When he became the captain of India, Virat Kohli had a dream — one in which he often saw himself winning an overseas series. He has since repeated himself at every given opportunity. So much so that we are certain that he would like nothing more than to make his dream a reality. It would, coach Ravi Shastri believes, define the team.

But then again, if winning abroad was as easy as talking, India would have won more away from home… much more. As the record shows, India have won a series in England just three times (3 out of 17 series). In South Africa, we have never won a series. In Australia, we have never won a series. Given that context, England almost seems like a happy hunting ground.

Kohli, of course, knew it would be difficult which is why he had a plan too. He knew exactly what he wanted from his players and from himself if they wanted to win away from home. But you don’t always get what you want and time and again, India has been failed by its great and perhaps, unreal expectations.

‘The first 20-25 overs are crucial’

Before the series, Shastri said he wanted his openers to bat out 20-25 overs. The overs he concurred were crucial and to anyone who had toured England, it was sound logic. But what the team got was anything but that.

The technique of the openers has been called in question and each time, it has failed the Test. Murali Vijay looked lost, Shikhar Dhawan is like a one-trick pony and KL Rahul, the new hope, has come up short time and again.

Dhawan has scored the most runs – 158 at a middling average (by series standards) of 26.33 in 3 Tests. KL Rahul, the only opener to have played all four Tests, has scored just 113 runs at an average of 14.12. Murali Vijay, perhaps the most disappointing of the lot, scored just 43 runs in 2 Tests at an average of 6.50.

India's opening gambit

1st Test: 1st innings 3-59 15.5 overs
1st Test: 2nd innings 3-46 14.5 overs
2nd Test: 1st innings 4-49 21.4 overs
2nd Test: 2nd innings 3-35 18.6 overs
3rd Test: 1st innings (India won) 2-65 20.6 overs
3rd Test: 2nd innings (India won) 2-111 23.2 overs
4th Test: 1st innings  2-50  17.5 overs
4th Test: 2nd innings  3-22 8.3 overs

A look at the stats (in the table above) shows that India were never comfortable. The two times they were, they went on to win the Test. They have almost never managed to play 20-25 overs – the concept of playing out the new ball seems lost on them.

Consistency from Pujara, Rahane

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To win a match away from home, a side would need to score in excess of at least 300 runs. On two away tours, India have crossed the 300-run mark just thrice. Once during the second Test against SA at Centurion and twice during Nottingham Test (which India went on to win). While Kohli has been exceptional in both these series’, the support has been anything but.

Cheteshwar Pujara’s 132* in the first innings of the 4th Test was an exceptional innings but very rarely has he looked capable of winning matches for India away from home. The same is also true of Ajinkya Rahane. When the struggle is all about trying to keep one’s place in the playing XI, the confidence never shines through and that is becoming increasingly evident about these two players. They should be India’s match-winners along with Kohli but they have never quite made it. If anything, they seem to have regressed under Kohli’s captaincy.

Pujara and Rahane in SA and Eng

India in SA and Eng Cheteshwar Pujara Ajinkya Rahane
1st Test (Cape Town) 26,4 DNP
2nd Test (Centurion) 0,19 DNP
3rd Test (Jo'burg) 50,1 9,48
1st Test (Birmingham) DNP 15,2
2nd Test (Lord's) 1,17 18,13
3rd Test (Nottingham) 14,72 81,29
4th Test (Southampton) 132*,5 11,51

There has been the odd innings of substance but for most part, Rahane and Pujara have not been upto the mark when the opportunity has presented itself. By this point of their career, for all the early promise, they should have been undroppable.

With the form Kohli is in, he needs someone to stand with him. Pujara and Rahane haven’t been able to do that regularly enough in a side that plays just five proper batsmen.

Pandya the allrounder (?)

It might be fair to say that India’s strategy of playing five bowlers, revolves entirely around Hardik Pandya. He is picked as an all-rounder but rarely, if ever, is he used as one. Neither here nor there. As a bowler, he often seems to be the last throw of the dice. As a batsman, he is unsure of the approach he wants to take.

Kapil Dev was thrown into the deep end but he figured out his method. But too often, Kohli seems intent on protecting Pandya. Right now, Pandya seems to be more like Robin Singh and less like a genuine all-rounder and seems apparent in the way Kohli uses him. But if the India skipper feels that Pandya isn’t ready for international Test cricket, then maybe the ‘all-rounder’ needs to hone his skills at a different level.

India in SA and Eng  Pandya's batting Pandya's bowling (wkts, overs)
1st Test (Cape Town) 93,1 1 (12 overs), 2 (6 overs)
2nd Test (Centurion) 15,6 0 (16 overs), 0 (9 overs)
3rd Test (Jo'burg) 0,4 0 (2 overs), 0 (6 overs)
1st Test (Birmingham) 22,31 0 (10 overs), DNB
2nd Test (Lord's) 11,26 3 (17.1 overs), 
3rd Test (Nottingham) 18,52* 5 (6 overs), 1 (14 overs)
4th Test (Southampton) 4,0 1 (8 overs), 0 (9 overs)

On an average, Pandya is bowling around 9 overs in each innings on the tours of South Africa and England where conditions suit pace bowling. Former India skipper Sourav Ganguly used to bowl more.

Pandya’s batting has been anything but consistent and Kohli has been persisting with his five-bowler strategy mainly due to the balance the player from Baroda is supposed to provide the team. Given how India’s batting has struggled, logic would have dictated that India pick another batsman. Instead, we have Pandya, who is neither a batsman, nor a bowler. Batting seems to be his stronger suit but then wouldn’t a proper batsman have a better chance of succeeding?

Pace against the tail

As good as India’s pacemen were, there were simply unable to finish the job they started in most of the matches in England. A lot is being made of the fact that India finally has an attack that can take 20 wickets. And that is great. But given the poor state of the Indian batting, they need to do all the heavy lifting. Giving India a boost by taking early wicket isn’t enough, they need to run through sides.

England’s lower order isn’t an ordinary one. They have three all-rounders who are all very capable bats too. But still, given the form India’s bowlers are in, one could have argued that they needed to do better.

Series in the nutshell

Avg contribution by top-5 wickets Eng 27.68 Ind 29.22
Avg contribution by last-5 wickets Eng 27.78 17.35

Just take the fourth Test into account. England were 86-6 in the first innings but managed to make 246. India were 181-4 and they collapsed to 273. In the second innings, England were 122-5 and ended up with 271. India were 123-3 and finished with just 184.

So while Shastri calls this India’s best ever attack, to be fair, they still have a way to go. They haven’t been able to run through sides.

Unreal expectations

Still, at the core of India’s problems, lie the unreal expectations that Shastri and Kohli have from this side. It is almost as if they are being blinded by a ‘what-if’ scenario rather than actually looking at ‘what-is’.

The South Africa and England sides are not the best we have seen over the past two decades but the current India side has come up short even against them. When India’s home season had ended last year at Dharamshala, Kohli had spoken with great reserve in the press conference: “It’s a classic case of understanding that this is not the end of anything. No need to get over-excited with whatever we have done. We are very happy with number one ranking in the world but our main challenge begins now. If we can conquer the overseas season, that’s when you will see a broader smile on my face when I sit down for the press conference.”

But despite knowing the challenge, India have come up short. It will hurt Kohli and Shastri no doubt but perhaps it is also a sign to the both of them; a sign that they need to realign their goals with reality.

As Sehwag said, “The best travelling teams are made by performances on the ground and not by sitting in the dressing room and talking about it.”