If there were only one team who could get past India in India, it had to be Australia.
No. This is not a conclusion drawn from the benefit of hindsight after India’s loss in the Indore Test. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy of 2017 was fiercely contested on even terms, and Australia came agonizingly close to beating India in Bengaluru, which could have sealed the series in their favor. In 2023, they had the resources to pull the brakes, and they did in a stunning fashion in Indore to seal a place in the WTC final.
Most of India’s wins in the last 10 years in home conditions have been orchestrated by their batters’ mastery in playing the spinners and the spinners’ mastery to not let any opposition batter dictate the course of the game. But looking at the way they surrendered in Indore told a very different story.
Batters’ dwindling returns against spin
Indian top and middle order boast the likes of Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, and Shreyas Iyer. These four are as good as it gets in any conditions, but the recent stories don’t paint a rosy picture. Especially for Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. The pattern has been so stinking that you would argue that it would be wise to drop both batters for someone fresher.
In 20 Tests since January 2021, Kohli averages 26.82 with five half-centuries. In the last 13 innings, he doesn’t even have a single half-century to show against his name. Surely, he looked good in patches - like in the first innings of the Indore Test - but the dire run of form is so prolonged that nothing other than a string of big scores could save him going forward.
That he has a distinctive body of work and showed signs of his old avatar in limited-overs cricket made Virat Kohli the sustainable force, but the lack of assertiveness in his prodding and a definitive sense of struggle against spinners would count against him.
Then comes Pujara. His defensive techniques are tight, but on wickets where every ball seems like a war against luck, the defence could only take you so far. It needs to be backed by runs, and Pujara has found himself wanting in that regard.
In my previous column, I argued how Pujara’s ability to make amends in the second innings should be celebrated a little more, but Test matches are not only won in one innings. Collective reinforcements are needed, and India strongly lack that at this moment. Hence, the Indore loss is a predicament waiting to be explored on a day the team found negligible runs from Ashwin, Jadeja, and Axar’s bats. Talk about a bigger disappointment!
Spinners trying too much
In the 2020-21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Ravichandran Ashwin found a lot of success by employing a leg slip against Aussie right-handers, and that caused a lot of nuisance for them. Not a lot of bowlers understand the Indian conditions better, but Ashwin going about his business in Indore without employing a leg slip, that too while bowling a defensive length begged questions about the tactics of the team.
On the first day, after bundling out for 109, Indian bowlers tried to do too much without asking probing questions. That also brings certain calls made by Rohit Sharma to the fore. With the wicket offering variable bouncer, not bringing Umesh Yadav to the attack frequently, and holding back Axar Patel, whose accurate lines could have been the key, proved to be decisive.
The Pitch factor
Historically Indian pitches tend to support the batters on the first two days and then flatten out as it goes along. But in the last couple of years, especially from the second Test against England in Chennai, India have preferred to prepare turning tracks that could kill the contest faster.
While there’s nothing wrong with taking home advantage, it has now worked against India’s favour. With Indian batters showing complete vulnerability against spin, a side with decent spinners could cause problems, as Australia did. Pune 2017, Bengaluru 2017, Indore 2023 and umpteen chances in between, India have had to rely on their spinners to do the heavy lifting.
It is futile and unnecessary because Indian spinners are anyway good enough to put the opposition in a spot on traditional Indian wickets.
“It is not always about making sure we are playing on flat pitches, and results don’t come your way. Pakistan, there were Test matches there and people said it was boring, We are making it interesting for you guys,” Rohit said in the post-match press conference, but the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.
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