CHENNAI: Yet another tumble in pursuit of an ICC title. The latest one coming in a format they have dominated over the last three years and in a match where India entered as favourites to win the World Test Championship crown. Such defeats are usually followed by sharp reactions from captain Virat Kohli where questions regarding mindset or preparation are cut short.
On Wednesday, it was missing. Apart from crediting New Zealand for making most of the conditions in Southampton, Kohli was blunt in his assessment of the batting unit. In each of India's last three losses in the knockout stages of ICC events, batting has been their undoing. In all of those — Champions Trophy (2017) World Cup (2019) and in the WTC final — they couldn't find a way to wrestle momentum against attacks that caused them trouble with movement. While the first two came with a white ball, the one on Wednesday against the Dukes was just an extension of their troubles in seaming conditions.
For a batting unit that has put up commendable shows in Australia, South Africa and West Indies, the seaming conditions of England and New Zealand remain a bridge that is too far to cross. In such conditions, it not only requires discipline but also patience to grind out innings as showed by Kane Williamson. Cheteshwar Pujara, who averages over 100 balls per dismissal, is the sort of batsman that teams rely on. More than the runs, time spent in the middle blunting the red cherry is supposed to make life easy for those coming in next.
This strategy, though, is far from what Kohli wants from his batting unit. He didn't take names, neither did he harp on showing intent, but there was some food for thought. “We definitely need to work out better plans on understanding how to score runs. We have to stay in sync with the momentum of the game and not let the game drift away too much. I don’t think there are any technical difficulties as such. It’s more down to game awareness and being more brave in putting bowlers under pressure and not allowing them to bowl in similar areas for longer periods of time unless it is absolutely overcast and ball swinging all over the place like it happened on Day 1 (Day 2),” he said.
For a team that doesn't take decisions emotionally, India have reacted to each of their last two ICC knockout defeats in a drastic manner. After the Champions Trophy defeat, they reacted by omitting Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in favour of wrist spinners. And after the World Cup semifinal defeat in 2019, they have gone about strengthening their fragile middle-order. Given the squad for the upcoming five Tests against England, which will be part of the next WTC cycle, has already been picked, there won't be any immediate changes.
However, going forward, beginning with the home Test series against New Zealand, indications are that changes are inevitable. There is a strong possibility that the team management might press for new additions, who don't necessarily destabilise the batting unit. There is Hanuma Vihari in the side and KL Rahul, who has lost his place at the top. Slotting Rahul in opener's role could even open the door for Shubman Gill to bat in the middle-order or if need be even go for Shreyas Iyer, who has been consistent in the domestic circuit.
“We will not wait for a year or so and have to plan ahead,” Kohli said. “If you see our white-ball team now, we have great depth and guys are ready and confident. The same thing needs to be done with Test cricket. You have to reassess and replan and understand what dynamics work for the team and how we can be fearless. Bring in the right people who have right mindset to perform.”
Beginning Thursday, the players have been given a 15-day break, during which time they are free to move anywhere in the UK or overseas. Their struggles against the New Zealand attack would have been closely watched by England's James Anderson and Stuart Broad, two bowlers who will subject this batting line-up to further tests this summer. Kohli had a word of advice for his batsmen. “The idea from here on will be to try to score runs and not worry about getting out in testing conditions. You can't be too worried about getting out because you are bringing the bowler into the game completely and not moving the game forward. We know that, as a batting unit, if we consistently put up 300 on the board then it is a different kind of pressure on the opposition with the kind of bowlers that we have,” he added.