England v India, 5th Investec Test, The Oval August 16, 2014

India's batting stars fail toughest test

What counts against Kohli and Pujara is that they haven't been able to find a way to master trying conditions over an extended series
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We will keep battling away - Ashwin

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • A.Ak on August 22, 2014, 14:12 GMT

    Yes, stars failed. Players played well. Kholi and Pujara - has the shades of Sachin and Dravid. Thats it nothing more (no one will ever be). We made them starts before even prove themselves in this level..

  • jay57870 on August 20, 2014, 0:27 GMT

    Well, Sambit, pinch yourself! It's actually happened - superfast - even before Shastri, the new Director of Cricket (ODIs in Eng), could utter the word "start"! Pujara has been given the green light - superfast - by BCCI to play county cricket! Two superfast decisions!! Wow!! With Shastri in charge, the doors have now been kicked open for a few chosen stars - batsmen & bowlers - to follow suit. Who knows, maybe one of them could even play alongside Jimmy Anderson? After all, the top two Test teams - SA & Oz - have their stars playing in IPL. In fact, Brett Lee credits Mitchell Johnson's resurgence to his IPL stint. Even Warner has fought his way back into Tests. Maybe BCCI is finally listening and acting? Which county wouldn't want India's brightest stars, Sambit?

  • jay57870 on August 19, 2014, 12:52 GMT

    Sambit - Yes, the most practical solution lies in the last sentence: County Cricket! To prepare India's "batting stars" for Test cricket, what better way than to experience real English cricket in the trenches of a Lancashire or Sussex? India's greats have done it - Sourav (Lancs), Rahul (Kent), Sachin (Yorkshire), Viru (Leicester). Even the bowlers - Zaheer (Worcester), Kumble (Surrey), Srinath (Glouster). Go even further back - Gavaskar, Engineer, Bedi, Kapil & Shastri. Yes, Shastri (Glamorgan): the new Director of Cricket (ODIs in Eng)! He, with his fellow commentators - Wasim, Sourav, & even Nasser Hussain - have been strongly advocating this very point. A season or two will "season" them - hone their skills vs the "moving ball" and swing on "seaming wickets". Importantly, they'll learn to fend for themselves (housework, finances), assume personal responsibility. It's a "finishing" school. But first Shastri (BCCI) has to "start" it: Which county wouldn't want Kohli or Pujara?

  • highveldhillbilly on August 18, 2014, 9:26 GMT

    I think the SA tour may have done more damage than good for Kohli and Pujara and India's batting in general. Both pitches were really flat, especially Joburg but the Durban pitch was also had very little in it for the bowlers. I think their relatively successful 2 test encounter masked the issues they were about to encounter in England. The pitches in NZ weren't exactly green tops either...

  • himsez on August 17, 2014, 18:13 GMT

    Please dont club Kohli and Pujarar. Kohli is not new. Pujara did play atleast 4 good inings. Kohli was a disaster. Indian team was a disaster.

  • glen1 on August 17, 2014, 17:40 GMT

    Sounds a bit cynical to call for a two test series for India; but you have to play to your strengths. Watching Olympics running, nobody bats an eyelid when different origin people excel at the 100m, 1500m, and marathon runs. Why would it be any different in cricket? West Indies has shown it, and India will have to head that way; optimize the returns for your public. Test cricket is a luxury that can wreck havoc on productivity, and only countries with good overall bank accounts (not just in cricket) can afford it.

  • dummy4fb on August 17, 2014, 17:32 GMT

    The BCCI will not send any of its Test stars to County cricket - they're needed to keep interest in the IPL! When they set out to emulate the English Premier League in football, they (perhaps unwittingly) ended up emulating the English national football team too - the supposed best league in the world certainly doesn't guarantee the best national side, and as some of us in England have come to think, club or franchise can become an obstacle to national success.

  • Azfar on August 17, 2014, 17:27 GMT

    Having followed Indian Cricket closely since 1982.............the last 3 Tests in this series have been the most gutless display ever put up by an Indian Team over a period of time.......just imagine English tail gets 101 runs in 11 overs in the morning and on the same pitch the whole Indian team rolls over for 94 in 29 overs in the afternoon !! MARK MY WORDS ---- 'NOTHING WILL CHANGE AFTER THIS, EVEN DUNCAN FLETCHER WILL STAY'...........BCCI will tell us 'WE ARE BIG 3, WE CONTROL WORLD CRICKET'........... For God's sake the whole world is laughing at us .......today the English commentators were comparing India with Bangladesh & Zimbabwe......

  • FlatTrakBully on August 17, 2014, 17:27 GMT

    Team should move on. 3-1 is similar to 4-0 loss, but its better than England's record of 5-0 loss,. (Practicing county without IPL, BBL)

  • glen1 on August 17, 2014, 17:12 GMT

    After the dust settles down; BCCI & Dhoni need to make a quick assessment. The outcome should be that India plays only two test series from now on, concentrates on one-day cricket and IPL, and crowds should be entertained. All this talk of IPL as the cause of this demise is rubbish; the loss to GNP playing the long format game is tremendous. Further, the players used to short formats should not be put through this five test nonsense. Test cricket is a luxury that countries like India cannot afford.

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