India's batting stars fail toughest test
At the lunch table on the first day at The Oval, with India's top order in tatters again, a former Indian player, now a commentator, wondered if he had been too hasty in hailing the current crop as worthy successors to India's finest-ever collection of Test batsmen.
But his sunny outlook hadn't been unfounded. Strong performances at home, against Australia, England and West Indies, had been backed up by runs in South Africa and New Zealand. Even when they weren't scoring big runs, the openers has shown pluck and fight. Shikhar Dhawan, who began his Test career with a surreally sensational 187 off 174 balls, battled for 87 balls for 19 runs in Durban and reeled off 115 and 98 in successive Tests in New Zealand. M Vijay forsook flair for solidity and sold his wicket dear. And Ajinkya Rahane, finally rewarded for his first-class toils, had made the transition effortlessly to Test cricket. But, unquestionably, no other batsmen fired the imagination as did Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli.
Both had been around before, but it was the departure of India's greatest middle-order pair that granted them their date with destiny. And brightly they shone. In India's first Test assignment without Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, the inheritors provided a glimpse into the future with two innings that could well have belonged to the masters. However odious, comparisons are inevitable, and those two hundreds in Johannesburg carried the shades of Tendulkar and Dravid. Kolhi had the dazzle and strokes, and Pujara the temperament and assurance.
India failed to win that Test and went on to lose the next match and the series, but after the 8-0 in their previous overseas engagements, the beginning of a fresh era had got off to a far more promising start than anticipated. Another series was lost in New Zealand, with India blowing chances to win in both the Tests, but allowances were still made for a team trying to find its feet.
And so when honours were split at Trent Bridge and victory was achieved at Lord's with starring roles from Vijay and Rahane, there was delight in India. Pujara had played small but vital hands in both Tests, and Kohli's failures, instead of being alarming, was oddly reassuring. Surely, both of them were too good to keep on failing, and what better for a team already ahead in the series than big performances from their batting stars at the business end of a long series.
From that heady afternoon at Lord's, the India story has unravelled so abysmally that the memories of the dark summer of 2011 have now revisited Indian fans. Vijay has been worn down, Rahane, who has looked technically the most accomplished batsman of the tour, has had a sequence of wretched dismissals, and Gautam Gambhir, who took Dhawan's place in the fourth Test, has shown no evidence that he retains the ability meet the new ball with the bat facing the bowler. It can be argued that he hasn't spent enough time at the crease to qualify as an out-of-form batsman, but his dismissals - unconvincing pokes leading to catches behind the wicket - painted the eerily familiar pattern that led to him being dropped in the first place.
But not even the most optimistic England supporters would have anticipated this run of scores from India's rising middle-order stars. Since the half-century in Nottingham, Pujara's scores have read: 28, 43, 24, 2, 0, 17 and 4. Kohli has matched him step for step with a sequence of 1, 8, 25, 0, 39, 28, 0, 7 and 6. Between them, they have produced only three more runs than Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami. And that's only because Shami hasn't played the last two Tests.
Let's look for the possible explanations first. India have batted first on three of the toughest days in the series, at Lord's, Old Trafford and The Oval. They won at Lord's because they won the first day, in as much as England lost it, on the greenest pitch seen not only in this series but in the last two decades.
The highest opening partnership for India has been 49, on a flat fourth-day pitch at Trent Bridge. The second-highest stand is 40, in the second innings at Lord's when the pitch had eased out. The latest Pujara has come in to bat has been in the 15th over. On five occasions, he has entered the battle within the first ten overs, and three times within the first five. Before the series started James Anderson had hoped that it wouldn't take them 50 overs to bring Kohli to the crease. That fear hasn't come to pass even once in this series. Only twice in the series has Kohli come to bat after the 40th.
Put another way, both Pujara and Kohli have often had to bat in unfamiliar positions, Pujara a virtual opener, and Kohli a virtual No. 3. And they have come up against high quality swing-and-seam in conditions they had never encountered before in Tests. And like good form, poor form is self-perpetuating.
But even accounting for all these factors, the continued poor run of these two batsmen has baffled experts, because mistakes have been repeated. Kohli has struggled to locate his off stump, a fatal failing when the ball is nipping about, and the ball has found Pujara's stumps with disconcerting regularity. Both patterns point to technical flaws - low hands in Pujara's case, a tendency to push at balls in Kohli's, and angled bats for both.
Few batsmen in the history of the game have possessed techniques versatile enough for all conditions, but all good batsmen have found a method to score runs in most conditions. What counts against both Pujara and Kohli is that they haven't been able to find a way out -- for example they needed to look no further than M S Dhoni who worked around a perennial weakness against full balls outside the off-stump to become, against odds, India's second-most prolific run-getter in England -- and, as the series has progressed, a ring of inevitability has grown around their dismissals and it has dragged India down.
A final innings remains for their redemption, but the odds are heavy. Cricket never ceases to surprise, but it hard to see an Indian escape. However, even though this series has now descended, from an Indian perspective, to the despairing depths of 2011, there is one major difference. Unlike India's fading maestros, Pujara and Kohli are the men of India's future. As characters they couldn't have been most contrasting, but beyond Kohli's fire and Pujara's ice, there's a common thread of passion and pride.
The last 40-odd days have been the hardest in their international careers. Rahul Dravid didn't score a run in Australia in 1999, but returned to be a match-winner in 2003-04. The moving ball poses the toughest challenge in international cricket, but what better way to learn playing it than practising against it.
Which county wouldn't want a couple of fine Indian batsmen?
Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo. @sambitbal