Below-par Rahane, clueless Pant: India's batting skeletons laid bare as Oval Test beckons

Put under immense media scrutiny in the last couple of days, India's star-studded batting line-up must do a 180* turnaround at the Oval to gain a crucial 2-1 lead

Published: 01st September 2021 05:58 PM  |   Last Updated: 01st September 2021 05:58 PM   |  A+A-

England captain Joe Root, right, laughs as he walks past India's captain Virat Kohli after the toss on the first day of third test cricket match between England and India. (Photo | AP)

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India got the bitter taste of a perfect English revenge at Headingley as the loss by an innings and 76 runs not only levelled the series but also exposed the visitors' batting chinks for the third consecutive time in the Pataudi Trophy. 

Despite India dominating the hosts in the first two games, there were repeated instances of middle-order collapses which went under the carpet, but not this time around.

Put under immense media scrutiny in the last couple of days, India's star-studded batting line-up must do a 180* turnaround at the Oval to gain a crucial 2-1 lead.

To do that, they need to address some of these gray areas:

Batting brilliantly under overcast conditions but falling apart when the sun is out

In the Trent Bridge encounter, a middle order failure pushed India from 97-1 to 112-4, before they managed to secure a 95-run lead. At Lord's, Kohli's men ended the opening gloomy, overcast day on 276-3, but added only 88 runs as the sun came out on the following morning.

At Leeds, after what seemed to be a good toss to win on a bright day, India blew it and folded for 78. 

As the trio of James Anderson, Ollie Robinson and Craig Overton kept testing the batsmen's temperaments by bowling at fuller length and mixing the inswingers and wobble grip deliveries (the ones which swing away at the very last moment), the Indians kept poking at those away swingers.

India's Cheteshwar Pujara, left, and India's Ajinkya Rahane, right, during a training session ahead of the fourth Test at The Oval cricket ground in London. (Photo | AP)

Trailing by 354 runs in the second innings, India ended day three at 215-2. They batted under gloomy conditions, what a coincidence! Like Lord's, they fell back on the tactics of leaving deliveries outside off stump and it worked.

Next day, the skies turned blue again as the same poking business brought the curtains down on the visitors' hopes of making Joe Root and Co bat again.

Moral of the story? Just because it's bright and there's sunshine out there, it doesn't mean you can go out and score at will. Traditionally, Headingley has always been that perfect tacky and soft surface offering lots of movement initially and then settling down as the game progresses. The best game plan here should have been practising patience and grinding down the bowlers in longer spells.

Time running out for Rahane

Name tough conditions like the MCG, Lord's, Basin Reserve and they have something in common -- a Rahane century. His knocks at the Mecca of Cricket in 2014 and Melbourne earlier this year resulted in Indian victories. 

But this time around in England, he has been a walking wicket, scoring only 95 runs in three matches so far, with a best of 61 in the second innings at Lord's (another match-winning knock).

England's James Anderson, left, celebrates the dismissal of India's Ajinkya Rahane, right, during the fourth day of third test cricket match between England and India, at Headingley. (Photo | AP)

At Headingley, Robinson on day one and Anderson on day four kept bowling those wobble seam deliveries at the fourth and fifth stumps to the Mumbai batsman.

Despite facing 105 deliveries in the game, Rahane looked tentative outside the off stump.

Though calls are growing louder in the last couple of days for his ouster from the playing XI for the Oval Test, it's highly unlikely that he will face the axe. 

Will Vihari make the cut?

With Mark Wood and Chris Woakes getting fit for the next game, the visitors may have to think out of the box and play an extra batsman in the form of Hanuma Vihari.

Vihari has sweet memories of the Oval as he scored his debut fifty here during the 2018 tour. Despite Kohli putting up a brave front against the idea of playing an additional batter, Rahane's slump means that the forced combination change may be coming.

The Rishabh Pant dilemma

The wicketkeeper-batsman has been caught in a Shakespearean dilemma on whether 'to be cautious or not to be'.

So far, the tour has been miserable for him, with only 87 runs in three matches. 

Pant's gritty nineties in Australia earlier this year and the ton against England at home were all about the youngster mixing caution with aggression. This time, he has been found wanting on surfaces known for inducing dangerous lateral movement.

In the first innings of the Lord's Test, while well-set on 37, he slashed a Mark Wood delivery into Buttler's hands. In the second innings, after stepping out and whacking Anderson for a cover boundary on the morning of day five, he again edged one to Buttler on 22, this time while playing a forward defensive shot against Robinson.

India's Rishabh Pant reacts as he walks off the field after losing his wicket during the fourth day of third test cricket match between England and India, at Headingley cricket ground. (Photo | AP)

At Leeds, he pushed hard at a Robinson away swinger with an angled bat on day one, a mistake which was repeated in the second innings.

Apart from managing only three runs in the whole game, he earned the unwelcome honour of becoming Robinson's bunny (getting dismissed four out of five times in this series).

Kohli delivers at last but still not out of jail

While skipper Virat Kohli's fifty in the second innings was a rare silver lining in the Leeds horror, there is more than what meets the eye.

The disturbing fact is all his dismissals are produced by outside edges, a flashback to his 2014 tour where he faced the same issue, while playing loose strokes ranging between a cover drive and defensive push.

On day three, he decided to go back to the 2018 Kohli, leaving deliveries and not worrying about the scoring rate. It did wonders, as Anderson and Co erred on their line and length.

On the morning of day four, resuming on his overnight score of 45, the Indian skipper continued the same blueprint against the new ball. Then, Anderson delivered another wobble-seam delivery, which Kohli played as an inswinger, only to miss the outside edge.

India's Virat Kohli reacts during a training session ahead of the fourth Test at The Oval cricket ground in London. (Photo | AP)

That began another round of the indecisive Kohli. After hitting Robinson for two boundaries in the 89th over, he fell after pushing hard at the last delivery (another wobble seam delivery with extra bounce), thereby giving the hosts more than a sniff of victory.

The key takeaway? The best way to counter this rut is to stay mentally strong. Kohli's 593 runs in England three years ago was not all about him dominating Anderson and his fellow pacers.

There were many outside edges too from his bat. Still, he maintained a stoic calm and weathered the storm. It's high time he revisits those knocks with the video analyst's help to come out of this horror run.


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