Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Why are our batsmen failing so badly

The advent of T20 has imposed a uniformity in conditions across the world. But Test cricket still demands difficult adjustments from players

The third India-England Test match of the ongoing bilateral series begins in Nottingham on 18 August. The topmost question on every spectator’s mind is: Will Indian batsmen finally be able to counter overcast conditions, seaming pitches and swing bowlers? In the previous match at Lords, the entire Indian batting line-up could score just 219 runs with the bat—there were 18 extras—in two innings. In the first Test at Birmingham, all the Indian batsmen, barring captain Virat Kohli (and extras), folded for a combined two-innings total of 214. If this was shocking, it shouldn’t have been so. There were enough signs that this was coming.

S. Rajesh of ESPNCricinfo has pulled out some numbers (goo.gl/em5CJL), which prove what we suspected anyway: This Indian Test batting line-up is too dependent on Kohli. Since December 2013, Kohli has scored 20.2% of the team’s runs on tours to Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand. This is exactly the proportion of runs Sachin Tendulkar made on tours to these very countries between November 1991 and December 2001—a period during which the Indian team relied heavily on him. Another of Rajesh’s numbers puts the problem in starker relief: Since December 2013 and during the aforementioned tours, India’s pace bowler Bhuvneshwar Kumar has a better Test batting average than top-order batsmen like Cheteshwar Pujara, Shikhar Dhawan, K.L. Rahul and Rohit Sharma.

The year 2018 was going to be a litmus test for Kohli’s team with difficult tours to South Africa, England and Australia. In the five Test matches so far—three in South Africa and two in England—the famed Indian batting line-up has crossed 250 only twice. In those two innings, Kohli scored 153 and 149. Barring Kohli—who averages 52.6 in these five matches—no other batsmen has scored, on an average, more than 20 runs per innings. Where is the problem? Are these batsmen just not good enough?

These batsmen are definitely not as good in Tests as Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman were. But the problem isn’t confined to India. Except South Africa, all teams are poor travellers, with batsmen, much more than bowlers, failing to adapt to foreign conditions.

It might sound a bit lazy to blame the proliferation of T20 leagues but a part of the problem does stem from there. With the T20 format giving the sport its moolah, the pitches have gone flat, the rules have favoured batsmen and the ropes have been pulled in. These changes have happened almost everywhere in the world. Travelling teams don’t have to adapt much for the shorter formats. The same Indian team dominated South Africa in One Day Internationals and T20s, and England in T20s, even while travelling.

Adjusting to Test match conditions is not that straightforward. Teams visiting the Indian sub-continent from England, Australia and New Zealand have similarly struggled to cope with quality spin bowling on turning tracks. Even South Africa recently lost the Test series in Sri Lanka 2-0. Australia lost a Test in Bangladesh last year. The margin of losses in India have been greater: England lost 4-0 in 2016, New Zealand lost 3-0 in 2016 and Australia lost 4-0 in 2013.

Only a few, like Kohli and Steven Smith, are able to make the necessary adjustments while travelling, and, therefore, have deservedly enlisted themselves among the greats of the game.

The numbers bear out the deterioration in the performance of travelling teams. In this decade (beginning 1 January 2010), only three travelling teams (not counting matches in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Ireland) have a win-loss ratio greater than 0.5 (that is, at least one win for every two losses). They are South Africa (win-loss ratio: 1.2), Australia (0.73) and India (0.55). This compares poorly to the overall history of Test cricket where five travelling teams (same exclusions as earlier)—Australia (1.14), England (0.81), South Africa (0.7), West Indies (0.61) and Pakistan (0.54)—have a win-loss ratio greater than 0.5.

While it seems that India has become a better traveller of late, its win-loss ratio in Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand this decade (0.15) compares unfavourably to its overall record (0.24) in these countries.

The problem is so acute that Sanjay Manjrekar, a commentator and former Test cricketer, feels (goo.gl/DHW6pM) that the best of Test cricket may be behind us. The changes that T20s have brought to the game are magnified in the absence of proper preparation for Test tours. In South Africa, India started the Test series in January without a single warm-up game. The one warm-up match against Essex in England was cut down to three days from four. South Africa played just a two-day warm-up match before being thrashed by Sri Lanka 2-0 last month. Australia’s planned two-day warm-up match before the loss in Bangladesh could not happen because of rain. In contrast, Australia’s 1997 tour of England involved 13 practice matches apart from six Test matches. The cricket calendar these days, crowded with T20 leagues, does not allow such luxury.

However, the calendar should not become the excuse. If Kohli can score heavily, and, more importantly, players like Kumar and R. Ashwin can make important contributions with the bat, why can’t Pujara, Rahul, Dhawan, Sharma and Murali Vijay?

Kunal Singh is staff writer (views) at Mint.

Comments are welcome at kunal.s@htlive.com

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