Put in to bat first at Lord’s, India did well, posting a solid 364 in the first innings of the second Test. But the devil lies in the detail. 212 runs out of the team’s total came from the two openers. Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja, batting at No 6 and No 7, together contributed 77. And only 52 came from the famed middle-order (No 3 to No 5) of Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane.
In fact, this is the second consecutive time in the series that the trio has failed to build on the good first innings work from the openers. At Nottingham, they contributed nine runs together — the lowest ever they managed in the first innings of a Test.
Now, it’s not a new issue plaguing India. The poor form of the middle-order has been a concern for a while. Pujara since the start of 2020 has 552 runs to his name in 13 Tests at an average of 25.09. Kohli has scored 387 runs in 10 matches at an average of 24.18. Rahane has mustered 541 runs in 13 Test matches at 25.76.
Pujara has managed only five fifties since the start of 2020. His last century came in January 2019. Kohli has managed just three fifties. Rahane has one fifty and one century.
Three of the best middle-order batsmen in the world producing runs at an average of mid-20s is simply not acceptable if the aim is to win big series overseas. There’s still a lot of time left in the series for the trio to bounce back, given their capabilities one would think there are high chances of it happening, but if it doesn’t happen it will become the difference between India winning the series in England and drawing or losing it.
The 126-run partnership between openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul in Lord’s Test was India’s first century opening partnership in a Test outside Asia since 2010. It’s a rarity that our openers are giving us runs. But if they are to fail in the next match, one cannot be certain the middle-order would stand up and bail India out.
It’s not just poor form that they are fighting against. There’s a bigger technical flaw leading to their downfall in the series so far.
Pujara and Rahane have looked unsure in the middle. All three of them in the first innings of Lord’s Test got out in the slip cordon trying to poke at the fourth-stump line deliveries. Pujara and Kohli got out in the same fashion in the first Test as well. They have been uncertain of their off-stump’s location, stabbing at balls that they should have ideally let go of.
“…if you see Pujara’s dismissal, there was no feet movement – both the feet were together and the back leg didn’t cover the off-stump – and once you do that, you are always playing with the hands, and exposing that outside edge,” VVS Laxman told ESPNcricinfo dissecting the dismissal of Pujara and Rahane.
“The disappointing factor is that this is not the first time he has got out like this – in the last two years, against fast bowlers, he has got out in a very similar pattern. That is something that will disappoint Pujara.”
“With Rahane there’s a technical issue and also an eagerness to score because you know that you have got a string of low scores behind. In Nottingham also, he was restless and got run out. And today you saw very very tentative footwork, and whenever you’re indecisive, you’re always reaching out for the ball, especially when you’re not high in confidence. That’s exactly what has happened in Rahane’s case,” Laxman added.
Kohli, despite his prolonged poor form, can be exempted from immediate scrutiny for obvious reasons, but the same cannot be said about Pujara or Rahane, because putting up runs on board is their sole duty in the Indian team. And currently, they are failing miserably at it. It’s not as if they have not been given chances, and maybe the solution lies in them going back to the basics, hitting the nets and ironing out the flaws.
The India captain had thrown his weight behind the struggling Pujara and Rahane ahead of the Lord’s Test, saying that collective contribution is important and individual form is not a concern for the management.
“I do not think that is an area of concern. Our basic focus is not to think about where are people individually at the moment, collectively how much strength they bring into the team is our focus. As a batting unit, we are looking to perform in difficult conditions so that we are in winning positions and someone is going to put their hand up every game,” Kohli had said.
But the collective contribution of 52 from the middle-order, in which Kohli alone scored 42, is not the sort of return that would put the team in winning positions. And Kohli would be forced into making tough decisions if Pujara and Rahane fail once again in the second innings
If one of the best off-spinners of all time, Ravichandran Ashwin, can be made to sit out for the sake of a winning combination, there’s nothing that should stop the team management from wielding the axe on under-performing batsmen.