India in England 2011 July 26, 2011

India's bouncebackability

India have a poor record in the first Tests of series, but their second-Test numbers are remarkably better

Another first Test in an overseas series, and another defeat for this Indian team. While there were admittedly several factors that went against India at Lord's - the injuries to Zaheer Khan and Gautam Gambhir, and Sachin Tendulkar's illness all severely affected the team - the fact remains that they were outclassed, and now need to mount yet another comeback to draw level. The only positive, perhaps, is that India would be used to this scenario, since they have faced it five times on their last seven tours (excluding tours to Bangladesh) all within the last four years. Between 2003 and 2007, there were six successive series when India had avoided that fate (twice in Pakistan, and once each in Australia, West Indies, South Africa and England), but the first-Test bug has hit them hard since, with defeats in Australia, Sri Lanka (twice), South Africa, and now in England. (Click here for India's overseas Test results since 2001.)

MS Dhoni can also draw some hope from the fact that the first Test will be followed by the second Test. That's stating the obvious, but historically their performances in second Tests have been huge improvements on the first. Over the last decade, and excluding tours to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, India have a 4-9 win-loss record in first Tests of away series, with the four wins coming in Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand and West Indies. In second Tests, on the other hand, they've won six times and lost only four, which means their win-loss ratio in second Tests is almost three-and-a-half times times their first-Test ratio.

Overall, second Tests seem to conjure much happier memories for India, with wins in Kandy (2001), Port of Spain (2002), Adelaide (2003), Trent Bridge (2007), Galle (2008) and Durban (2010). Twice in the last three years, India have bounced back to win the second Test after losing the first - in Sri Lanka in 2008, and in South Africa last year. They promptly lost the third Test in that Sri Lanka series, but in South Africa they drew the third Test in Cape Town to ensure the series ended 1-1. Of the eight previous occasions when they've lost the first Test overseas since 2001, India have lost the series five times and drawn it thrice. More encouragingly, they've drawn the last two such instances, in Sri Lanka (in 2010) and South Africa.

Coming back to the current series, it also helps that the venue for the second Test is again Trent Bridge, a ground where they beat England by seven wickets in 2007.

India in 1st Tests and other Tests overseas, since 2001*
  Matches Won Lost Drawn
First Tests 18 4 9 5
Second Tests 17 6 4 7
Third Tests 15 4 6 5
Overall 56 15 20 21
* Excluding Tests in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh

A look at the stats for India's top batsmen in each Test of these series reveal that most of them have been at their best in the second Test. The difference has been especially stark for VVS Laxman. He has historically struggled in the opening Test: his overall first-Test average is 36.69, with only one century and 16 half-centuries. In overseas Tests in the last decade, Laxman's story has been one of getting starts and not converting them into significant scores: out of 30 innings, he has gone past 20 on 21 occasions, yet he has managed only seven half-centuries, and no hundreds at all. In second Tests, he has turned it around completely, with three hundreds in 28 innings and an average of almost 60. His last seven second-Test innings read thus: 76, 124 not out, 29, 38, 96, 85 and 87.

The difference in averages for Gautam Gambhir is huge too, but the sample size is much smaller for him: Gambhir has only played two away second Tests for that average of 70.75. The numbers are fairly even across the three Tests for Rahul Dravid, but Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag both have very strong first-Test stats. For Tendulkar, the average drops into the 40s in the second and third Tests, while Sehwag's drop is significant in the third Test, which is when he is expected to return to the team.

India's top batsmen in each Test of an overseas series since Jan 2001*
Batsman 1st Tests/ Ave 100s/ 50s 2nd Tests/ Ave 100s/ 50s 3rd Tests/ Ave 100s/ 50s
Gautam Gambhir 5/ 34.22 0/ 2 2/ 70.75 1/ 2 3/ 74.16 1/ 3
Virender Sehwag 12/ 59.42 4/ 2 12/ 55.26 3/ 3 11/ 34.15 2/ 1
Rahul Dravid 18/ 47.55 4/ 5 17/ 51.24 4/ 8 15/ 49.00 2/ 6
Sachin Tendulkar 15/ 54.63 4/ 4 14/ 44.20 3/ 4 12/ 42.19 2/ 5
VVS Laxman 17/ 35.14 0/ 7 16/ 59.67 3/ 10 14/ 47.33 2/ 8
* Excluding Tests in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh

Most of the focus for the poor first-Test results has usually been on the batsmen, but India's leading spin bowler's stats in series openers are abysmal. In his entire career, Harbhajan Singh has taken only 30 wickets in 14 first Tests overseas (excluding one-off Tests), at an average of 60.40 and a strike-rate of 108 balls per wicket. In overseas first Tests since 2001, in countries other than Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, his average is almost 68. In his last four such Tests his figures read thus: 0 for 98 and 0 for 24 in Galle; 2 for 169 in Centurion; 2 for 51 and 1 for 54 in Kingston; and 0 for 152 and 1 for 66 at Lord's - a total of six wickets for 614 runs, an average of 102.33. The good news is that his numbers improve significantly in the second and third Tests, but he has been guilty of throwing away the initiative in the series opener repeatedly.

In 14 away first Tests, Harbhajan has taken only one five-for - 6 for 63 in Hamilton in 2009. He had match figures of 7 for 120 in that game, which means that excluding that match, Harbhajan averages 73.56 per wicket in first Tests abroad.

There's no doubt that he usually lifts his game deeper into the series - in South Africa last year he took 4 for 10 in Durban and 7 for 120 in Cape Town after a similarly ordinary start to the series. An encore of those performances would suit India just fine.

Harbhajan in each Test of a series
  1st Tests/ Wkts Ave/ SR 2nd Test/ Wkts Ave/ SR 3rd Tests/ Wkts Ave/ SR
Away, since 2001* 11/ 22 67.90/ 114.3 12/ 39 39.58/ 77.7 8/ 39 28.30/ 64.1
Away, overall 14/ 30 60.40/ 108.1 17/ 51 39.31/ 78.5 8/ 39 28.30/ 64.1
* Excluding Tests in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo

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