December 21, 2014

Bowling to blame for India's poor overseas record

The inability to build pressure by denying runs, even on pitches with sufficient help to keep batsmen honest, is India's biggest problem

India's fast bowlers have been as expensive as their batsmen have been prone to collapses © Getty Images

It's New Year's Day 2011. India have just beaten South Africa in Durban in the Boxing Day Test. The series is tied at 1-1. In the final Test, in Cape Town, Sachin Tendulkar scores a brilliant 146 to take India to a competitive first-innings total. Jacques Kallis responds with two fine centuries. India hold on for a draw on the fifth day. They are the top Test team in the world.

Since that Test, India have played 19 Tests in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. They have lost 15 of those, and won just once - at Lord's in 2014. They should have won in Johannesburg in 2013. And they should have won in Wellington, and in Melbourne. The Melbourne result is especially instructive. Australia made 333 on a pitch that was not flat, with no batsman looking set. No batsman, that is, bar one. Tendulkar played a blinding innings of 73 in 98 balls to take India to 214 for 2. He was bowled by a Peter Siddle special before stumps on the second day. For some measure of the wicket, consider that after Australia took a first-innings lead of 51, India reduced them to 27 for 4 and then to 166 for 8, before letting them reach 240. But 292 was a steep chase on that wicket and India were bowled out for 169.

Other than that, it has been a one-way street. The defeats have generally not been close. The retirement or removal of veterans like Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan has not made a big impact. Since Tendulkar retired, India have scored 30.1 runs per wicket and conceded 44.6 runs per wicket in 11 Tests in Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa. Much has been made of India's batting collapses. The chart below has made an appearance more than once on your television sets.

© ESPNcricinfo Ltd

This misses the point. On result wickets, when teams are going to score about 250-325 in an innings, it is not unexpected that a team can lose 5 for 50 at some point. Typically, teams recover, like India did in the second innings in Brisbane (the last four wickets put on 107). Such recoveries rarely occur when the opposition posts enormous totals, though. The reason for this is that the advantage of having a large number of runs to play with gives bowling sides the luxury of being able to attack for longer.

Why don't India produce these types of collapses when they bowl? A quick look at the figures reveals an astonishing statistic. Since the 2011 World Cup, when India have played in Australia, England, South Africa or New Zealand, the home team has scored 42.9 runs per wicket for their seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth wickets. This is about 12 runs more than against the next most profligate team - Sri Lanka - who have conceded 31 runs per wicket. Australia and South Africa concede 19.4 and 21.6 runs per wicket respectively when facing each other or one of England, New Zealand and India away. Note that these are all figures in which the batting side is the home team. India have conceded eight century- and 14 half-century stands for the seventh wicket or lower for 72 dismissals. Pakistan, the only other side to concede more than one century stand, conceded a total of three stands of 50 or more for 20 dismissals. India's record against lower-order batting in overseas Tests has been poor.

When it comes to the first six wickets, the results are equally abysmal. Sri Lanka have done as badly as India, while West Indies have done worse. India concede 51 runs per wicket over the first six wickets.

With this kind of bowling, India will almost always lose series convincingly even if they have the best batting line-up in the world. Most wickets outside the subcontinent (excluding some in West Indies) are not flat from the word go. At some point they assist bowlers. At others they offer uneven bounce. It is nearly impossible to resist for the 200-250 overs required to save a Test, when you are up against sizeable totals. Consider this: In the last ten years, six out of 55 Tests in Australia have been drawn. It has taken rain, a once-in-a-lifetime effort by Faf du Plessis, and a wicket in Adelaide that was so flat that Anil Kumble made 87 on it, to produce draws.

In Adelaide this year, India made 759 runs in the match. India have won 38 overseas Tests. They have never needed more than 756 runs to win. In Brisbane, they made 632 runs. Thirty-one of India's 38 overseas wins required them to score less than 632 runs.

Such is the unprecedented rate at which India have conceded runs, that of the 3120 instances of a team taking at least 12 wickets in a Test match, only one has conceded more than India's 4.78 runs per over in Brisbane. That was way back in 1902. The 4.26 runs per over India conceded in Adelaide ranks 27th out of 3120.

Finally, consider this. Since that brilliant series in South Africa in 2010-11, India have conceded on average 489 runs per ten wickets in Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand, at the worst economy rate for any team except Zimbabwe. On wickets that have, as a rule, not been flat from the word go, conceding runs at this rate is suicidal. What's more, it emboldens teams to prepare lively wickets against India.

Is there hope for India? Not much in the near future. There isn't a single combination of bowlers available to India that can be said to be decisively superior to any other combination. Ishant Sharma, after 57 Tests, on his third tour of Australia, bowled a combined 17 no-balls in Adelaide and Brisbane. Varun Aaron conceded more than five an over, and has shown himself to be wayward, if quick. R Ashwin has taken a wicket once every 20 overs outside the subcontinent and is unable to keep the runs down either. Ravindra Jadeja, his potential replacement, is not much better. He takes a wicket every 17 overs outside the subcontinent and concedes 2.7 runs per over (over 30 overs, that is a gain of about 15 runs over Ashwin). The one ray of hope is Umesh Yadav. He has taken a wicket every 48 balls outside the subcontinent. This is a world-class rate. However, he has also conceded 4.6 runs per over. If he can bring that down by a run, India will be far more competitive than they currently are.

It is possible that you will hear a lot about the DRS, about the form of Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma, about meals and practice wickets, aggression and jawing. But those are minor concerns compared to the problems India have two or three times every single over when they field. The inability to string together six good deliveries, build pressure by denying runs, even on wickets where there is sufficient help to keep batsmen honest, is India's most serious problem.

Kartikeya Date writes at A Cricketing View and tweets here