Cricket: Areas India needs to improve ahead of August’s England Tour  

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It was another major ICC tournament knockout match and India’s stuttering middle-order paved the way for New Zealand to emerge as the first ICC World Test Champions. It is the inconsistency of the middle-order and the team management to some extent that have seen some historic Test victories like the miracle of Gabba, to the lowest of lows like the infamous ’36-All-Out’ at Adelaide, to the humbling at the WTC final.

Virat Kohli, in particular, has been very vocal about the significance of Test cricket for him and his team. Deep down inside, he would be wary of the fact that although these last two years the team have done considerably well during the 19-21 WTC cycle, much of it has papered over some of the previous cracks that have widened with the passage of time and have been ignored for large parts, intentionally or unintentionally.

During India’s tour of Sri Lanka in 2015, after India lost the first Test match, Kohli came out for the press conference and boldly stated that the Men in Blue will field five bowlers going forward, at least for Tests. As he explained to his management, the logic behind it was simple: Kohli wanted to leave behind the notion of going for 400-500 runs in a Test match. He was content with 275-350 scores per innings, and the strength of the Indian bowling lineup gave him enough belief that five bowlers would give him 20 wickets in every Test match.

But for that plan to succeed the batters needed to do their job, and as things stand, they have failed far too many times. This inconsistency took Kohli and his men from the highs of their domination in the Caribbean and the Australian shores to their time-to-time reality checks, especially in countries such as England, New Zealand and South Africa.


WTC Final collapse

In the WTC final, at the close of day two’s play, India were 146/3 after 64.4 overs. The new ball had been dealt with and the worst of the conditions was negated calmly by the Indian top order. Captain Kohli was 44 not out overnight and vice-captain Ajinkya Rahane was on 29. Given the treacherous conditions, India did admirably well.

But by lunch on Day 3, India were reeling at 189/6, and soon bundled out for a mere 217. After the solid foundation laid at the close of day 2, the Indian batters shot themselves in the foot by refusing to apply themselves in the middle. Intent, as Kohli often mentions during his press conferences, is not just about playing shots. And it is a word that is often misunderstood by his team.

The Indian tail never wags, and this time too, it didn’t. But the main focus remains on the middle-order. In the face of very good swing bowling and sustained pressure, the Indian batters went down swinging. In the second innings, the ball was still swinging but conditions were far better for batting. The Indian batters, however, weren’t prepared for the grind. While the likes of Kane Williamson at one point soaked up sustained pressure, scoring just 7 runs off 73 deliveries, the Indian batters always looked in a hurry.


Indian batters’s dip in form

Rohit Sharma has been phenomenal in Subcontinental conditions, while overseas his form and average have been on par – good starts at the top of the order but not carried on to score big. Shubman Gill, on the other hand, is still finding his feet in the international arena, but after the promising start to his career Down Under, Gill has been dismissed cheaply – mostly due to his tentativeness on the front foot drive – quite a few times during England’s tour of India and in the WTC Final. If not corrected, it would simply mean throwing a piece of meat in a cage of hungry wolves.

Cheteshwar Pujara has been as solid as ever, eating up as many deliveries as he can, tiring down the opposition bowling attack, but his runs have considerably dried up in the last two seasons. His dip in form is worrying. In 18 Tests over the last two years, he has averaged just 28.03 with no centuries to his name.

Pujara’s sketchy conversion rate has coincided with the Indian skipper’s barren run of international centuries as well. While Pujara only plays Test cricket, Kohli hasn’t scored a century in any of the three formats since August 2019. Although Kohli has a better average of 42.45 over the same two-year period, his numbers have significantly fallen since the preceding two years when he averaged an astonishing 66.12.

India’s vice-captain, Ajinkya Rahane, has scored the most runs for any Indian batter over the last two years and boasts a solid average of 42.92 in 15 Test matches. Most of his big runs came against the likes of Bangladesh (avg 68.50), South Africa (avg 72.00), and the West Indies (avg 90.33). Against the big boys, Rahane averages 38 against Australia, 18 against England, and 25 against New Zealand in the same period.

After Rohit Sharma, Rishabh Pant is the only Indian batter in recent times who has been performing consistently on the international stage. From 2019 to 2020, Pant scored 306 runs in nine innings, with more than half of those runs (159) coming in a single innings, resulting in hi losing his place to Wriddhiman Saha before roaring back during the Australian tour, and the 23-year-old hasn’t looked back since. In 2021, Pant has scored 556 runs in 12 innings so far at an average of 55.6, including four half-centuries and a hundred against England.


