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COLUMN: Top-Order Failure Bound to Raise Questions Over Its Competence

COLUMN: Top-Order Failure Bound to Raise Questions Over Its Competence

Kohli, for instance, was dismissed by Jamieson twice, but in contrasting fashion. So too Rohit. Rahane was sucked into indiscretion in the first innings, captain Williamson and bowler Wagner pricking his ego.

New Zealand’s triumph in the World Test Championship final has the claddings of a fairy tale, but at its core is a hard-nosed, process-driven, ambitious program that has been played out for a little over two decades, going through several ups and down before rediscovering its focus and speeding to excellence in the last decade.

Glitchy tournament rules prevented the Kiwis from winning the ODI World Cup in 2019. Two years later, Kane Williamson’s team made it to the final of the WTC on back of some terrific performances, aided no doubt with some luck, and were pitted against India, the most consistent Test side in the past few years.

By the time the WTC final began, New Zealand had toppled India from the no.1 spot in the ICC rankings. But given India’s recent spectacular wins against Australia and England –and the presence of vastly experienced batsmen and bowlers – many experts thought Virat Kohli’s team still had the edge.

Instead, the WTC turned out to be the greatest match in New Zealand cricket’s history. For the most part it appeared that rain would prevent a result. But on a dramatic last day, a bunch of talented, dedicated and determined bunch of players, led by an outstanding batsman and astute captain, cut the ground from under India to clinch a famous victory.

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Before I get to the reasons that led to India’s downfall, let’s get past some lame excuses that have been touted:

a) Losing the Toss: Conditions were distinctly favourable for bowlers and both captains said at the toss that they would have fielded first. In that sense, Williamson’s luck with the coin did provide some early psychological advantage as it allowed the Kiwi batsmen to see how the pitch was behaving and plan their innings accordingly.

But in the context of the match overall, this advantage was minor one. At one stage in the first innings, India were 146-3. Kohli and Rahane had built up a promising partnership, and a 275-plus score looked certain. In fact at that stage, it appeared that Williamson’s decision would backfire badly.

Moreover, New Zealand’s first innings wasn’t exceptional despite the advantage of the toss. The frontline batsmen struggled, and it was the enterprising cameos by Jamieson and Southee in the lower order that actually helped them take a 32-run lead. The influence of the toss was negligible really.

b) Wrong Playing XI: In hindsight, it might appear that India may have erred in not playing a fourth seamer or an extra batsman, but that ignores the logic which went into choosing the playing XI. One decision would have weakened the batting, the other the bowling.

An additional seamer would have come at the expense of a spinner. Both R Ashwin and Jadeja have been stellar all-rounders. The former, especially has been in terrific form in the past two series, with bat and ball. Jadeja, apart from batting and bowling ability, provides added benefits because of his brilliant fielding.

Also New Zealand have traditionally not been comfortable against the turning ball, so playing both spinners was not at all a risk even in conditions tailor-made for swing and seam. Ashwin got four wickets in the match, joint-most for India, and top order batsmen too. He also made a useful 22. Jadeja got one wicket, battled hard with the bat in both innings, and fielded superbly.

A fast bowling all-rounder like Hardik Pandya would have been a certain pick. In the absence of a player like say Hardik Pandya, including a pace bowler would have extended India’s tail, which is hardly productive in making runs.

A simple stat puts this in perspective. India lost the last four wickets in the first innings for 12runs, and in the second for 14 runs. In contrast, New Zealand’s last four batsmen put on 59 runs, which helped them take a psychologically important and finally decisive lead.

Playing an extra specialist batsman like Hanuma Vihari could only have come at the expense of Ashwin or Jadeja and reduced the potency of the bowling attack. In the circumstances, the team management’s decision to play three seamers and two spinners was not unfounded. The playing combination was hardly the major reason for the defeat.

c) Insufficient Preparation: This is the only factor that had some bearing on the match in my opinion. New Zealand went into the WTC final on the back of two Test matches against England while India were in quarantine followed by some intra team matches.

There is no better preparation for a tough contest than competitive matches, and India missed that. But this must be juxtaposed with the fact that most overseas tours these days hardly have first-class matches preceding Tests. Moreover, when the Indian team departed from India, skipper Kohli even proclaimed confidently that those not prepared for such an itinerary should not board the plane, this can hardly be a defence.

As I saw it, what brought grief to India’s ambitions were abject batting by the top order, and lack of meticulous planning which was so necessary for such an important match.

True, batting conditions were extremely difficult. But that’s where you expect a star-studded line-up to prove it’s worth. India’s two innings yielded 217 and 170, mediocre scores even given the conditions. In both innings there was promise of more runs, belied by vulnerable technique, poor strokes, and/or lack of gumption.

At 146 for 3 after the end of the second day (the first was washed out), India looked good for around 300. Kohli had been masterly in reaching 44 not out and Rahane had shown glimpses of vintage touch. Within a couple of overs the next morning, the Indian innings was in the dumps as Kohli and Pant fell early and Rahane threw his wicket away.

The second innings performance was even worse. India needed to bat out approximately two sessions on the final day to save the Test and share the trophy. Kohli and Pujara, the team’s most accomplished batsmen, were at the wicket. Within a couple of over, both fell to lose defence; Rahane played a glance without being in control.

Three soft dismissals in a row sullied the mighty reputations these batsmen enjoy and gave the Kiwis sniff of an improbable win. Pant showed some much-needed enterprise to shrug off the pressure, but just when it seemed that he and Jadeja might yet save the day, he was dismissed off a low percentage, reckless, grotesque hoick. After that the innings came to a rapid end, leaving New Zealand sufficient time and overs to pull off an improbable win.

Not to take anything away from the Kiwi pacemen who bowled and complemented each other brilliantly in the match. But if a top order that reads Rohit, Gill, Pujara, Kohli, Rahane, Pant fails in both innings in near similar fashion, it throws up questions about its competence.

There were only two half centurions in the Test, both Kiwis, Conway and Williamson; the latter also spending the most time in the middle. In the second innings, having lost two wickets to Ashwin in the run chase, Williamson and Taylor brought all experience into play, staving off the threat, leading their team to an emphatic win.

Barring one session while batting in the first innings, and one of bowling in New Zealand’s first innings when Shami picked up a cluster of wickets, India were outplayed by the Kiwis in all departments of the game. They showed that to win such big games requires not big names, but skill, will power, desire and immaculate planning.

The last-mentioned attribute came through quite splendidly particularly in how the New Zealand bowlers planned the downfall of India’s batsmen. The homework on the strengths and weaknesses of the batsmen was thorough, and while the overall strategy blueprint was clearly robust, the tactics were not static, but dynamic.

Kohli, for instance, was dismissed by Jamieson twice, but in contrasting fashion. So too Rohit. Rahane was sucked into indiscretion in the first innings, captain Williamson and bowler Wagner pricking his ego. Williamson’s bowling changes were clever and timely, the field placings imaginative. India appeared to be more focused on strong body language than playing to the demands of the situation. Or any revision in tactics to stymie the Kiwis, who had come primed for the final in every way possible.

PS: After the defeat, the BCCI put in a request with ECB for some first-class matches before the Test series against England starting in August. It reveals lackluster planning for a major series. I would venture that had the WTC final been won or drawn, the BCCI would have been too smug to make such a request.

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first published:June 25, 2021, 20:10 IST