Parking the bus
“That [Poor batting display] has got to do with partly good bowling from New Zealand and partly us not pressing that momentum on to them when required”. This is not the first time when the Indian skipper, Virat Kohli, has expressed, in no vague words, his feelings about the defensive mindset of some Indian batsmen.
An approach that works well on flatter wickets was a suicide mission at the Basin Reserve in the first Test. In all likelihood, it will be the same at the Hagley Oval in the second Test. With assistance for bowlers throughout the day in windy conditions and a green top, a wicket ball is right around the corner. With no attempt of a release shot or an emphasis on pinching a single, the batsmen are stuck at the crease for long with no telling contributions at the end.
The same problem possessed India earlier in South Africa in 2018, then in England in the same year and now in the first Test against New Zealand. A lot of the batsman in the middle-order focus on blocking the bowlers when it swings and seams until a ball with their name on it arrives.
There is a general consensus that Cheteshwar Pujara is an ultra-defensive player. With a strike-rate of 37.6 in SENA countries since 2016, the hypothesis calls for no disagreement. While his approach of wearing down the ball and the bowlers worked in flat wickets in Australia last year, his struggles on spicy wickets continue.
In the first innings at the Basin Reserve, Pujara hit 11 runs off 42 balls when he received a peach from Kyle Jamieson. In the second innings, he scored the same number of runs, only this time in 81 balls before he shouldered arms to an innocuous incoming delivery from Trent Boult from around the wicket right at the stroke of Tea on the third day. With the conditions relatively easier to bat then, Pujara played out a passage when he scored no runs in 28 deliveries and just 2 in 41.
While the management and analysts have articulated Pujara’s approach well, India’s vice-captain, Ajinkya Rahane, has flown under the radar.
Rahane’s strike-rate of 43 is not much better than Pujara’s in SENA countries. In the first Test, Rahane scored 19 runs off 34 balls in the first session of the first day. However, instead of continuing the momentum, Rahane went into a shell and added just 19 runs in 88 balls at a strike-rate of 21.6 in the second session. What makes matters worse is that Hanuma Vihari, India’s overseas specialist has a strike-rate of 33.9 in SENA countries.
“You will start doubting that if even singles are not coming in those conditions, what will you do? You are just waiting for when that good ball will come and you will be dismissed”, Kohli made his frustrations crystal clear about the approach of these batsmen.
With the batsmen at 3, 5 and 6 focussing more on hoarding the strike then scoring runs, it has been largely impossible for India to shift the momentum and make the opposition bowlers try plan B, C, so on and so forth. Half of India’s top-order lack the approach (read “intent”) that the batsmen from Number 1 teams of the past possessed to counter such challenging conditions.
The Test Specialists
With an increase in the amount of cricket played every year, the role of format specialist players is to provide the defining impact. India have such players in Pujara, Rahane, Vihari, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ishant Sharma for Tests.
Test cricket for India has two separate pieces of the puzzle in itself. One piece is playing at home, that follows a pattern of batting long on friendly wickets and battering the opposition with a combination of spin and pace. It is the second piece, playing away Tests, where the role of the Test Specialists become more important.
While Pujara struggles with his strike-rotation, he still adorns an average of 41.9 in SENA countries since 2016. Same is not true for Rahane, who averages a mediocre 28.9 in the same period.
Being a number 5 batsmen often requires you to come to be not-out overnight and come back the next morning. Since 2017, in all Tests, Rahane has scored 24.2 runs on an average after coming in as an overnight batsman on 15 occasions. Even in the first Test, he added only eight and four to his overnight score. Often failing to carry on from last evening, he has scored only 3 centuries in 32 Tests during this period.
Ashwin is a weapon of mass destruction on turfs that offer assistance to him, but he has failed to deliver in unfamiliar conditions.
Since 2016, Ashwin has picked up 27 wickets in SENA countries. 20 of them have been of left-handed batsmen. Against right-handers, Ashwin has taken a wicket every 138.4 balls. As Kohli asked him to bowl the fifth over of the second new ball, it was clear that he is not in the side to hold an end up, like the New Zealand spinner and Colin de Grandhomme. However, with New Zealand seven wickets down and two right-handers in the middle, Kohli’s decision, questionable at that time, seems preposterous in the hindsight. Ashwin went for 38 runs off his next seven overs before being taken out of the attack. New Zealand’s number 9 and 11 scored more runs than individual contributions from 10 Indian batsmen in both innings.
“If we have lost then we have no shame in accepting that. It means we didn't play this game well. It doesn't mean that we have become a bad team overnight”. Yes, you do not. The real question here is that as the great Australian team of the 1990s and 2000s, does Kohli and the management possess the pragmatic ruthlessness while team selection? Indian cricket is spoilt for choices. In a competitive environment like team India’s, should the focus be on ensuring longer careers?
India’s slack planning hampered the team against a professional unit like the Kiwis. When the conditions were easier to bat in the second innings, the New Zealand bowlers had a plan B. Their pace trio successfully attempted to replicate Neil Wagner’s awkward angles. With the real Wagner back in the side for the second Test and thirsty for success, India cannot falter with their plans with the bat and ball in a must-win match.