Open up the statistics’ book and roll the pages to the onset of India’s 2016-17 season in West Indies last summer. In 19 Tests since then, including the first innings here in the second Test at the SSC, India have scored 400-plus thrice, 500-plus another three times, 600-plus five times and even crossed the 700-mark (thanks to Karun Nair’s triple hundred) once.
Before you scoff, this has been a phase where the Indian team has played on a few batting-friendly tracks. But this is stunning consistency whichever way you look at it, for it has come against varied attacks – West Indies, New Zealand, England, Bangladesh, Australia and now Sri Lanka.
Turns out, it is not by chance, but thoughtful planning and careful design.
Well thought out ploy
“The idea is to carry momentum throughout the innings. When our openers give a good start, we want to transfer that to the middle-order. Like here, we wanted to get a big 150-200 partnership in the middle. I was talking to Virat Kohli about the same before I went into bat, and this is what happened,” said Ajinkya Rahane at the end of day two in Colombo.
“Then, we wanted to take that momentum into the late order as well. Right now, the entire batting line-up is scoring runs and not just the top five or six batsmen. There is contribution from nos. 6, 7, 8, and even Mohammed Shami as well as Umesh Yadav are batting well. The idea is to put up a tall score every time we bat and this is what we are talking about in the dressing room,” he added.
Test cricket is simple. You have to pick up 20 wickets to win, and over the last couple years, this Indian team has made a concerted effort to align their bowling attack to meet that particular target. Majorly then, they have had to play with five batsmen, not only distributing more responsibility on the top-order but leaning on their lower-order to make important contributions as well.
And this ploy has worked. In the duration of India’s last 19 Tests, R Ashwin has scored 800 runs at 34.78 (career average 32.85) with 2 hundreds and 5 half-centuries. Wriddhiman Saha has played 16 Tests, and in 20 innings, he has scored 729 runs at 45.56 (career average 33.21) with 3 hundreds and 3 half-centuries. Ravindra Jadeja too has played 16 Tests out of 19, and has scored 663 runs at 41.43 (career average 29.89) including 7 of his 8 overall Test fifties.
This trio consistently forms the lower-order for India now, and there is much dependency on them to get these ‘tall scores’. What we don’t see behind their runs – Ashwin scored 54, Saha scored 67 and Jadeja scored 70* in India’s 622/9d on day two – is the time invested in getting them up to speed. For that, one man – Sanjay Bangar – is to be truly credited as pointed out by different Indian batsmen on umpteen occasions.
Building confidence over time
Only so much can be triggered in nets though. The other element is confidence, and that needs to be built up over time. Take, for example, Jadeja’s case. This is someone who has traded on the promise of being an all-rounder ever since his Test debut. But his batting exploits were far and few in between. In the long favourable season, the team management set about changing that and the Kanpur Test against New Zealand was quite pivotal.
Virat Kohli delayed India’s declaration in the second innings to allow Jadeja to get his half-century and do his trademark swordplay. The results are there to see.
Even so, confidence doesn’t work with everyone, for no two cricketers are alike. If Jadeja needed that inspiration dose, Saha needed to be made more comfortable in the specific role that he performs for this team. When MS Dhoni retired, everyone simply assumed that he could replace Dhoni the batsman, just easily as he could replace Dhoni the keeper. Both tasks have proven to be tougher than anticipated (just look at Saha’s futile DRS inputs), but it is with bat in hand that he was falling really short.
The team management identified this situation where Saha was thrust with more responsibility than he could handle batting at no.6. He is a free-stroking batsman who needs to play his game, and that role needs someone firm enough to shape the lower order. Hence, in West Indies, they interchanged Ashwin and Saha, with the former batting ahead at no.6. The resultant of this move paid instant dividends when the duo rescued India from a precarious 126/5 at St. Lucia with a stunning 213-run partnership and set up the series’ win.
A similar ploy is now being trialled with Pandya. When he entered the Test arena in Galle, it was a general assumption that he would bat ahead of Ashwin at least, if not Saha. Instead, he was told to bat at no.8, and this batting order hasn’t changed from Galle to Colombo. The message from the Indian camp here is a simple one. They don’t want Pandya to mess about with technique or worry unduly about the situation of the game at hand. Instead, they want him to go out and do his thing – play the natural game and enforce his shots onto the opposition, adding as many as possible while farming strike batting with tailenders.
The underlying point is that this investment into the lower order has paid rich dividends for the Indian team in this long sub-continental run of Test cricket. Now, they can look at the future’s challenge of overseas conditions with vigorous confidence in their abilities, without having to worry about first settling in.
It looks like half the battle is won already. The other half – overseas tours – cannot come about soon enough.