Talking up India’s chances before day four got underway, there was a sense of intrigue at the Rose Bowl. This wasn’t an easy wicket to bat on – did England have enough? They struggled in the first and second innings, yet managed to score 246 and 271, setting a target of 245.
That’s the thing. Until that lower-order collapse on day two, India had batted better than England in Nottingham and then here at Southampton. By that right alone, this Indian line-up, which heavily revolves around Virat Kohli and a couple others, ought to have scored those 240-odd runs for victory. Then again, Moeen Ali had already changed that perception.
Cut back to 2014. The third Test at Southampton had followed a similar script. For a team that played spin very well, India folded and handed him 8 wickets across two innings. In all, they conceded 19 wickets at a paltry average of 23 in that series to him. Four years ago, India’s nonchalance could be seen in the manner Rohit Sharma had gotten out before tea in the first innings. Going well as India fought back from 136-4, he launched a six before the break, attacking Ali and ended up getting out caught.
Now, check how some of the Indian batsmen played Ali in these two innings. Hardik Pandya stepped out and hit him straight to mid-wicket. R Ashwin tried a reverse sweep when trying to prevent a collapse. In the second essay, Ali did trouble Kohli and got Ajinkya Rahane with a jaffa, thanks to the rough outside the off-stump. Yet, Rishabh Pant threw his wicket away, trying to attack as if he didn’t know any other method.
Ali ended up with 9 wickets in this match in an action-replay of the 2014 Test. Who is to blame here? Not the support staff surely, for they did drill the batsmen about how to play him. It could be seen in how India have played Adil Rashid throughout this series with patience and consideration. Their attempts against Ali belied this approach and underlined that they still think of him as a second-string spinner who they need to attack at all costs. This has cost them the series.
Additionally, this fourth Test has underlined a growing concern about India’s batting. If the run-scoring charts are opened up, Kohli tops with 544 runs – he is heads and shoulder above the rest, not only in this series but in the world of batsmen altogether. Then, you have Jos Buttler (260), Sam Curran (251), Cheteshwar Pujara (241), Rahane (220) and Jonny Bairstow (212) with 200-plus runs. Joe Root has managed 194 runs, too.
While England have had their problems with batting in the top-order, just like India, the above figures show where their batting has done better in terms of runs and partnerships. Curran rescued them in Birmingham, with Root-Bairstow in the first innings, then Chris Woakes hit a brilliant hundred after Bairstow and Buttler set it up at Lord’s, and thereafter Buttler as well as Ben Stokes fought hard in Nottingham. Here in Southampton again, Curran saved them blushes with Buttler commanding the lower order in the second innings.
In truth, England’s batting has really kicked on throughout the series when their top order gets dismissed. In comparison, India’s batting has almost ended throughout as soon as Rahane walks out at number five. Look at the figures and they tell a story. Pandya started well in Birmingham, but then faded – 164 runs now in 4 Tests. Dinesh Karthik scored 21 runs in 2 Tests, and Rishabh Pant has 43 runs, totalling 64 runs in all. Ashwin, who is an otherwise reliable lower-order batsman, has managed only 143 runs in this series at average 21 taking his career-average below 30 for the first time.
It is a story that has carried on from South Africa. Pandya scored 119 runs in 3 Tests there, including 93 in one innings alone. Wriddhiman Saha and Parthiv Patel, the two keepers, scored 64 runs in 3 Tests. Ashwin scored 90 runs in 2 Tests. Bhuvneshwar Kumar too contributed 101 runs in the two matches he played, and India have certainly missed him here in England.
Without Kumar, India’s tail in Test cricket is too long and along with a misfiring lower order, it has compounded the batting line-up’s problems in this series. It is a weakness that has been shown up by two opponents in two successive series. Meanwhile, continuous chopping and changing has meant that the top order doesn’t have any worthwhile contributions to show either.
Shikhar Dhawan has 190 runs in 4 Tests in South Africa and England. Murali Vijay, now dropped, scored 128 runs in 5 Tests. KL Rahul, of whom big things were expected in this series, has managed 143 runs in 6 Tests. While Pujara and Rahane have put their hands up at different times, mostly in Johannesburg, Nottingham and Southampton, it hasn’t been in enough to win matches, only passages of play.
India need more than just Kohli to score runs, if they are to win Test series overseas. Right now, they are too far off because the rest of their batting line-up is in shambles.
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