India needs to address the failed middle order

India needs to address the failed middle order

In hindsight, and all autopsies have the benefit of hindsight, had it not been for possibly the best batting day of the series, the first day of the first Test, India might have finished the three-Test match against South Africa in a worst position. Awakened by KL Rahul’s century, they had gone to the stumps at 272/3, which quickly became 327 when play resumed on the third morning.

In the second inning at Centurion, 109/4 led to 174 overall. In Johannesburg, 116/4 would become 202 in the first inning and 155/2 would become 266 in the second. In Cape Town, 116/3 dropped to 223 overall in the early innings, and for a final, decisive time in the series, they went from 152/4 to 198 overall in the second dig. No border of any kind, let alone a final one, can be crossed with so many collective stumbles along the way.

“The hitting has let us down the last two games when we needed to step up, and there’s no getting away from that… That’s why we ended up losing both test games, because we collectively lost too many wickets in one session. . We’ve also done it a few times in the past,” captain Virat Kohli said after the series fell 1-2 at Newlands.

Looking at it by batting position, you can’t miss too much in the opening combination. Rahul followed up his century with a fifty in Johannesburg and looked the most confident of the Indian batsmen. Mayank Agarwal lasted long enough to provide some useful starts. But he will always struggle to play longer innings in these conditions with a tendency to square off and push forward with heavy hands. In any case, it is not part of the first choice opening combination at this time.

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In all likelihood, the time has come to finally address the elephant in the room: the failed middle order full of veterans.

Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. (Reuters)

If there was one glaring difference between the two sides, it was at No. 3. Keegan Petersen got better and better as the series reached its climax. Three fluid half centuries, two of them in the decider, and an important 28 that set the tone for the chase in Wanderers, came off his sword.

Contrasting fortunes

South Africa averaged 38.16 at No. 3. India managed 19.66. Starting from their previous tour of South Africa, in the last four years, India’s No. 3 position has averaged 32.83, which is seventh among all test teams. India’s No. 3 hit rate of 39 is, of course, right at the bottom of the table. An argument needs to be made here that some of the other teams may have started moving forward with a more resourceful No. 3 that propels the game forward.

Cheteshwar Pujara has been one of India’s best batsmen, but if India doesn’t use the upcoming Tests at home against Sri Lanka to test someone else at No. 3, it will be a missed opportunity. There is little to be achieved now if Pujara leads another ill-fated attack in local conditions.

Pujara and Rahane Both Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara were unable to make strong cases in the series against New Zealand. (Archive)

However, Ajinkya Rahane at home has more often than not been a disappointment, so again the question for the coaches will be whether there is anything to be gained by shutting out another deserving youngster against Sri Lanka. His boy-on-deck style on fire abroad ended with two poor drink choices at Centurion, and then South Africa fixed it with a few peaches.

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Half a century each in 16 innings on such a big tour is clearly not what a No. 1 team should expect from its top three hitters, even if one points to the permanence of class and the transience of form. They kept Hanuma Vihari out for a year after his exploits in Sydney, and in the only game he got at Wanderers due to Kohli’s injury, he batted superbly off the tail to make an unbeaten 40 and drag India to 266. Neither did he’s the only deserving hitter kept out.

Kohli was noncommittal about the future, saying it was up to the selectors to take the call, but also reiterated his support for Pujara and Rahane. “I can’t sit here and talk about what’s going to happen in the future. You have to talk to the selectors, what they have in mind,” Kohli said. “This is not my job.

“I will say it again, we will continue to support Cheteshwar and Ajinkya for the kind of players they are, what they have done in Test cricket for India over the years. They played crucial shots in the second test, you saw that important partnership in the second inning. These are the kind of performances that we recognize as a team.”

Long lean patch

Going to the man himself, were he not the Test captain, 12 successive dismissals abroad bordering on the wicketkeeper or slips would surely have raised many more eyebrows. He’s tried everything except avoiding the cover unit, but it hasn’t worked. The fact that he doesn’t cut or strike much with his back foot makes him more difficult if the opposition runs dry.

The 29th of 143 in Cape Town also went against his own oft-repeated principle of showing intent and not allowing the opposition to rise to the top. At the moment, no one knows how exactly Kohli is going to work on some much-needed big scores.

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Virat Kohli has endured a rough patch. (Archive)

As Kohli went through abnegation, Rishabh Pant was playing one outrageous shot after another. He now has Test hundreds in Australia, England, India and South Africa, and it may not be popular to say this, but before the Cape Town upset, Pant had scored 86 runs in five innings on tour.

The five-player strategy places much more hitting responsibility on the goaltender. And while Pant will continue to play otherworldly hits from time to time, he’s going to have to be more consistent in the middle if he hits at No. 6. There’s no way a team can post competitive totals if Nos. 3 through 5 can’t get. runs and the No. 6 gets them from time to time, no matter how unconventionally or aggressively he gets them.

A similar reasoning applies to the lower-middle order. Ravichandran Ashwin and Shardul Thakur averaged 15 and 10 with the bat in South Africa. One can label them as all-rounders, but it doesn’t make sense if they’re going to go out and play drive-by shots when the situation calls for discretion. It was especially jarring when they did that with Pant in full motion on the other end. It is fair to say that India lost Ravindra Jadeja with the bat.

India always gets away with these shortcomings of batting at home. But if the coaches don’t take this opportunity to tackle some of them, starting with the Sri Lanka Tests, India may have to pay with more missed opportunities abroad.

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