Life was very difficult for the Indian Test team a year ago. Around the start of 2019, they had conquered new shores in Australia, winning a Test series there for the first time ever. Their batting clicked together, their bowlers - particularly pacers - were on song. Nobody doubted then that India deserved the No. 1 Test ranking.
India strengthened that position through the remaining Tests in 2019, beating West Indies in West Indies before enjoying a good home run, which they are always expected to do. Incredibly, India didn’t lose a single Test in 2019.
The start of 2020, though, is very different. Two Tests into the year, India are back facing the same questions that have stood as challenges since time immemorial. Batting against quality swing and pace, and an inability to wipe out the tail.
Scores of 165, 191, 242 and 124 show that it’s their batting that’s the major issue, to state the most obvious.
This was one of those rare tours for India’s batting line up; them failing in these conditions is not rare, but not even one batsmen stepping up above the rest surely is.
In previous tours, even when they’ve lost by massive margins, there has been the odd good performance, or a situation where one batsman has stood above the rest. In India’s tour of South Africa in 2017-18, Kohli scored 286 runs from six innings, standing apart from his peers. The next highest from India was Hardik Pandya with 119.
Even in that three-match series, which India lost 1-2 on incredibly tough pitches for batsmen, there were timely contributions from Pujara and Rahane, and even help from the lower order in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who made crucial knocks in Johannersburg helping India win.
And then in England in 2018, although India lost the five-match series 1-3, there was enough evidence to show it wasn’t a complete collapse of the batting unit. Kohli had one of his best tours, smashing 593 runs in 10 innings. Pujara and Rahane were inconsistent, scoring 278 and 257 runs respectively, but both made useful half-centuries in India’s win in Nottingham.
Go further back to the 2014-15 losses in England and Australia, and one would find that the likes of M Vijay and MS Dhoni (in England) and Kohli, Vijay and Rahane (in Australia) made plenty of runs.
In this series against New Zealand, however, only two Indian batsmen managed to tally 100 runs or more across four innings: Mayank Agarwal (102) and Cheteshwar Pujara (100). Virat Kohli had one of his worst tours, scoring only 38 runs at an average of 9.5.
It was like New Zealand conditions had a combination of South Africa, England and Australia. The ball swung around, as it always does in New Zealand. The generous spread of grass on the pitches meant there was plenty of bounce and a little bit of seam on offer too.
More importantly, New Zealand had an attack that could exploit each one of those aspects. Tim Southee and Colin de Grandhomme got the ball to move around. Kyle Jamieson and Neil Wagner bowled short and sharp. Trent Boult did just about everything, from swinging it from one end to another and bouncing out batsmen with short ones. India’s bowling, on the other hand, appeared largely unidimensional. New Zealand mercilessly and relentlessly attacked every single weakness of India’s batsmen.
“I truly believe that we made too much of the conditions from the first day onwards, of the first Test: overcast, a bit of dampness on the pitch - we never spoke of these things before. So yeah, it can creep in every now and then, it’s about not letting it grow, not letting it become a norm, something that we as a side have not done at all," Kohli explained after the series loss.
“We don’t go into conditions and think that we might not be able to execute what we want to. We’ve always gone in with a very positive outlook and, as I said, your skill follows, how you think.
“If you’re not clear in your head then the feet don’t move, you’re not quite sure whether to play the shot or not, leave the ball or play the ball. I think these sorts of things can creep in, and which have creeped in in this series. It’s something we have recognised already. The good thing is that everyone’s understood what’s happened and is very keen to improve it. It’s all mental. I don’t see any problem with anyone’s game as such. It’s mental, and it’s something that can happen at this level and we just need to accept it and iron it out and move ahead."
There were multiple moments through the series which showed that India’s issues were not just mental, but also technical.
Kohli’s struggles through the series was similar to his dismal tour of England in 2014. There, he would poke outside off and nick behind inning after inning. Here, he was lbw twice in the second Test, his head falling across for the inswingers from Southee and de Grandhomme. Kohli worked on his weakness after the 2014 series and returned a much better batsman, it’s likely that the same could happen now.
Rahane and Pujara, meanwhile, seemed tentative and unclear. Rahane started the series relatively well, with scores of 46 and 29 in Wellington. But it all fell apart by the time he played his last innings of the series, where he was made to look like a tailender by Neil Wagner and co. Rahane, a batsman who had once smashed around Mitchell Johnson in Australia, was hit on the head twice before eventually falling to Wagner’s short ball in a 43-ball 9.
Pujara did all the hard work, playing 42, 81, 140 and 88 balls in the four innings, but not once could he make it big. Twice in the series - first innings of Wellington and the second innings in Christchurch, he received near unplayable deliveries from Jamieson and Boult respectively. But there was also an odd moment when he looked to hook a Jamieson short ball from outside off and lobbed a catch to the keeper, showing signs of the ‘mental’ issues that Kohli spoke about.
The rest of the batsmen were inadequate, inexperienced, or both.
The bigger issue for India is that they don’t play any Test cricket until the tour of Australia later in the year. It’s unlikely, and unnecessary, that India will change much about their team or batting unit before that. A bulk of their batting unit will spend the year playing plenty of white-ball cricket, and unless they come up with solutions - technical or mental - Australia 2020-21 could be very different from Australia 2018-19.