success with it at times,” he said.
Carey averages 44.85 in Asia, 11 runs higher than he does in Australia, albeit the sample size is not large, with 8 innings in the subcontinent and 13 innings at home. His average against spin bowling is all but equal to that against fast bowling (33.11 and 33.55 respectively). In Pakistan and in Sri Lanka, he swept his way through to critical runs (93 off 159 in Karachi, 67 off 104 in Lahore, 45 off 47 in Galle), which helped in Australia’s resounding success in both these series. Even during his maiden ton in the Boxing Day Test versus South Africa, the sweep shot was a feature of it.
On the back of recent good times, his stay at the crease in Nagpur would have been a sour but strong lesson for Carey the Sweeper. He tried the shot 18 times in the 32 balls of spin he faced throughout the match – 6 in 6 in the second innings – and got out twice, playing the same reverse lap, to practically the same ball, in the same manner, by Ashwin. “[I was] maybe a little bit too keen to play a different style, but I guess in my first Test over here… that's not a bad learning to have,” he said in the post-match press conference.
In Galle as well, he brought the magic sweep out of his hat every time in his first 13 balls. However, the drawback of having such a unilateral, all-comprehensive masterplan for tackling spin in India can be that Ashwin and Jadeja, masters of spin bowling who know the conditions by heart and are always on the lookout for the slightest weaknesses in a batter, will expose you. How they mix their speeds and point of release ceaselessly, the batter also has to tweak and twitch things in his innings. Foretelling your plan to the bowler is like playing with fire; it’s not an amusing game.
The sweep can disrupt the rhythm of a spinner, but not when it’s the only shot that’s played. “It's finding the right balance, when is the right time to play like that,” Carey also knows this now.
After all, when Harry Potter and his friends’ primary escape plan was watered over by a goblin betrayal, they too had to think on their feet, adapt as per demands, and fool their enemies to come out alive of Gringotts.