Best-laid plans prove faulty as Virat Kohli’s Indian team hits record Test low
Virat Kohli has overseen statistically the worst 12-month period for India. © AFP

PERTH: Until Tuesday, 2014 was the annus horribilis for Indian cricket. In England and Australia combined, they lost six overseas Tests, the most defeats away from home in a single calendar year. Their 146-run drubbing at the Perth Stadium, on the final day of the second Test which helped Australia level the series 1-1, was their seventh away loss in 2018.

Coming on the heels of 1-2 and 1-4 scorelines in South Africa and England respectively, this result heralds statistically the worst 12-month period for the team perched atop the ICC Test rankings.

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Their latest defeat, against an Australian side whose last Test win came in Durban in March and which came into this game with five losses in its last six tilts, was a throwback to the 2000s, when India surrendered the initiative immediately after taking the lead overseas. In Zimbabwe in 2001, the West Indies in 2002, Australia the following year, Pakistan in 2004 and South Africa in 2006, India squandered 1-0 advantages to either lose or draw series, the 2-1 victory across the border in the Pakistan the sole instance when they pegged back home resurgence successfully.

Marginally the better side in Adelaide when they had to stretch every sinew to eke out a 31-run victory, India were outclassed at the Perth Stadium’s debut as a Test venue, giving the new Australian management combine of skipper Tim Paine and coach Justin Langer their first victory in the five-day format. India stayed in touch with their opponents for the first two days of the contest, but once they conceded a 43-run advantage on the first innings, there was only one side in the game.

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Australia played better, of course, but India didn’t do themselves any favours either. Despite Virat Kohli’s spirited defence of the composition of his bowling attack, it was obvious that the visitors would have been better served with a specialist spin option at their behest. Not only would it have offered variety and a holding or attacking card, depending on the situation, it would also have reduced the candidates for the No. 11 spot from four to three.

Between them, Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Jasprit Bumrah contributed 11 runs and consumed 78 balls over the two innings. While that was clearly not the difference between the sides, no team in modern-day cricket can afford to carry so many contenders for No. 11 unless each one is in extraordinary bowling rhythm.

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India’s best-laid plans might still have paid off had Umesh justified his inclusion by reprising his heroics of his last Test appearance, against West Indies in Hyderabad last month. Match figures of 10 for 133 had made him just the third Indian paceman behind Kapil Dev (twice) and Javagal Srinath to return a 10-wicket haul in a home Test. That, allied with Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s lack of recent game-time in the longer version, influenced Umesh’s presence as the fourth pacer, Kohli revealed at the conclusion of the Test. Unfortunately for the Indians, the strongman from Vidarbha was completely off the boil, not only looking unthreatening but also releasing the stifling stranglehold imposed by Bumrah, Ishant and Shami.

Even though Kohli said that the pitch had behaved exactly the way they had expected it to on the first three days, it is hard to shake off the lingering suspicion that the think-tank saw more juice in the surface – perhaps, they were sucked in by the sustained chatter from all quarters Aussie about the hostile pace and searing bounce coiled tightly in the green deck? – than actually existed. Well as Hanuma Vihari bowled, he is no regular offspinner from whom 20 good overs of consistent lines and confusing lengths can be readily expected. That the lone spinner in the game, Nathan Lyon, walked away with the Man of the Match award  alone should make India wonder if it wouldn’t have been more sensible to go with Ravindra Jadeja’s left-arm spin once R Ashwin was rendered unavailable due to injury. And this is not being said with the benefit of hindsight alone.

Nathan Lyon dismissed Virat Kohli for the second time in the series.
Nathan Lyon dismissed Virat Kohli for the second time in the series. © AFP

There is no gainsaying how the match would have panned out have Jadeja been in the mix, but apart from giving the bowling greater variety, it would also have added more depth to the batting. Not for the first time this year, India were let down by their batsmen in a foreign Test. Kohli conceded a lack of application in the second innings, but the game was lost by then. India needed more in the first dig, but apart from the captain’s wonderful 123 and a chancy half-century from Ajinkya Rahane, they unearthed little else of substance.

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Lyon thrived on his control, and on the bounce he was able to extract off the deck. India perhaps felt that with Ashwin ruled out and Jadeja more reliant on skid than height, they would be better off with the additional fast-bowling component. A skiddy Jadeja, however, would still have offered great value than an erratic Umesh, though in all fairness to the management group, they would have hoped for better returns from someone on his third tour Down Under.

With openers Murali Vijay and KL Rahul horribly out of sorts, and a tail that can be knocked over by a gentle breeze, if not a feather, the battle-hardened troika of Cheteshwar Pujara, Kohli and Rahane was left with too much to do. It’s impossible to compete in such conditions with just the three batsmen. It is unthinkable that similarly pace-friendly conditions will present themselves again on this tour in either the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne or the New Year’s Test at the SCG. But in that unlikely scenario, India will most certainly tread a different path.

Perth is done and dusted. The post-mortems will continue for the next week, but for the team, it is imperative to keep the focus and address the issues that need detailed attention – the opening pair, for instance, and the bowling combination. A little more spunk and steel won’t hurt, either.