CHENNAI: 62, 24, 97, 34, 126. These have been India's opening partnerships since landing in England a couple of months ago. There was the one-off Test against New Zealand for the World Test Championship crown and now two Tests against England in the ongoing series. The openers have tamed the brand new Dukes ball in hostile batting conditions.
For context, the century-run stand between Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul at Lord's was the first such instance for India outside Asia since January 2011, illustrating how rare such opening alliances are outside the subcontinent. And yet, the middle-order — comprising Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane — has failed to capitalize. The meagre returns stretch back to 18 months or so in Kohli's case -- the first time in his decorated career that the Indian skipper has had such a blip -- and much longer than that in the case of both Pujara and Rahane.
Since January 2020, Pujara averages 25.09, Kohli 24.18 and Rahane 25.76. It is a significant sample size, with Kohli having played 10 Tests in this period while both Pujara and Rahane have 13 Tests each. Pujara, in fact, has now gone 20 Tests without a ton, his last being an innings of 193 against Australia in January 2019. Since Rahane's match-defining 112 in the first innings of the Melbourne Test last year, he has managed just a single half-century in 15 innings. Of course, all three of them have produced some excellent knocks even during this lean phase and will rightly point to the fact that conditions in general have been hard for run-making in recent years. They may yet come up with a timely riposte in the second innings of this Lord's Test, but time seems to be running out for Pujara and Rahane.
After the loss to NZ in the WTC final, Kohli had called for the need to bring in the 'right people with the right mindset' in what was seen as an implicit message to Pujara and Rahane to get their act together. So far in this series, Kohli has backed both his middle-order colleagues publicly and the two senior pros have managed to retain their places, but that trust in the duo is shrinking with each passing innings.
The manner of dismissals in the first innings at Lord's must be particularly frustrating for the trio. All three were out nicking behind to deliveries outside off-stump that could have been left alone. The most fundamental tenet of batting in England is exercising proper judgment outside off-stump, and none of them passed that test on this occasion.
In Kohli's case, it will be a slight worry that his tendency to be drawn into deliveries outside off-stump — which often led to his downfall in the 2014 series — is being exploited once again by the English pacers. Pujara, meanwhile, seems to be showing uncharacteristic fallibility outside his off-stump. During his 23-ball 9 on Thursday, there was an instance even before he was caught in the slips when he was poking at a delivery that he would routinely be letting go of. He seldom succumbs to that fourth-stump line, compelling the bowlers to bowl straighter with his immaculate patience. Rahane's patchy run has been more infuriating. He isn't plagued by any apparent technical weakness but continues squandering opportunities. He was dismissed pulling to square leg for 49 in the first innings of the WTC final while a run-out cut short his stay at Trent Bridge last week.
The contributions of Rohit and Rahul have bailed India out in the first innings, but Pujara and Rahane will know that they need a big score under their belt before they leave Lord's.