In the post-match conference after India’s defeat at the Hagley Oval, Virat Kohli put a lot of emphasis on the collective.
“Collectively, we didn’t perform as a batting unit. So, I don’t believe in singling out individuals,” Kohli argued.
And perhaps at this point in time, it is the right thing to say. India had just been clean swept for the first time in eight years and for the first time in Kohli’s captaincy. In the heat of the moment, the Indian skipper would not want to say anything.
But when the dust settles and the team sits down to do some real introspection, the failures of the batting unit should be a source of real worry for them.
A batting unit that seems indestructible at home develops holes as soon as they go on an away tour. Some of the Indian batsmen – Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Hanuma Vihari and Rishabh Pant – had never played a Test match in New Zealand before and their tentativeness was expected.
But India were really let down by their three senior batsmen — Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Kohli himself — in conditions that were not necessarily as bad for batting as the numbers will have you believe.
In the two Tests against New Zealand:
Pujara: 100 runs at an average of 25.00
Rahane: 91 runs at an average of 22.75
Kohli: 38 runs at an average of 9.50
Yes, a batsman would have never quite felt settled in the middle as the ball was always doing something but at the same time, this was expected behaviour. Any team that comes to New Zealand, expects exactly this and they prepare for it accordingly.
Batsmen who come to New Zealand for the first time are in constant adjustment mode. And we could see that in the way Shaw batted. The young opener was trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t while he was in the middle and given how well the New Zealand bowlers bowled, that wasn’t easy.
The same was true of Agarwal, Vihari and Pant. They are so used to hitting through the line (which you can do to an extent in Australia too but not in New Zealand or England) that they would have consciously tried to hold themselves back and play a game that doesn’t come very naturally to them.
But the same excuse would not work for the seniors. Kohli has played 14 Tests in England and New Zealand combined out of a total of 47 away Tests. Pujara has played 13 Tests in England and New Zealand out of a total of 36 away Tests. Rahane has played 14 Tests in England and New Zealand out of a total of 38 away Tests.
Now that is a lot of experience; a lot of experience that the team would have banked on. At the same time, many would have hoped that these senior batsmen would be able to show leadership on the basis of that experience. But, for India, that just didn’t happen.
Maybe, it points to a bigger problem. India have, to an extent, figured out how to play bounce but swing brings a different challenge that even the seniors haven’t quite conquered and if they haven’t, then who will pass on the lessons to the juniors?
As a junior, Kohli could learn from Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and even MS Dhoni. But given how the seniors are struggling, who do the juniors turn to?
In England and New Zealand (combined averages)
Kohli: 979 runs at an average of 36.17
Pujara: 660 runs at an average of 24.70
Rahane: 809 runs at an average of 32.70
With Pujara, there is a clear problem of intent. It plays on his mind and it plays on Kohli’s mind. The right-hander ended the series with a strike-rate of 28.49. And even though he looked solid at times, his shot selection reflected the muddle in his mind. He just wasn’t able to find his zone, where he just blocks out everything as he did during the tour of Australia. Here, he was often guilty of fence-sitting – neither in nor out.
Rahane, on the other hand, is a strange case. The manner in which New Zealand used the short ball to target him is not good news for an experienced professional. He continues to look low on confidence and there is no way the opposition won’t be noticing this. For a vice-captain, he needs to do much more.
Kohli, as VVS Laxman pointed out on air, has a technical problem. His head is no longer in line with the off-stump or the middle-stump and that, in turn, means his bat is coming down all wrong. This can be rectified and he has done it before but with the other seniors struggling, India needed him to show the way.
The collective failure of the seniors has hurt India but the manner in which they went down is worrisome too. Other teams are going to look at India’s performance and target Pujara as well as Rahane for sure. India’s next overseas cycle will begin against Australia later this year and the veterans should have enough time to iron out their flaws by then. If they can’t, then trouble will beckon.