Just as the tried-and-true Hollywood template of taking Bruce Willis’ John McClane from Die Hard and spinning it into countless action flicks where a macho action star saves [insert your choice of subject here] has been rinsed and repeated for three decades, so to has the caricature of the Indian cricket team settled into a somewhat generic groove when it comes to overseas Test matches.
Think Australia 2011-12 and 2014-15, England 2011 and 2014 and South Africa 2018. Some of the players changed, but the theme remained: the batsmen will struggle to adapt, compete and subsequently survive. What fans of Indian cricket have got, regrettably and not alarmingly, is heartburn and reasons to doubt their team’s tag of being No 1 in the ICC Test Championship.
(Just in case you didn’t know, in his last Test match at Trent Bridge, in July 2017, he took four wickets for four runs in 20 balls for his seventh five-wicket haul at the venue.)
If India are to avoid a series defeat for the third successive tour of England, they will have to produce something out of the ordinary. And, sadly, the ordinary for Kohli’s team outside of Asia has meant some very sorry batting, barring the skipper. Just in 2018, here’s a glance at what India’s batsmen have averaged across Tests in South Africa and England: Kohli 52.6, Rohit Sharma 19.50, Shikhar Dhawan 17.75, Ajinkya Rahane 17.50, Cheteshwar Pujara 14.75, Murali Vijay 12.80 and KL Rahul 8.12.
Good luck winning Test matches overseas with numbers like that.
Algorithms will tell you that India’s batsmen have often encountered the toughest of batting conditions – think back to day two at Lord’s when the ball swung exaggeratedly – and that in such conditions only the best can survive. The problem is that India’s best overseas batsmen over the past four or five years, primarily Vijay and Rahane, have turned into stumbling zombies.
The batsmen have failed to find a balance between attack and defence. Stifled by the constant pressure applied by England’s four-prong pace attack – which could become five at Trent Bridge with Ben Stokes back – the batsmen have managed to score slowly while losing wickets in clusters with a mix of aggressive and loose strokes. In this, a lack of singles has been a factor. Dot after dot after dot has been been followed by the likes of Rahul and Rahane trying to puncture the process with wafts. India’s batsmen, with the exception of Kohli and to a lesser extent Hardik Pandya have been stuck, plain and simple, and cannot find a way out.
Ravi Shastri, India’s coach, has boomed – or maybe it’s burped – hot air about what India need to do and will strive to do. Before India left for England, he stated that this team wanted to break the trend of modern-day teams being ‘bad tourists’. Before the first Test in Birmingham, he reaffirmed that statement in the same breathe as rubbishing a media report that India had cut down a day’s play from the only warm-up match because they were unhappy with conditions. As soon as that was done, Shastri said that this team takes pride in performing wherever it goes.
Yesterday, he spoke of how the batsman needed to have the resolve to know where their off stumps were and to leave plenty of balls alone, as well as to “look ugly and dirty and show some grit”. All this makes for lovely headlines, but if its falling on deaf ears inside the dressing room then you’re not doing your job properly, coach.
In South Africa, where India were beaten in the first two Tests to squander the series, Shastri admitted that they could have prepared better. In his own words, another 10 more days of preparation in that country could have made a difference in the series scoreline – and mind you, this was said against serious rumblings about the BCCI offering to send India’s Test specialists early, but that the management declined.
There’s little point pontificating on whether India could/should have prepared better for tours to South Africa and England. The issue is that batting averages has dipped to a new low, barring Kohli’s, and that the likes of Sanjay Bangar, the batting coach, need to be seriously questioned as to why this has happened.
The batting lineup will need to be re-jigged. Vijay looks a shadow of the Test opener who has scored good, vital runs in England, Australia and South Africa. A pair at Lord’s – out both times to Anderson – may well have sounded the end of his tour, with Dhawan the likely replacement. Surely whoever gets a look-in will score more than two ducks.
Dinesh Karthik is under the scanner, with four poor scores including two ducks. What is the harm in handing a Test debut to Rishabh Pant? Surely he cannot do worse than 21 runs in four innings? Karun Nair is another option for the middle order, but for that one of Pujara or Rahane will need to be dropped, and that is unlikely especially given Shastri’s comment on Rahane being a ‘pillar’ of this team.
One Test stands between India and another feeble series defeat away from home. It is time that Shastri’s hyperbole becomes a reality.
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