Flabby in the middle

Did India really deserve to save the Test? You could say their bowlers did, for after a shocking opening session when they were affected as much by nerves as by lack of practical knowledge about overcoming and using the unique slope at Lord's, they exceeded expectations. You could also hand it to Dinesh Karthik, a young man thrust into a difficult job, who showed both skill and heart, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who rose above his technical difficulties against the moving ball to hang in there. India owes this draw to these unlikely saviours and the benevolence of the weather.
But there is a story within a story. India's three fifties in this Test came from the weakest links: Wasim Jaffer, who came to this Test on the back of three failures; Karthik, who is not a opener; and Dhoni, who had batted like a tailender in the first innings. In the end, to hold out for 96 overs was creditable because it was always going to rain. In fact, it was a surprise that it didn't rain sooner than it did on day five. But what of the men who were expected to deliver for India?

India's mighty middle order came up against England's most enfeebled pace attack in a home Test since 1993 and managed only 192 runs. That's an average of 24. James Anderson cannot be denied credit. He bowled with intelligence and control but the conditions, while challenging, were never impossible. The first-innings score of 201 was probably 150 short of what was achievable.

Is it too early to make a reassessment of India's batting strength? Wasn't it a similar story in 2002, when the Indian middle order collapsed twice to lose them the Test at Lord's, only to reveal its full splendour in the matches that followed? That series, in fact, heralded a golden run for India lasting about 18 months. Now that they have the breathing space of a draw behind them, can they not be expected to flower again?

They well may, for far more unlikely things have happened in cricket. If you're a betting man, though, don't put your money on it yet. This is a batting order that has long lived on reputation; three years, to be precise. Not since the tour of Pakistan in early 2004 has India's middle order earned the right to be termed mighty.

Let's dispense with the numbers first. In Test matches since that series, Sachin Tendulkar averages 45.67, Sourav Ganguly 36.24 and VVS Laxman 33.70. But even these numbers hide the reality for none them has failed to cash in on weak opponents. Three of Tendulkar's last four hundreds - including a career-best 248 - have come against Bangladesh, Ganguly has scored hundreds against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, his only centuries since a stirring 144 against Australia at Brisbane in 2003, and Laxman has got a hundred against Zimbabwe. Remove these runs and the story is dire. Tendulkar's average dips to 31.19, Ganguly's to 29.40 and Laxman's to 32.19.

Increasingly it looks likely that this is what India's once-glittering middle order is capable of providing in demanding conditions: battling thirties and the odd half-century. That's what Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly provided at Lord's and that's what they did against Australia, Pakistan and South Africa in 2004-05, and against South Africa earlier this year. More than 20 Tests in the space of three years is a long enough sample period to present a pattern and, despite what the rest of this series might bring, it's about time to bury the myth about India's middle order.

India's batting in recent years has been about two men. One of them isn't here. Despite his failure in South Africa, Virender Sehwag averages 46.89 in Tests since May 2004 and, incredibly, his average goes a couple of points higher if you remove his Tests against Zimbabwe.

The other is Rahul Dravid, who averages nearly 50 without his runs against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. India missed a big innings from him in South Africa. It was the first time since 2000 that he'd gone through a series without a half-century and it perhaps cost India the series. In both innings at Lord's he was dismissed without getting in, which is not something that can be said about Tendulkar, Laxman and Ganguly.

Batsmen who get into the 30s can't be described as out of form. But the failure to push on from there must point to something. Has the process of survival become so onerous that it is draining away the mental resources needed to construct more substantial innings? Can the body no longer endure the rigour? Is it a combination of both?

Indian cricket would be living in denial if it fails to acknowledge the decline. Cherish their golden years but don't expect them to light up a wet summer.

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