A review taken out of desperation in the first innings at Headingley summed up Ravindra Jadeja’s troubles batting with India’s ‘tail’. Jadeja reviewed an on-field call as plumb as it could get after being forced into nudging a full-pitched ball directed for his off-stump against Sam Curran.
One could suggest Jadeja was better off trying to play this ball straight instead of mid-wicket. But it was only an imminent high-risk stroke against skillful, disciplined bowling in challenging conditions from a batsman so heavily consumed by the thought of protecting his partner that you had to feel sorry for him.
When Jadeja walked up to the crease, he had Rohit Sharma for company and then Rishabh Pant very briefly. Once those two departed in quick succession, he was left to fight a lone battle. This isn’t to put a shade on India’s tail, which fought so impressively at Lord’s and did reasonably well even at Trent Bridge. But that was always going to be an aberration, not a norm.
Even if one includes their effort in the first two Tests for statistical and humanly fairness, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Siraj combine to form one of the weakest tails in contemporary Test cricket. Only Ishant (18.17) bats more than 15 balls per innings among the four, with Shami (10.46), Bumrah (8.77) and Siraj (6.8) doing significantly worse. None of them is a No.8, it’s a set of No.11s – a recipe for disaster in conditions where lower-order runs so often influence Test matches.
Presence of a lengthy tail hurt India badly on their last trip and it is now holding their premier all-rounder back, not allowing him to maximise his great form with the bat. You have to feel for Ravindra Jadeja. On a tour where he was supposed to once and for all shatter doubts over his all-conditions batting prowess, he is missing out on runs that would reinforce his value and elevate his status in Indian cricket.
Ravichandran Ashwin’s absence is hurting Ravindra Jadeja the batsman
Life as the last recognised batsman in Test cricket is tough. You regularly operate on a knife’s edge, having to play not just for yourself but your less capable partner. The field settings keep changing depending on the start or the close of the over. You are forced to attack measuredly against defensive lengths when there are men placed in the deep to caught hold of any miscued stroke. Then the necessary single required to avert danger for your partner in the next over is made tougher by the more close-in fielders.
Combine this tactical wrangling with the challenge posed by the conditions, the quality of the bowlers involved and your own flaws and strengths as an individual, and this is one of the hardest jobs. In matches involving only the traditional top 8 teams in Test history, only three players have averaged over 40 with a minimum of 50 Tests as a designated No.7. Only three. In away games, at a minimum of 30 matches in this list – Gilchrist played 29 matches with an average of 46.93 – only one average above 40.
You process this in your head and you only gain in respect for Ravindra Jadeja, who with 23.42 is India’s fifth-highest averaging batsman since the start of this elongated English summer. Despite none of his tailend partners capable of regularly lasting more than two overs of their own, Jadeja has faced approx 53 balls per innings on this tour taking on the likes of Southee, Boult, Wagner, Jamieson, Anderson, Broad, Wood, Robinson.
And Jadeja could contribute more if India give him what he needs – more capable batting partners. While his problems are certainly accentuated by the struggles of Pant, Jadeja could do with an extra someone whom he can depend on, someone that doesn’t force him to take risks earlier than he would like and allow him the space to have a more normal innings progression.
If only India had a better No.8. Maybe someone with a Test average of nearly 28, who has five centuries and lasts almost seven and a half overs per innings. Truly, when Ravichandran Ashwin is around, he gives Jadeja the luxury that he so badly needs. But at the moment, he is denied that cushion and comfort through a rigid four-seamer theory, where none of the pacers can bat.
Nobody is asking for the pace quartet to be replaced by lesser bowlers just because they can bat more. But in conditions where runs are at an absolute premium for their short of confidence batting unit, India need to weigh in options on how to maximise their productivity and reassess whether a more solid No.8 gives them more edge than the extra seamer that they think will help them sustain pressure for longer.
And it’s not that Ashwin isn’t one of India’s better bowlers in England. Arguably a more conditions-suited option than at least a couple of India’s seamers, he has a first-class average of 25.92 in UK with 79 wickets. Since the start of 2018, among spinners with at least 10 Tests in the ‘SENA’ countries, Ashwin’s average of 28.23 with 43 scalps is the best. He has played a major role in both of India’s series wins in Australia in this period and ended the first-ever WTC as its top wicket-taker.
Yes, great sides would have greatness sitting on the sidelines too, but the tag of greatness is still a questionable one for this Indian side and it is only thwarting its own attempts of achieving that all-conquering champion-like status by underplaying the effect of its best spinner and robbing its best all-rounder the chance to make the sizeable impact that he can.