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For India, there is no easy way out of this middle-order mess

Last updated on 28 Aug 2021 | 04:34 PM
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For India, there is no easy way out of this middle-order mess

There is a case for Pujara and Rahane to be dropped, but doing so will not guarantee success

It was as if India woke up and chose to re-enact Day 6 of the World Test Championship final. With not a single cloud in sight, Leeds did its best to mimic the June 23 avatar of Southampton. And falling to the bait, as if they were stuck in a simulation, India produced an encore.

Like in Southampton, Pujara and Kohli walked out to bat with the sun belting down. The words ‘beautiful conditions for batting’ were being uttered everywhere. ‘It could be a long day for the bowlers’ was also another cliche that was being thrown around. All that the two senior batters needed to do was get through the first hour’s play unscathed. If nothing, digging in for 15 overs would have, at the very least, frustrated the bowlers.

But as if they were overly keen to head back to their hotel rooms to watch Manchester City demolish a 10-man Arsenal, India surrendered without putting up a fight. The game was done and dusted inside 20 overs of Day 4; the impersonation of Day 6 of the WTC Final was complete.

There is one Talking Point that has been a constant in each of India’s defeats in the past 18 months, so let us address the elephant in the room - the experienced middle-order. Today, as it has in the past year and a half, it looked concerningly hopeless. That the English seamers ran through it, even in conditions that aided batting, came as no surprise. 

One or two bad performances can be brushed under the carpet, but Kohli, Pujara and Rahane have been guilty of consistently letting the team down for a year and a half. 

Kohli once again flattered to deceive while Rahane, staying true to the stereotype that he cannot string together two big knocks to save his life, predictably nicked one to the keeper as soon as the pressure got to him. 

And, harsh as it may sound, Pujara, despite notching up 91, ultimately failed to do his job by not adding to his overnight score. 

All three are averaging under 28 since February 2020 so it would be naive to term it just ‘a bad day at the office’ or say that they ‘made bad decisions’. To put it bluntly,  Pujara and Rahane have become liabilities. And maybe even Kohli too.

But where the problem lies for India, though, is that there is no easy way out of this mess. Not until the end of this series, anyway. 

Dropping Pujara and Rahane will not guarantee better results

First, let’s get something straight: Kohli is going nowhere. He is the skipper and the heartbeat of the side and though there is a statistically strong argument for him to be dropped or rested, he is going nowhere. That is the reality.

So let’s shift our attention to Pujara and Rahane, then.

Pujara and Rahane have been serial under-performers for a long time and there is no two ways about it. Rahane, in his last 48 Tests (dating back to November 2016) has averaged 33.77 while Pujara, across his last 21 Tests, is averaging 28.65. That they still remain untouchable is partly due to their reputation and partly because they seem to do ‘just enough’ to warrant a place in the side (case in point Pujara’s 91 in the third Test and Rahane’s 61 at Lord’s). 

Both these batters, despite showcasing glimpses of their brilliance every now and then, seem to have lost their ability to contribute consistently and keep the team’s batting core indomitable. 

If they do get dropped for the next Test at Oval, neither can complain. Rahane, especially - he averages 19.00 this series. The problem India have is that the alternatives they have are by no means a massive upgrade.

The most likely candidate to replace Rahane (or Pujara) is Hanuma Vihari, whose last outing in an Indian shirt was the epic at Sydney. But it is worth remembering that Vihari himself is a batsman with limitations who has had a middling start to his Test career. 

In 12 Tests thus far Vihari has averaged 32.84, but this number drops to 20.93 in 10 Tests if you remove the outing against West Indies. He was a part of a brittle middle-order that was bullied by the New Zealand bowlers last year, and he averages under 30 in the three SENA countries in which he’s played.

His display at the SCG was undoubtedly heroic, but Vihari still averaged a mere 18 in 5 innings in that series against the Aussies. Not to mention, his stint with Warwickshire too was anything but fruitful: across six innings he averaged 16.66, posting four single-digit scores. Shoe-horning him in for Rahane cannot be termed an upgrade.

The other two alternatives are left-field options in the form of Mayank Agarwal and Suryakumar Yadav and picking either of them would be a ‘hail mary’ move. 

The last time Agarwal played Test cricket, he looked like a sitting duck against Australia, and evidence from the warm-up game against County XI - where he was bowled through the gate by Lydon James - suggested that his technical flaws are still there to be exploited. He also has played only twice before in the middle-order. 

Suryakumar Yadav is a more enticing option but with him, you are essentially hoping that he translates white-ball form into Tests, like Rahul, Bairstow and Dawid Malan. Unlike any of the three aforementioned batters, however, Suryakumar has not played a single red-ball game at the highest level; he has no prior experience to go back to. 

All this does not mean that neither of them deserve to be tried; the green nature of the Indian bench is no reason for Pujara and Rahane to retain their places. The underlying point here is that dropping Rahane and Pujara alone will not solve India’s problems. There is every chance that even if the two senior men are axed at The Oval, India could endure a similar collapse.  

There is no immediate or short-term fix

Really, there is no short term solution to India’s middle-order woes. Unless one of Kohli, Pujara or Rahane magically summon their peak selves, or unless a newcomer overperforms, India will continue to endure middle-order troubles in the final two Tests and the rest of the year. 

There is, however, a long term fix - and that is to start grooming middle-order batsmen. For all the talk of India boasting enviable depth, there are simply not enough middle-order batters in the circuit who are Test-match ready. The country is spoilt for choice when it comes to top-order options and fast bowlers in red-ball cricket, but that is simply not the case with respect to middle-order batsmen.

Iyer is the closest candidate but he has not played any red-ball cricket since February 2019. Karun Nair has waned away, as have Manish Pandey and Vijay Shankar. In the 2019/20 season of Ranji Trophy - the last red-ball season in the country - Sarfaraz Khan was the only middle-order batsman outside of the bottom two divisions to feature among the Top 8 run-getters. 

The complete shutdown of red-ball cricket in the country - owing to the pandemic -  has not helped, but it was not like India had a host of middle-order options at the start of 2020, either.

The question ‘why’ India don’t have enough Test-match-ready middle-order batsmen requires a deep delve, but on the surface, two reasons can be pointed out. One, the shift to the five-bowler strategy under Kohli (at home) has meant there has been no space to fit in an extra young batsman and give him exposure, and two, Pujara and Rahane almost never getting injured (and always doing enough to hold a place) has meant that there has been no space for fresh faces to get a look-in. 

Throw in the fact of the captain being a middle-order batsman as well, and you have had a core that has remained unbroken for half a decade.

Ironically, the very same continuity is what is hurting India now. Had the form of one of Rahane or Pujara drastically fallen off a cliff sometime in the past four years, the management would have had the opportunity to try multiple batsmen, which would in turn have made them Test-ready. But that never happened. And now the worst nightmares have come true as the entire core has declined together, with there being no alternatives ready to take the mantle over.

The transition will be long, and India will have to admit it. But that is not their immediate concern. For the time being, they will have to live with the fact that there is no magic solution to the middle-order mess they find themselves in. How effectively they deal with the terrible card they’ve been dealt with will decide the fate of this series. 

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