At close on day two of the ICC World Test Championship final, India were 146/3 after 64.4 overs. The new ball had been dealt with, the worst of the conditions had been dealt with, captain Virat Kohli was on 44 and his deputy Ajinkya Rahane on 29. To be fair, given the conditions, India had done very well.
But come day 3, the team inexplicably collapsed to 217 all out. In the words of former India batting coach Sanjay Bangar, ‘they should be kicking themselves’.
Bangar’s analysis, which came on Star Sports after the match ended, was spot on. By batting well on day two, India got over the loss of the toss but then shot themselves in the foot by refusing to apply themselves in the middle. Intent, as Kohli often says, is not just about playing shots. But it is a word that is frequently misunderstood by his team.
The tail simply didn’t wag for India – in the first innings, Kohli’s team went from 182/6 to 217 all out and in the second innings, 142/6 to 170 all out. In essence, once NZ got through the top order, the lower order did nothing. On earlier tours of England, we have seen that the lower order needs to do its share of batting and we saw in Australia, that a good lower order can help you win series’ too.
But despite that, in the face of very good swing bowling, India’s batsmen went down swinging. In the second innings, the ball was still moving around but conditions were better for batting. India, however, just weren’t prepared for the grind.
In August 2015, India lost the first Test of the series against Sri Lanka at Galle. It was after that match that Kohli decided that India play five bowlers as often as possible. His plan, as he told the team management, was simple: We won’t play 450-500 runs Test matches from now. Let it be 275-300 runs matches with five bowlers. But for that plan to succeed, the batsmen need to do their part and as things stand, they fail far too often. The inconsistency sees India go from great victories to numbing defeats.
Rohit Sharma and Shubman Gill are still finding their feet away from home and they will face the toughest of conditions at the top of the order. But they tried. Rohit left the ball well but eventually became a little frustrated as the Kiwis just didn’t bowl enough loose deliveries.
Cheteshwar Pujara’s drop in form should be worrying. Over the last two years, in 18 Tests, he has averaged just 28.03 with no centuries. Rahane has done better – averaging 42.92 over the same period. But he averaged 38 vs Australia, 18 vs England, and 25 against New Zealand in the same period. The big runs came against Bangladesh (avg 68.50), West Indies (avg 90.33) and South Africa (72.00). The sketchy form of the experienced duo has coincided with Kohli not being at his best either.
The Indian skipper has averaged 42.45 in 15 Tests over a two-year period. The numbers aren’t bad but they are a fair bit lower than the preceding two years when he averaged 66.12 and it means that the others experienced pros in the line-up need to do more.
”We know that as a batting unit if we put up 300 on the board,” said Kohli after the WTC final. “It will be a different pressure on the opposition because of how good our bowling unit is.”
But that 300 is proving to be elusive for this team and it will remain that way unless the middle order gets its act together. Kohli’s strategy of five bowlers works in the subcontinent and in good batting conditions where India’s batsmen are comfortable. But in places where the ball is doing that little bit more, one has to wonder whether India will be better served by Hanuma Vihari than Ravindra Jadeja.
Jadeja bowled 15.2 overs in the WTC final (eight overs in the first innings and 7.2 in the second) and while he does lend better balance to the squad, Vihari, who was playing County cricket in England, would have been a better pick for the conditions. It would also have been more in line with the team’s needs. Kohli says it was a collective decision but then perhaps it was a collective error.
His reasoning was that India needed a pace-bowling all-rounder but if Jadeja isn’t going to bowl much then wouldn’t a pure batsman be a better fit?
Rishabh Pant is going to come out and play as only he can and the team management is encouraging him to do that but his method is fraught with risks… so where is the solidity? For now, even Kohli has no clear answers.
“We will continue to reassess and continue to have conversations around what are the things required to strengthen our side and not follow or fall prey to certain patterns,” Kohli said at the post-match press conference.
Kohli added: “We will not wait for a year or so and have to plan ahead. If you see our white-ball team now, we have great depth and guys are ready and confident. The same thing needs to be done with Test cricket. You have to reassess and replan and understand what dynamics work for the team and how we can be fearless. Bring in the right people who have the right mindset to perform.”
Kohli might be hinting at an overhaul or he might even simply be telling the batsmen in his squad that they need to do better – much better. The first Test of the five-match series against England begins on August 4 and the Indian team will have enough time to reassess and figure out what went wrong. The problems aren’t new but the solutions will need to be.