India haven’t gone on a tour of England with the kind of man-to-man advantage over the home side in a very long time. A lot of it has to do with England’s flaky batting pitted against India’s fast bowling arsenal. But few would have thought India’s own middle-order, comprising Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane – all having played over 75 Test matches – would become grounds for conceding some of that advantage. That’s how meagre their returns have been for the last year-and-a-half.
In the ongoing Lord’s Test for example, where KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma gave a masterclass of scoring in seam-friendly English conditions, India’s middle order crumbled yet again. It was down to Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja to do the rescue act, an all-so-familiar pattern by now. In 2020-21 India have played in some tough batting conditions, in a diverse spread from New Zealand to Australia, England and at home on dusty turning tracks. But they have found batsmen who have discovered ways to score runs.
From Sharma (avg 47.78), who until three years ago didn’t know if he was ever going to crack Test cricket, to Pant (41.82) who continues to redesign Test match batting modules and from Jadeja (45.60) batting at No 7 to Rahul (79.66) who wasn’t even going to start the series, India have found runs from unexpected quarters.
The famed middle order’s scoring graph has nosedived in 2020-21, and 13 Test matches give a fair idea if that’s just a blip in form or something more technical and mental. Pujara is averaging 25.09 during this period, Kohli 24.18 and Rahane 25.76. That’s a sharp decline from where they were before 2020–Pujara averaged close to 50, Kohli 54.97 and Rahane 43.74. These numbers suggest Kohli’s struggles are just as acute as the other two. But in Kohli’s case, not only is he the captain and foremost batsman of the side, but he has also played some innings with high batting control percentage. Like the first innings of the Adelaide Test (74), two Tests in Chennai (72 and 62) against England and in the first innings of the World Test Championship final (44) against New Zealand. At Lord’s too, he was shaping up well with his 42.
Also, if you go further back in time, Kohli’s numbers improve significantly from the 2018 tour, making all the technical adjustments to succeed in England. Pujara and Rahane (despite a decent tour in 2014), however, haven’t been consistent. Both are averaging in the mid-twenties. When you put them in context with the two all-time leading run-scorers for India in England – Sachin Tendulkar (avg 54.31) and Rahul Dravid (68.80) – even Sourav Ganguly averages 65 – it shows the current crop of middle-order batsmen have fallen well short of the benchmarks set in facing the Dukes ball.
It’s worrying that in Pujara’s case, his struggles have been against different forms of bowling. Jack Leach’s left-arm-spin caught him at the crease once too often in India while he has come woefully short against swing, both in New Zealand and in England. Pujara’s best performance continues to be in Australia. In Rahane’ case, things become worse when you consider that he’s had 17 scores below 40 in 22 innings. Even his pattern of dismissals has been varied – from chasing wide deliveries in England to getting bowled through the gate to Anderson at home and getting out to uncharacteristic pulls against Neil Wagner.
It’s because of this dodgy form of the middle order that Suryakumar Yadav and Prithvi Shaw have been summoned to England. India also have Mayank Agarwal and Hanuma Vihari waiting to get a look in. But for the likes of Pujara and Rahane, at 33, comebacks don’t come easy. It’s a moment of truth for both of them, and an equally critical call for India to make if things go south from here.