India’s tour of England so far has been unedifying on several counts. The team flopped in the WTC final against New Zealand, requests for adding on a couple of first-class matches before the 5-Test series against England have been spurned by the ECB, and this week emerged news of injury to young opener Shubman Gill which could keep him out of action for a while.
The WTC defeat has been discussed at length in these columns so it hardly needs repeating that India’s performance was hugely disappointing after playing marvelously for two years in the qualifying cycle. Will this in any way impact how Virat Kohli & Co fare in the upcoming rubber against England?
I think it could, something that the Indian team management led by chief coach Ravi Shastri and captain Kohli have to take cognizance of asap. There was the false belief that India could win the WTC final without any lead-in matches. This boomeranged badly.
There was brave talk before the team took off for England on how the team had `all bases covered’, and the body language was strong when the Indians took the field. But the Kiwis were not to be hustled or intimated by these tactics. They had players with excellent skillsets, the ambition to win was deep, and what clearly worked in their favour was simply better preparation.
The Indian establishment had goofed in ignoring the last-mentioned aspect and ended up paying a heavy price. Considering the vulnerabilities exposed by New Zealand in the WTC final, there is a lot of work to be done – technical and psychological – by the coach, captain and support staff before the Test series begins in the first week of August.
The crux issue for India heading into the rubber is the batting. Against New Zealand, the top order was shown up as brittle, lacking technical aptitude to cope with the conditions, as well as grit, determination, patience. After heroic displays against Australia last season when the Indians won from a near-impossible situation with a rag-and-bobtail side, the abject surrender to New Zealand was surprising to say the least.
Conditions in England, especially in the first half of the summer, are never easy for batting. But this is where class and experience count heavily. New Zealand showed that through the batting of Williamson in both innings, and particularly in the sterling century partnership with Ross Taylor in the second which took his team home through choppy waters.
India’s much-vaunted batting fared disastrously against the swing and seam of Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and Kylie Jamieson. So much so that many former England players who had virtually written off their own team for the Test series, now actually fancy winning it.
Former captain Alastair Cook, who finished his career with a memorable century in his last Test against India in 2018, told BBC Test Match Special in a podcast, “Yes, they (India) are a world class batting unit, but their big weakness is the ball that nips around. You always fancy your chances against them.’’
Cook would know. He was part of England’s team for India’s last three Test series in that country. The score-line for India in those rubbers reads 0-4 (21011), 1-3 (2014), 1-4 (2018). These are unflattering – if not embarrassing stats – which carry in them the big problem India has generally faced in England.
While the whitewash in 2011 was because both the batting and bowling failed (with the exception of Rahul Dravid), in 2014 and particularly in 2018 (with Kohli the exception this time), it was primarily of the inadequacies of the batsmen to adjust their technique to conditions where bowlers got pronounced swing and seam movement.
The weather usually improves in the second half of the English summer, the sun is out more often, wickets play truer and spinners come into play. But this is England, remember, so fast bowlers will always get some assistance, and the Indian batsmen will have to be prepared for this onus.
Losing Gill is a blow because of the rich promise he holds out, but need not be very damaging with Mayank Agarwal and K L Rahul, both greater experience at the international level, available in the squad. It is how the more accomplished batsmen in the top order, the big stars, fare that is the bigger concern.
Rohit Sharma was the batting hero of the 2019 World Cup slamming 5 centuries but is largely untested as an opener in the five-day format in England. He had modest success in the WTC final and as the senior partner in the opening pair, has his task cut out.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are veterans in the side and will be expected to pull their weight with greater impact than they did in the match against New Zealand. Both have middling records in England, but for this series will have to step up a notch if the team has to get a winning thrust.
Kohli’s record in England is the most impressive among current Indian batsmen. In 2014, he was reduced to an anxiousness and technical errors by the likes of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, scoring only 134 runs in 10 innings. In 2018, lessons learnt, he was in rampaging form, scoring 593 runs to lay claim to being the best batsman in the world.
Kohli started off the WTC final impressively, but failed to play a big knock in either innings which could have led India to a draw if not a win. The fact that the team tumbled in both innings after his dismissal shows how crucial Kohli’s wicket is likely to be in the series against England.
India are blessed with three all-rounders (Rishabh Pant, R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja), but the tail is long and rarely wags. The bowling can’t be faulted. In fact, it is the biggest factor in India’s successes over the past 4-5 years. Even in the WTC final, the bowlers did everything that was expected of them.
Even the best bowling unit, though, needs adequate runs to defend. India’s batsmen haven’t been able to do this with any degree of consistency overseas, particularly in England. It is imperative that the top 5 make substantial contributions in the series coming up if the results are to be different.
Some mighty reputations are at stake.
(This piece was written before ECB confirmed One Practice Match)