WTC final 2023: Muddle in India's middle-order

At the end of the World Test Championship cycle, India might have to take a hard look at the performances of No 3-5 batters and act on the player pool for the same.
(From L to R) A collage of India's middle-order batters Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara during the World Test Championship final against Australia at the Oval. (Photo | AP)
(From L to R) A collage of India's middle-order batters Ajinkya Rahane, Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara during the World Test Championship final against Australia at the Oval. (Photo | AP)

LONDON: At one point of time during Sunday’s post-final press conference, Rohit Sharma had made an observation. “You cannot really teach them (the experienced batters) how to bat,” he had said. He was replying to a question on whether it was concerning that senior batters had got out in the manner they were dismissed. It was also put to him that the same set of batters had folded on the reserve day against New Zealand in the last final two years ago.

Sharma went on to challenge the notion that the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara or Virat Kohli or himself played loose shots and gave their wicket away. “When you know the pitch is good, sometimes you have to let your instinct take those calls in the middle,” he said. “I don’t think it was a lapse in concentration or anything. Sometimes, guys feel that they are comfortable playing certain shots and they are allowed to play those shots.

“If somebody is bowling a good spell, you try and respect that. But otherwise, you have to try and do something different just to break the bowler’s rhythm. That’s what Travis Head did as well. He played his shots and got them out of that discomfort zone they were in after lunch... you want to be ahead of the game, you want to take the bowlers on. Test cricket is played in a different way these days. That’s how we want to play as well. And it was a good pitch, you could play the shots you wanted.” 

Now, Head has been playing that very specific role for Australia for a few years. Considering he also opens the batting for them in ODIs, he’s well-versed in the grammar of moving the game along. If they want to be aggressive in Tests — they are more than entitled to veer away from the traditional way of approaching the five-day game — but they need to be bolder in the decision-making process then. The current India middle-order save Rishabh Pant if and when he comes back, isn’t suited to playing that way. It showed in the way Pujara was dismissed — trying to upper-cut a nothing delivery when he would have normally approached the ball very differently (left alone).  

That, however, is just one part of the argument. The greater part of the argument is that India’s batting lineup itself is in need of full-blown surgery. You cannot possibly keep going back to the same batters, batters who the management had previously deemed droppable. Save Rohit, all the batters in the top order have regressed over the last four years (refer table). 

Even taking into account some of the extreme nature of the pitches they have played on, this is not the elite batting unit it once was, they have declined and there is nothing out there that suggests this isn’t terminal. An odd 50 or a few counter-attacking innings shouldn’t move the needle.

In a format where big top-order runs are invaluable, India haven’t really turned up. In the 2021-23 WTC cycle, the side didn’t have a single entry into the top 10 highest run-getters while Australia had four (Marnus Labuschagne, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith and Travis Head). They have needed change — Shreyas Iyer may still be the team’s answer at No. 5 but he does have a well-documented weakness — but have ignored it for some time. The Test averages of all three of Virat Kohli, Rahane and Pujara have suffered since January 1, 2019, compared to the period till then. Take, for instance, Pujara. From a healthy 49.83, it’s 32.70. The three combined have made eight 100s in 97 matches.

The nature of the pitches have been offered as mitigation but it’s not like the others have suffered. In fact, the lower order have seemingly thrived. Ravindra Jadeja, in the same time period, has made as many 100s as Pujara in 11 fewer games while averaging seven runs more than Rahane per dismissal. 

Is it technique? Is it temperament? Is it pressure? Nobody can say with any surety but one thing is sure. Some of these batters will have to be phased out in this cycle. The question staring at the team management, then, is simple. Who will it be?   

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The New Indian Express