Struggle against swing

The Indian batting lineup has struggled of late whenever challenged with swinging conditions. In the last five years, from the current Indian setup, seven players have toured England and New Zealand, including two all-rounders. Of the seven, except one (Virat Kohli), the numbers for the rest make for quite a grim reading.

After Kohli’s bone-crushing tour of England in 2014 where he scored just 134 runs in 10 innings, the Indian captain adapted his game to the swing conditions. In his 14 innings since then, Kohli has scored 631 runs at an average of 45.00. However, his struggles against Kyle Jamieson of New Zealand will be fresh in the memories of Joe Root, as the English bowling lineup too packs firepower with the likes of Mark Wood and Jofra Archer who are of the similar mould.

Now, this is where the main problem lies. No other Indian batter is averaging even close to the 40-run mark. The stoic and ever-dependable Cheteshwar Pujara has the next best average of 34.36, having scored 378 runs in 12 innings. Opening on green and swinging surfaces can be a daunting task and for the limited opportunities that have come his way, K.L. Rahul has been decent. Opening for India on 10 occasions, Rahul has amassed 299 runs at an average of 29.9 – just shy of 30, but needs significant improvement.

While the likes of Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin are lower-order batters, their contribution has been reasonable to say the least. Jadeja played only two Tests against New Zealand where he scored 124 runs in 4 innings, whereas Ashwin managed to score 130 runs in 10 innings at an average of 16.75.

In these swinging conditions, the biggest concern for India will be Ajinkya Rahane and Rishabh Pant’s below-par performances in England and New Zealand. While Ajinkya Rahane’s century at Lord’s in 2018 is still fondly remembered by the Indian fans, apart from that one innings, the Indian vice-captain has failed to deliver on his potential. Formerly known as an overseas specialist during his earlier days, in his last 14 innings in England and New Zealand, Rahane has only scored 348 runs at an average of 24.86 – not good enough for a player of his calibre.

Pant’s stats, on the other hand, are rather dismal. Although in his debut series away against England he smashed 114 in the fifth Test match at The Oval, in the 10 innings combined, the Delhi Capitals captain has scored only 222 runs at an average of 22.2. But if his recent form is anything to go by, Rishabh could be the deciding factor come the fifth day of the final Test match at Old Trafford, Manchester.


Green tops and the Dukes’ ball

The English wickets are mostly green pitches. The green tops provide the swing and seam movement as well as the lateral movement off the pitch. Even though the ball doesn’t get extra pace from the pitch because of the softness in the English soil, the seam movement and swing will have every element to bemuse the Indian batters.

England is a country where humidity is found in abundance. Even the hottest summer in England will experience humid heat and no dry weather. And the moisture content in the atmosphere of the English grounds is the primary element for the swinging conditions.

The humidity in the surface gives the bowler more stability to swing the bowl no matter whichever climate he bowls in. And to add to that, the moist air gives turbulence on the sides of the ball, and what comes as a result is the swing of the ball according to the direction of the air.

For a visiting team coming to the British shores, even the weather forecast seems to be some kind of spoof, predicting every possible combination for the next twenty-four hours and not committing to a single one. Such is the unpredictability that a team can come out to bat with overcast conditions in the morning only to have clear and sunny skies by lunch time, giving the batters perfect batting conditions, while just as easily, during the evening session, a full-blown shower can wash away the entire session, leaving the batters to constantly adapt their game to the changing conditions.

“That Dukes’ ball, it buries egos pretty quickly,” said Virat Kohli to the Australian batters ahead of the 2019 Ashes series.

The English Dukes’ balls are much darker than any other cricket ball. Moreover, these balls have added grease to make them water-resistant from the wet grass and moist air of the English grounds. And it is the Scottish leather along with the added grease that makes the Dukes’ ball shine more than any other red cricket ball. Besides, the compactness and hand-made stitched seams of the Dukes’ give utmost comfort to the bowlers.

The English Cricket Board plays with the Dukes’ ball that is mainly manufactured to retain the seam and shine for a long time, which helps in swinging the ball for an extended period of time. And even if the ball got older due to the damp pitches and hot conditions, the Dukes’ reverse swing wouldn’t be a pleasant watch for the Indian batters.

With senior veterans of the game like James Anderson and Stuart Board, who share more than 1100 Test wickets between them, the young and fiery duo of Jofra Archer and Mark Wood, accompanied by the ever-dependable and one of England’s greatest all-rounders Ben Stokes, the English bowling lineup is the toughest of tests any batting unit could face in the ever-changing conditions of England.

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