Cricket is all about narratives set by the media, the fans and the commentators. And Indian cricket is full of narratives because of the involvement of a vast fanbase. Although not all the narratives are false, a few of them absolutely are! Talking about Test cricket, one such narrative was India’s batting being ‘awful’ against the moving ball during the New Zealand series and ‘that’ collapse in Australia.
Now, one of the current narratives is regarding the recent form and returns of India’s ‘woeful’ middle-order. The concern is understandable.
Kohli averages 23 in Tests since 2020 . So, where are the hundreds?
Rahane also has just two 50+ scores including a century in his last 21 innings since 2020. Even Pujara is averaging 25.85 since 2020, and his last 25+ score came in the first Test against England in Chennai.
But do these tell everything? Let’s explore what these stats hide.
Virat Kohli’s ‘dip’ in form
Starting with Virat Kohli, he has played a total of just nine Tests (15 innings) since 2020 spanning over as many as five different series. He did have an off tour of New Zealand but isn’t a two-match series too low a sample size?
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Kohli played two innings in Australia, he had one fantastic outing in one. His patience, apart from his obvious skill-set, was the highlight of the Day-Night Test.
In the home series against England, he played a superb innings of 72 runs in the second innings of the first Test. Batting was notoriously difficult on that track and Kohli showed what separates him from the rest. He played a flawless knock, displaying supreme control! He was dismissed by a delivery off Ben Stokes against which he couldn’t have done much.
False shot percentage v Anderson today:
Kohli – 0%
Rest of India batsmen – 34%#IndvEng
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) February 9, 2021
In the second innings of the second Test, Kohli stood tall again. He looked in more control than anyone else. On a deck that turned massively, Kohli put aside his instincts, and showed his outstanding skills and temperament.
Virat Kohli has resisted playing the drive today against the spinners, a shot that is his most productive stroke in Tests. He's curbed his natural game to thrive on this pitch today.
Runs Scored Playing the Drive v Spin
Today – 8%
Overall (Tests in India) – 27%#INDvENG
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) February 15, 2021
In the last two Tests of the series, he batted only twice and scored 27 in the third Test and duck in the fourth one.
Cometh the World Test Championship (WTC) final, Kohli had a nice outing in one of the two innings. He again put aside his natural game and gave himself plenty of time as scoring runs was very challenging in those conditions. He got out to an excellent delivery in the first innings. That being said, he indeed played a poor shot in the second innings.
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) June 20, 2021
As far as his dismissal in the first Test of this series is concerned, the mystery of that delivery was later discussed by several analysts on Twitter and James Anderson himself. It wasn’t ‘that’ simple to leave that ball. Kohli could have probably avoided that dismissal if he hadn’t over-committed on the front foot, and considering it was the first ball of his innings.
But batting from well outside the crease has been fruitful for Kohli, so he is understandably unlikely to change his method. However, he can still give him some more time at the start of his innings.
His average since 2020 is low because of as many as three ducks and the drought of ‘those’ big hundreds. Sure, he could have been better with his shot selection on a few occasions. But, sooner or later, he will make up for it. Kohli is out of runs, not out of form, and his skill-set, in this format, hasn’t taken a hit either.
What can Pujara do better?
Pujara is an important part of this Indian side. Him being dropped is not a question here; India can’t replace Pujara with any other batsman right now, and expect him to deliver better returns than Pujara.
The right-hander’s true value lies in seeing off the ball, scoring runs with minimum risks and ensuring that India don’t lose wickets in bunches. In the first innings of the Test series in Australia, he scored 43 off 160 balls in the first innings, providing a good platform to the middle-order. Pujara played a pivotal role in the last two Tests as well, as he accumulated 208 runs off as many as 686 deliveries in just two Tests!
He didn’t have a blockbuster tour unlike his 2018-19 performance but he played a crucial role. However, he has been substandard after that. Anyway, a poor home series isn’t an issue, given Pujara’s skill-set against spin.
But, after his failure in the last two games in England, the question is: will his approach work in England?
It will, maybe he’ll do just fine but there is scope for improvement. In English conditions, a batsman is expected to make more errors, and dismissal might be just around the corner. So, it does make sense to create and utilise the scoring opportunities. The demand is not a massive upgrade in his intent, but bettering his strike-rotation minimally.
Since the start of last year, Pujara averages just 7.71 against good length from seamers, and scores at 0.7rpo. His dismissal rate, 63, is not bad at all, but it illustrates the broader concern that Pujara can’t score against good length deliveries.
— Ben Jones (@benjonescricket) August 4, 2021
Given the skill-set and control of English pacers, they will bowl most deliveries on the good-length. So, Pujara is better off finding a way to improve a bit in that aspect. It will make him and the batsman at the other end more comfortable.
Pujara is good at utilising run-scoring opportunities against full-length deliveries. He also has good cut shots in his repertoire which would be helpful for him, against the back-of-length and short deliveries, in these conditions.
Rahane, a tad too nervous?
Rahane really had an awful outing in the first Test. He got a life at nought; he tried to steal a single, got a reprieve and ran four runs. The Indian vice-captain didn’t learn from his mistake as he was soon run-out at the score of five! Rahane was quite nervous and failed to maintain his calm. That’s pretty unacceptable from an experienced player.
He has a good defensive technique against pace-bowling. Moreover, he also has strokes suitable for such conditions. The right-handed batsman can play square cuts, square and cover drives, back-foot punches without taking risks and using the depth of the crease.
Talking about some of his impressive performances in recent away Tests, Rahane formed a good partnership with Kohli in the WTC final, scored a magnificent hundred in Melbourne, was pretty nice in the first innings of the Day-Night Test in Australia, played a decent knock of 46 runs in tough conditions of New Zealand and had a fantastic series in West Indies. That being said, he could have been more consistent in Australia.
It is obviously fair enough to expect better performances from a player of Rahane’s calibre, and more so considering the shield he enjoys in the batting order.
In their last Test at Lord’s, India had a terrible time as Anderson and Broad scalped nine and five wickets respectively in the match. Indian batsmen couldn’t survive for enough time at the crease against impeccable pace-bowling in extreme conditions.
While Broad has already been ruled out of the entire series due to an injury to his right calf, with Anderson also doubtful to start in the second Test, India still won’t have it easy. Ollie Robinson, who snared seven wickets on his debut against the Blackcaps at Lord’s, has made a terrific start to his career as well. He also troubled the Indian batters quite a lot in the first Test of the series. But given the expected leeway in the absence of Broad and Anderson, the trio should make their chances count.