Two worrisome trends return for India in Mirpur
Oppositions have been able to push back from positions of struggle while batting and India's top four are not as prolific as they used to be
India might still win this one. In fact they are still favourites to win this Test because their in-form batters are yet to come out to bat, but the third day's play in Mirpur was like a teaser in which what once were faraway clouds slowly get darker.
This is a team in transition. Their main batters are past their best, they rarely get a pick of their first-choice bowlers, and they don't have a fit captain. In this year alone, India have had three captains in seven Tests. There is a revolving door in the bowling department because of fitness issues and the odd debatable selection.
This team is not that ruthless clinical side that used to rarely ever let an advantage go. In four Tests this year, India have been in situations they used to close out matches from with eyes closed, but they have lost three of those and are 45 for 4 chasing 145 in the fourth.
Two worrisome trends made a comeback in Mirpur on day three where India effectively had Bangladesh at 26 for 6 in the third innings thanks to their 87-run lead in the first innings.
Now it's not like India never conceded partnerships in their golden run, but they always kept a lid on the scoring rate. It used to feel like they automatically knew when to bowl dry and when to attack more. There are many examples of this, not least the Johannesburg win in 2017-18 when Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar added 119 for the second wicket in a chase of 241, but they never ran away, going at little over two an over. In Bengaluru in 2016-17, after getting bowled out on day one, India showed similar control bowling against Australia on day two.
The worrying sign is that in this year, teams have been able to push back from positions of struggle and push back at a pace that India have not been able to arrest.
Defending 239 in Johannesburg in the first Test of the year and 211 in the second, India lost in 67.4 and 63.3 overs respectively. They went searching for wickets instead of just bowling well for long spells, which brought them success earlier. At Edgbaston, England chased down 378 in 76.4 overs at nearly five an over.
In Mirpur, too, it was not so much that Bangladesh added enough runs to make a match out of it, but the pace at which they did so. That, and some good fortune as it showed in Virat Kohli missing three-and-a-half catches, is partly the nature of counterattacks, but when Bangladesh did counterattack it didn't look like they were having to take a lot of risks.
Overall, India bowled well in the third innings. In fact they produced false responses more frequently than Bangladesh did in the fourth, but during the two partnerships that got Bangladesh 106 runs in 20.4 overs they often failed to bowl to their fields, conceding easy boundaries despite in-and-out fields.
It didn't help that India didn't have a third spinner, which seems like a case of having misread the pitch. Axar Patel bowled a 19-over unbroken spell, and India rarely ever could have two spinners in tandem.
On another day, one of the four catches sticks, and we are not talking of this, but that might just cover up the other small cloud on the horizon. The batting of this team in transition has needed Nos. 5 to 8 to bail them out more often than they or their leadership will find acceptable.
Since the start of 2020, India's top four have averaged 31.58; only South Africa, Bangladesh and West Indies have worse numbers. In the matches that India have played over this period, the opposition top 4 has averaged only marginally better, which points to the conditions being tough where India have played.
After a point, batters can do only so much if the bowling is unerring in difficult conditions. That is the nature of Test cricket. Now unless India's bowlers have been way better than the opposition's over this period, the batting cloud is not as dark as it might seem.
It still is a cloud. When India dominated Test cricket from 2016 to 2020, their top four averaged twice the opposition's top four, a little over 50 as against a little over 25. So unless the bowling has dipped dramatically over the last two years, the batting has. Kohli is averaging in the 20s since the start of 2020, Cheteshwar Pujara is barely in the 30s, and only Rohit Sharma is in the 40s.
There has been a dramatic dip in the averages of India's top four, and a small rise in the opposition's top four in this period as compared to the four golden years before that.
A transition has to be delicately handled, and India's World Test Championship hopes also rest on winning four out of five Tests, including this one. Usually you would think India are the favourites to make the final considering the remaining four Tests are at home, where they have lost just two Tests in the last 10 years. However, this batting transition and the occasional bowling profligacy might make their fans more nervous than they should be given their record at home.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo