"Running away, boys, running away."
"Unreal boys, unreal."
"Who's 2-1 up, boys? Who is 2-1 up?"
Virat Kohli was loud and clear in England's ears in the first session of the Southampton Test on Saturday. No one heard those remarks more clearly than Kohli's opposite number, Joe Root. The England captain had decided to drop himself to No. 4 and promote Moeen Ali as one-down. Moeen did not last long. So as Root walked in to take guard with England's lead still slender, Kohli felt India could start ringing the alarm bells despite England leading 2-1 in the five-Test series.
Yet it was Root, who walked up quietly beside Kohli at the post-match presentation later on Sunday afternoon to offer his commiserations to the Indian captain after England won the Pataudi Trophy 3-1.
Test cricket, you brute. Kohli was once again reminded of that dictum, for the second time this series. At Edgbaston, India were on the verge of victory after four days of attritional battle. Yet on the final morning, the lower order lost the nerve. At Lord's, India, as their coach Ravi Shastri said, were "blown away." With the series on line, India came up with a clinical and collective performance at Trent Bridge, which pumped them for an inspired contest in Southampton.
Yet all the relative failings in their batting, which have been evident each time India have been set a target away from home in the past 12 months, swelled up once again and crashed the dreams of winning a series in England, a realistic goal at the outset of the series for the No.1-ranked Test team. India's biggest weakness has been the weak foundation at the top, intensified by non-existent contributions from the lower order. The negligible contributions of their top order because of the openers' struggle to survive the first hour is a sore niggle India have carried for a while now. The contributions from the top three batsman in the four chases India scented an overseas win in through the last eight months have been: Cape Town (target: 208): 13, 16, 4; Centurion: 9, 4, 19 (287); Edgbaston: 6, 13, 13 (target: 194); Southampton: 17, 0, 5 (target: 245).
There have been some unplayable balls, but you cannot say that for every opener. Glitches and shortcomings in technique, improvised bowling plans by the opposition (like M Vijay painfully found out), failure to apply for longer periods of time have all contributed to the opening malaise. In this series, India sent Vijay back home, have played three different openers and it will not come as a surprise if 18-year-old Prithvi Shaw debuts at The Oval later this week.
The burden thus has fallen on Kohli, who has been the lodestar of India's batting ever since he became the captain. No batsman on either side has shown the flexibility of mind and application like Kohli, who became the first Indian captain to score 500-plus runs in an overseas Test series. But even Kohli, by his own admission, has fallen prey to distractions as he showed chasing a wide, fuller delivery from Sam Curran twice in this series. Both of those errant shots came at crucial junctures. At Edgbaston, on the final morning, Kohli took India to the final bend, but then slipped. Then, on the first day in Southampton, just as a partnership with Cheteshwar Pujara began flourishing, Kohli played a loose shot on the cusp of a half-century.
On Sunday, Ajinkya Rahane played his most assured innings of this tour. His duel with Moeen in the second session was one of the best sessions of Test cricket this series. Planting his front foot well forward, Rahane met the ball in front of his pad to negate the turn Moeen was getting from the footholes. Rahane would swiftly slide his feet back if the ball was fuller. Rahane would end up raising his bat quietly for what was only his second fifty in the fourth innings across his career - incidentally both came in Southampton.
Sadly, though, Rahane has failed otherwise to impose himself on the old ball, falling easily to his nemesis Ben Stokes. His average this series so far has been 27.50 as compared to England's No. 5 who averages 41.
As watchful and mindful Rahane was, critics have already started highlighting the fact that he hit only one boundary - a four - during his 207-minute vigil. They are also pointing out that Rahane never set the tone for attack. But the balls and the circumstances did not allow him to do that either. All said and done, India do have a problem against quality spin. And it is not new. Four years ago too, Moeen had crippled India.
That brings us to the biggest weakness of Indian batting - the lower order comprising Hardik Pandya, Dinesh Karthik/Rishabh Pant and R Ashwin. England's lower order and tail (Nos. 6-10) have scored 900 runs at an average of 29.03 which includes centuries from Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes, and three half-centuries, two of which are by Curran. This set of batsmen has contributed 51.84% of runs England have scored so far. India's lower order and tail, meanwhile, have scored 411 runs at an average of 12.08 with a solitary fifty, scored by Pandya in the second innings of the victory at Trent Bridge.
Narrow that down to Nos. 6 to 9 and the problem worsens further for India. England's batsmen at those positions have scored 851 runs (49%) in contrast to 360 by India's, which is 21%. Seven out of the nine wickets Moeen took in Southampton comprised India's lower order and tail. A cursory look at the way Pandya, Ashwin and Pant struggled in both innings and the manner of some of the dismissals will explain their weak state of mind. If India have headaches at the top, India's lower back is painfully weak right now.
If one thing you could have been sure of, though, at least based on the words of the captain, the coach and the players, was that Kohli's team knew how to scrap. They knew how to respond if they were roughed up. They did stand up at the Wanderers. They again stood up at Trent Bridge. However, as Kohli said on Sunday, India do not know how to "cross the line" yet consistently when the occasion presents itself. Scrapping cannot be merely words and a few good results. It means when it really matters, as it did in Southampton, you deliver.
Kohli was a defeated man as the sun softened on the Ageas Bowl on Sunday afternoon. He urged his troops that they could not be satisfied by just competing. They ought to put in more efforts, be braver in tough situations and, be present in the situation.
Kohli felt the final scoreline does not signify the true nature of the series - he pointed out India had made England earn their two victories outside of Lord's. True, but in the end, would he really want 3-1 to become 4-1 at The Oval?
MS Dhoni's teams lost 4-0 in 2011 and then 3-1 in 2014. Kohli and Shastri have pointed out that this team has more balance and, crucially, a better fast-bowling attack India have had than at any other point of time. But the bowlers are striving and have succeeded despite the dry nature of the pitches this summer. They have also been resolute with the bat and saved India embarrassment as Ishant Sharma and Jasprit Bumrah showed in the first innings in Southampton.
But India's frontline batsmen ought to show they can seize the opportunities overseas; those opportunities do not come often. If they don't, the words used to sledge the opposition will serve as mere rhetoric.