The India-England Test series is just a couple of weeks away, and the team announcements have begun.
The Indian team under Virat Kohli are expected to win this series, considering that the English Test team struggled against the Kiwis recently.
Is the hype around this Indian Test team real, or have the admirers let themselves be carried away by the Border-Gavaskar Trophy win against Australia? I reckon there is some truth and some hot air in this hype.
Let me give you my reasoning.
The truth: top-quality bowling
Virat Kohli has built a brilliant all-around bowling attack good enough to get 20 wickets in all conditions.
Despite Jasprit Bumrah’s recent lack of form, the pace attack is potent. The two Mohammads, Shami and Siraj, are the most skilful of the lot. Ishant Sharma has the best record in Test cricket since his renaissance in 2018.
Jasprit Bumrah needs a long series to get back to peak form. He looked short of bowling confidence in the WTC final against New Zealand.
Umesh Yadav is a great swing bowler to have in the reserves.
Coming to the spin bowlers, Ravichandran Ashwin has taken his bowling to a rarified level over the past year or so. Kohli should play Ashwin in every Test in any conditions.
The skipper missed a trick in the WTC final by not giving him the new ball against the two left-handed openers, despite the conditions. Ashwin takes out left-handed batters for fun.
Ravindra Jadeja is a valuable spinner but does seem to require help from the pitch to take wickets.
The following table outlines the bowlers’ recent averages and strike rates.
|Jasprit Bumrah||21, 47||13, 30||27, 56||50, 112|
|Ishant Sharma||21, 49||15, 32||15, 28||25, 60|
|Mohammad Shami||16, 35||44, 79||26, 55|
|Ravichandran Ashwin||25, 60||24, 52||21, 52||18, 41|
|Mohammad Siraj||15, 43||34, 67|
One look at the table will tell you that except for Shami in 2020 or Jasprit in 2021, the Indian bowling line-up does not allow the opposition to score more than 250 runs in an innings on average.
Despite this fantastic line-up of bowlers, why has India failed to win a Test series or even win two Tests in a series in England, South Africa or New Zealand?
The hot air: ordinary batting
A good away Test batting order has at least two or three batsmen in the top six capable of scoring 400-plus runs in a four or five-Test series.
Every dominating team in the past have had such batsmen who made “Daddy” hundreds in a series.
England had Alastair Cook, Kevin Pieterson and Ian Bell. India had Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. The all-concurring Aussies had Ricky Ponting, Mathew Hayden, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, etc.
On the contrary, take a look at the record of this Indian batting line-up’s engine room (average and strike rate shown).
|Cheteshwar Pujara||38, 38||46, 52||20, 27||30, 31|
|Ajinkya Rahane||30, 44||71, 50||38, 42||22, 43|
|Virat Kohli||55, 44||68, 63||19, 40||28, 42|
|Hanuma Vihari||20, 34||68, 56||18, 43||27, 13|
Except for the year 2019, when India mainly played at home or in the West Indies against a weak team, only Virat Kohli averages above 40.
The problem is not just the low average but also the strike rate of the middle order. Just take the case of this recent WTC finals; Cheteshwar Pujara came in after a good start by the openers and got stuck without scoring. There was a joke running on Twitter that it was the longest 69 that one was stuck performing!
The Kiwi bowlers, who struggled for line and length until then, got the breathing space they needed to get their radar right.
Going back to the Australia series, even during that series-changing MCG hundred, Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja provided the momentum to help Anjinkya Rahane find his feet at the other end.
Otherwise, Ajinkya did not look in good rhythm when he had Pujara or Hanuma Vihari in his company.
The fundamental problem here is that this Indian middle-order has too many batsmen who can’t get on top of the opposition bowlers over any period.
Pujara has been at best holding an end, while Rishabh Pant had to force the issue to knock out the opposition bowlers.
Lack of a left-hander in the top order
Since Shikar Dhawan went out of favour in Tests, India has played a right-handed top-order batting unit. This sameness in the batting team allows opposition bowlers to settle down on a line and length and wait for the batsman’s mistakes.
Add to this the poor strike rates of the Indian batsmen, the scoreboard crawls and puts little pressure on the bowlers. So, Virat must look for a left-handed top-order batter and groom him. We have options such as Devdutt Padikkal, Ishan Kishan etc. to consider.
If you look around world Test cricket, top orders are dominated by left-handed batsmen. A left-hander at the top of the order will help our Indian seam attack practice against left-handed batters in the nets.
What are the options?
India must take some bold decisions and let go of Pujara, Rahane and Vihari-type players soon. It is time to blood dynamic and fast scoring batsmen like Surya Kumar Yadav, Ishan Kishan, Devdutt Padikal et al. into the Test team.
Look at the impact that Rishabh Pant has had on the Test team. Rohit Sharma has added scoring intent to the opening position.
Shubman Gill is another batsman who looks to score rather than hang around. He will grow in confidence as he plays across the globe.
With a bowling attack that seldom lets the opposition score more than 250-odd runs, India needs a bunch of batters who can score big and bring home the advantage.
Time for the underperforming and feeble middle order to change.