India must fix their misfiring top order to trouble England on home turf
The batsman who fancies himself as the best in the business and one of the greatest of all-time has not scored a century in nearly two years. It was at Eden Gardens in November 2019 when Virat Kohli last reached three figures in any form of the game, a typically immaculate 136 lighting up India’s inaugural pink-ball Test match as they crushed Bangladesh by an innings inside three days.
Kohli will have five Test matches against England starting at Trent Bridge on Wednesday to set the record straight and while a lot rests on the runs that flow from his bat, so much more depends on his leadership. Especially in selection of those who will do battle alongside him.
As captain, and more than that the supremo in the India setup, the decisions Kohli makes before the first ball is bowled will determine the outcome of the series. When England toured India this year, they were comprehensively outplayed, leading to a 3-1 result that set India on the path to the World Test Championship final. But those who watched that series closely will know that the scoreline does not tell the full story.
After being ambushed in the first Test, India were forced to scrap, in spin-friendly conditions, to get the results in their favour. At multiple points during that series, one session of superior England batting would have turned the tide. One hour longer of fight would have left India in the lurch.
England were also severely hamstrung by their selection, compounded by the rest and rotation policy in place at the time, which has subsequently been scrapped. At no point did it feel like England had their best XI on the park.
In home conditions, India had the leeway that allowed them to win even when it required Ravichandran Ashwin scoring a century at No 8. Ashwin is an eternal optimist and will believe he can rack up similar scores in England. However, the fact this is even being spoken about is a reflection of the problems in India’s top order.
Shubman Gill, who would have opened with Rohit Sharma, is now back home, with a stress injury to his shin. The India thinktank in England asked for Prithvi Shaw to replace him – despite having Mayank Agarwal (who is out of the first Test after being hit on the head in the nets), KL Rahul and Abhimanyu Easwaran, all openers in their jumbo squad. The request was initially declined by the selectors but subsequently approved, though Covid-19 quarantine protocols mean Shaw will only be available from the third Test onwards.
That the team even asked for Shaw, who has been more miss than hit at international level, reveals the uncertainty in their plans. This stems in part from Kohli’s lack of big scores in Tests in the recent part, but also because their faith is dwindling in their two bankers in the top order. It is no secret that Ajinkya Rahane, despite being vice-captain, is playing for his place every time he goes out to bat. And that Cheteshwar Pujara, the rock around which this batting lineup operates, is questioned for his lack of intent.
Rahane’s case is most curious. In Kohli’s absence, he led India to a stunning and historic win in Australia last year, beginning the revival with 112 in Melbourne after the team had folded for 36 in the Adelaide pink-ball Test. Since then, he has scored 27no, 22, 4, 37, 24, 1, 0, 67, 10, 7, 27, 49 and 15.
Throughout his career, Rahane has played innings of tremendous worth in the toughest conditions, but he is a rare Indian batsman who does not seem to be able to get on a roll. Each time he bats out of his skin this is followed by a run of low scores. Even at home, he has been unable to take one big innings and convert it into a run that statisticians could count as dominance.
As for Pujara, his value should be obvious. Like the fire extinguisher that sits in your home unused until disaster strikes, his contributions come in crisis situations. The rest of the time his batting appears pedestrian, although it is far from that.
In 86 Tests Pujara averages a sound 46.08 but in England against England this dips to 29.41, with 500 runs from nine Tests and a solitary hundred. These are not the returns to be satisfied with by an India No 3. However, if Pujara should be put under pressure, it should come from the opposition bowling, not from within his own team.
Just as England erred with team selection when they were in India, the potential for India to return the favour seems ripe. Since they lost the World Test Championship final against New Zealand at the end of June, five weeks will have passed by the time the umpires call play at Trent Bridge on Wednesday.
India’s players have not been home since but they have also been out of the team environment and bubble. What they were up to in that time is largely unknown, save for Instagram posts some of the players put out taking in the action from Wimbledon or the Euros.
The India team, more and more these days, like to operate from a bubble, isolated from the wider world. This works brilliantly when they are winning. It is the opposite when they are losing. But this may be the first time they have been in a world of their own when not playing.
Exactly what this will lead to in terms of thought processes and results is hard to predict. But if England bat half decently, the results could go against India and very easily end a few a careers. But that is a big if in these very uncertain times.