August 15, 2008

India's middle-order blues

How Murali and Mendis brought about one of the worst batting displays by the Indian middle order in the last 40 years

Dravid and Tendulkar both failed to come to grips with Sri Lanka's spinners despite the solid platforms laid by the openers © AFP

It was billed as the battle between the best middle order in Test cricket and the most exciting spin combination going around, but it turned out surprisingly one-sided. Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis so mesmerised Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman that it resulted in one of the worst batting displays by the Indian middle order in the last 40 years.

Over the last decade, this Indian line-up has given crowds the world over plenty to cheer about, but this time they were well and truly outclassed - Mendis averaged 22.80 against the four, with ten wickets, while Murali conceded only 26.25 for each of his eight wickets against them.

Too often the grouse against India's batting has been the inconsistency of their openers, which puts too much pressure on the middle order and prevents them from expressing themselves fully. This time, though, India capitulated despite outstanding starts from Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir: in four out of six innings the opening partnership topped 50, with a highest of 167; the rest, however, still managed to flounder.

The table below lists India's worst middle-order performances (runs scored by Nos. 3-6) in a series since 1970, and this one ranks pretty high on the list. Three of the top five instances have been since 2000, but on two of those occasions the opening stands were non-existent: in New Zealand in 2002-03 the conditions were so heavily loaded in favour of swing and seam that India's opening partnerships read 2, 23, 1, and 2. Things weren't much better in the home series against Australia in 2004-05, when the openers managed a highest partnership of only 31, exposing the middle order to McGrath and Co. almost every time.

The performance of the Indian batsmen in this series was quite similar to what happened to them against Pakistan at home in 1983-84. On that occasion Sunil Gavaskar and Aunshuman Gaekwad, the openers, averaged 81 for the first wicket - though that was largely thanks to an undefeated 176-run partnership in a match that was heading for a certain draw - but the middle order, comprising Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Yashpal Sharma and Sandeep Patil, couldn't manage even a half-century among them through the series.

Worst performances by India's middle order (Nos. 3-6) in a series since 1970 (at least 15 innings)
Series Middle-order innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s Ave opening stand
Pakistan in India 1983-84 16 245 15.31 0/ 0 81.00
India in New Zealand 2002-03 16 287 17.93 0/ 2 7.00
England in India 1976-77 40 731 18.27 0/ 4 30.00
Australia in India 2004-05 28 554 20.51 0/ 4 13.71
India in Sri Lanka 2008 24 494 20.58 0/ 2* 71.83
India in England 1974 24 492 22.36 0/ 3 32.16
India in Australia 1991-92 36 861 24.60 3/ 2 26.77
South Africa in India 1999-2000 16 411 25.68 1/ 1 22.25
India in West Indies 1988-89 25 625 26.04 2/ 2 16.42
India in New Zealand 1980-81 20 512 26.94 0/ 4 41.60
* Excludes Laxman's unbeaten 61in the second innings of the third Test, when he batted at No.7

These aren't good times for the famed four in the Indian middle order, but they have also put together some of the most memorable batting performances in Indian cricket, as the table below shows. Of the top ten instances listed below, six have been since 2000, and three of them outside the subcontinent. The openers helped them out sometimes with significant partnerships, but even when they didn't, the middle order still managed to turn on the tap - in England in 2002, against Pakistan in 2007-08, and in the West Indies in 2001-02, the opening stands hardly produced significant numbers, with the average stand less than 20 on each occasion. However, in England and in the West Indies, India had an exceptional No. 3 who soaked up the early pressure and made life much easier for the batsmen who followed. Dravid's influence on the Indian batting has been immense over the last eight years, but his recent failures have hurt India badly. His only significant contribution against Sri Lanka came in the last innings of the series, and it only delayed the inevitable.

Best performances by India's middle order in a series since 1970 (at least 15 innings)
Series Middle-order innings Runs Average 100s/ 50s Ave opening stand
India in Australia 2003-04 28 1780 80.90 5/ 6 57.37
Pakistan in India 2007-08 23 1281 75.35 4/ 5 19.83
New Zealand in India 2003-04 16 813 67.75 3/ 4 56.25
Sri Lanka in India 1997-98 16 1012 67.46 3/ 6 37.75
Australia in India 1997-98 20 1111 65.35 3/ 6 86.00
India in England 2002 24 1510 62.91 5/ 7 17.00
India in Pakistan 2003-04 16 898 59.86 3/ 3 45.00
England in India 1984-85 32 1563 57.88 6/ 4 16.90
New Zealand in India 1999-2000 21 974 57.29 4/ 2 57.83
India in West Indies 2001-02 32 1531 56.70 3/ 10 18.37

Kumble's lean trot
While the Sri Lankan spinners spun rings around the Indian batsmen, India's captain and leading spinner struggled throughout, bowling plenty for little reward. Anil Kumble toiled almost 135 overs for his eight wickets, which came at a cost of 400 runs, giving him an exorbitant average of exactly 50 runs per wicket. In his previous series, against South Africa at home, he was even more ineffective, conceding 60.25 runs for each of his four wickets, making it the first time in his entire career that he has averaged 50 or more in two successive series. In his entire career, Kumble's series average has exceeded 50 on eight occasions (excluding one-off Tests), of which three have been outside the subcontinent. Sri Lanka continues to be his worst venue - his average there is 15 more than his career average. (Click here for Kumble's series-wise averages, and here for his career summary.)

S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo.