After South Africa debacle, it’s time to reflect and correct India’s batting

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That’s the thing about good times. While they last, they make you ignore the warning signs and delay the necessary course-correcting actions — ‘if it’s not broken, why try to fix it?’ In the last five years, Indian men’s Test cricket team has seen a lot of success and a few failures. They won every Test series at home. Away, they won in Australia (twice), Sri Lanka, England (leading the unfinished series 2-1) and West Indies.

In the last five years, India have the second-best win-loss ratio of 1.875 — only behind New Zealand’s 2.500 — winning 30 of their 53 Tests. Their overseas record is best among all the teams with 14 wins and 13 losses in 30 Tests, a win-loss ratio of 1.076.

They spent 43 consecutive months at the top of the ICC rankings between October 2016 and April 2020 — second-best run by a team since the Test rankings were introduced in 2003.

Australia hold the record for staying No. 1 for 74 consecutive months. India are currently the No. 1 Test side. As proposed at the beginning, the ‘good times’ papered over the steady decline in returns from India’s batters. Whatever the success that India have had in the last five years, they largely owe it to the success of Indian bowlers — pacers when playing overseas and spinners at home.

Let’s have a look at how India’s batting average has gone down steadily over the years.

For the uninitiated, batting average is calculated by dividing the total number of runs scored by the total number of wickets fallen. As you can see in Table No. 1, India’s batting average calculated on the basis of their returns in the last five years is comfortably above the global average, a sign that Indian batters scored more runs per wicket than other teams. However, as we take out one year after another, the average keeps declining. It remains above the global average till 2019 but after that one can see a pronounced decline.

The biggest contributor to this steady decline has been the struggle of India’s middle-order batters — from No. 3 to 5. These are the positions where India’s three batting mainstays — Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane — usually bat, though with some exceptions. To build a successful Test team, strength of the middle-order is one of the most crucial factors and that’s where India have been lacking in the last three years.

Table No. 2 shows the sharp decline in the returns from India’s batters at No. 3 to 5. In the last five years, the average stands at 40.30, a good five points above the global average of 35.84. But it keeps falling as we reduce the number of years. It has gone below the global average in the last three years and the gap continues to grow.

In the last five years, the trio of Pujara, Kohli and Rahane together recorded 24 Test centuries. However, in the last two years, they collectively managed just one century — 112 by Rahane vs Australia in Melbourne.

This goes somewhat against what the Indian Test team has achieved in the last couple of years. They have beaten Australia in Australia, outplayed England in England and almost breached the final frontier in South Africa. How could they be so competitive in overseas conditions despite the clear struggles of their batting department? The answer lies in the rise of India’s bowling department. They always had the spinners to exploit home conditions. Now, they have frontline pacers as skillful as any in the history of the game and an overflowing bench strength to lend support.

In Table No. 3, you can see how Indian bowlers have had better average (runs per wicket) than the global bowling average in the last five years. They have consistently remained below the global average and that shows how they have carried the team on their shoulders.

In the last five years, Indian pacers have averaged 26.50, which is second only to South Africa’s 23.62, in the pace-friendly conditions of Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand and West Indies. They have mostly matched traditional fast-bowling powerhouses in their own backyards and sometimes even bettered them. For example, Indian pacers took 92 wickets at an average of 27.21 in eight Tests in Australia in the last five years, while Australia pacers took 89 at 29.29 in their home conditions.

This bowling-driven success has allowed the Indian team management to give longer ropes to some of their star batters. Pujara hasn’t scored a century in three years and averages only 27.38. Rahane has one Test century in two years but has averaged only 24.08. Kohli, the best all-round batter of the last decade, has also struggled and averaged only 28.14 in the last two years during which he failed to reach the three-figure mark even once.

However, the recent series loss against South Africa has brought these issues to the fore. The regular batting collapses that India suffered in South Africa weren’t an overnight phenomenon. In the past, their brilliant bowling was able to make up for those lapses. But not any longer, it seems.

The good times may well be over. Now is the time for some reflection and corrective action.



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