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Third seamer, sloppy slip and more: learnings and conundrums for India

Last updated on 02 Jun 2023 | 01:55 PM
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Third seamer, sloppy slip and more: learnings and conundrums for India

India have had the opportunity to test the water in England more recently than Australia, but have they learnt a thing?

India’s journey to the World Test Championship final hasn't been the easiest. They have huffed and puffed their way to The Oval, and in multiple Tests during the WTC season, there were signs that they lacked in a few areas. The worrying thing is that it wasn’t a one-off incident; rather, a pattern.

But India have an advantage, the advantage of having played in England more recently. Not just that, the Men in Blue were also the side which played in the 2021 edition of the WTC final. The question remains: have India learnt from their past mistakes? 

What’s with the third seamer, India?

One of the significant aspects that has hurt India’s chances in the past away from home has been their conundrum with the third seamer. In the 2021 WTC final in Southampton, Mohammed Shami was the third seamer, and he was a vital cog in the Indian setup, picking up wickets whenever India needed one.

In the first innings against New Zealand, Shami got four crucial wickets in a phase where the Kiwis went from 134/4 to 249 all-out. On that occasion, they used him as an aggressive option, which paid off. 

However, come to the one-off Test against England later, it was Mohammed Siraj who was the third-seamer option, with Shardul as the fourth. Siraj picked up four wickets in the first innings before losing control in the second, where he gave away 98 runs in 15 overs without picking a single wicket. In an Indian outfit without Jasprit Bumrah, Siraj now becomes the second pacer on paper for India. 

That leaves India with two options: Shardul, Jaydev Unadkat or Umesh Yadav as the third seamer. In that case, Shardul provides a batting edge but then comes an asterisk, an economy of 3.5, went at nearly an economy of 6.9 in the one-off clash against England. Neither did he provide India with the control, nor did he provide them with the wickets, which makes it an extremely risky proposition. 

Unadkat a natural left-arm angle and Umesh’s experience and pace, alongside the ability to reverse the ball in case the pitch at The Oval becomes flatter. Hence, the usage of the third seamer and the role definition becomes even more important than ever, considering the gravitas of the occasion. 

A lot of onus on India’s top-order

India’s top-order has been under the microscope for a while now. Be it Rohit Sharma, Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara or even Virat Kohli, their inconsistent form with the bat has been a major concern. To put that into perspective, India’s top-order (1-3) averaged 34.7 with the bat, behind the likes of Pakistan, New Zealand, Sri Lanka and Australia. 

Those numbers include the ones at home. But if you consider the games away from home, India’s top-order average goes a little lower at 33, only the fourth-best in the world. But that’s not really where the issue lies. 

The issue lies in India’s run-rate away from home, and that in the past, including the WTC final, has hurt them big time. India score at 2.5 RPO away from home, and it would not only require India to bat long but bat big at The Oval, where conditions are flatter than all other venues in the country. Otherwise, they are in big trouble.

Kill the game

The highly repeated pattern of India’s struggle over the last year has been the inability to kill the game. Be it with the bat or with the ball, India have failed to press on from the advantage and take the game by the scruff of its neck. In the WTC final, New Zealand were 162/6, and India were firmly in the driver’s seat in the contest. 

But India, with a chance to bowl the Kiwis out cheaply, ended up leaking runs to the bowlers. Kyle Jamieson scored 21, Tim Southee 30 in the first innings, which later came back to haunt India.

Since 2021, barring South Africa, every team’s tail-enders (8-11) average more than 18 against India’s bowling unit. Australia have taken advantage of that, averaging 25.3 with the bat against India. It happened again in the away series against Bangladesh, where their tail-enders averaged 40.3 with the bat, only losing a wicket every 73rd ball. 

Even in the one-off Test against England, India failed to kill the game in the second innings, where they already had a lead of 132 runs. In the second innings, all they could manage was 245 after finding themselves comfortable in the position of 153/3 before succumbing to just 245. Naturally, a few extra runs would have pushed the target past the 400-run mark, which could have been daunting. But in the end, the Three Lions chased it down without breaking a sweat. 

In short, the Indian bowling unit averages 32.1 in the fourth innings of a Test, only behind Bangladesh, New Zealand and Ireland. The need to kill a game has to come with the combination of both bat and ball. 

Sloppy slip fielding

Fielding will play a major role in the WTC final, for India’s slip-fielding has come under the scanner multiple times in the past. Of players who have played outside Asia in the current WTC cycle, Virat Kohli has the most drop catches in slip (3), with a catch-efficiency of 72.3%. But India’s skipper Rohit has the worst catch efficiency for anyone in the Indian outfit, with 50%. 

Of the four catches, the right-hander has dropped two and held two. Cheteshwar Pujara, however, is a safe bet at the slips, with only one drop catch and a catch efficiency of 75. It will require India to assign the correct fielder in the correct position, or else dropped catches will end up hurting them the most. 

Second spinner, defensive or attacking?

At home, it is impossible to go past the Indian management using the three-man spin attack of Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel. But when it comes to games away from home, there exists a problem. Do they pick two spinners or just the one spinner who happens to be an all-rounder? 

This cycle, Indian spinners have averaged 48.7 with the ball, striking only once in 113.4 balls, which is the worst for any team in SENA countries. In fact, across 15 innings, the Indian spinners have picked up only 11 wickets, which also is the third-worst in world cricket during the same time frame. 

But there’s this exciting aspect around Indian spinners away from home; they only give away runs at an economy rate of 2.6, the joint-lowest for any team in SENA. That’s where the management will have a decision to make. Are the spin options defensive ones, or are they going to be used as an attacking options?

To give context, the Indian spinners at home average 18.4 and have picked up 108 wickets, a stark difference from the numbers they have away from it. If Ashwin and Jadeja are to play together in the WTC final, India will have to figure out and identify their roles to perfection because playing defensive isn’t yielding results.

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