India's middle order needs to show more spine, and smarts
Struggles of Pujara, Kohli and Rahane are beginning to become a concern for India
Since 2020 India's middle-order batters - Nos. 3 to 5 - average 27.44 in 13 Test matches with just one century. That is the second-worst average globally, only behind West Indies' 27.06 in 13 Tests.
India's middle order comprises Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. So far in 2021 Pujara has made 389 runs at nearly 28. Kohli has got 271 runs at 27. And Rahane has 261 runs at less than 20. Neither of the three has got a half-century so far in the first two Tests of the England series. There has been just a solitary 50-run stand involving two of these three middle-order batters since the start of 2020 - that was the 61-run alliance between Kohli and Rahane in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand in June in Southampton.
In Nottingham, James Anderson consumed Pujara and Kohli on successive deliveries while Rahane ran himself out embarrassingly. On Thursday, Kohli repeated the mistake he committed in the first Test, this time against Ollie Robinson, while Anderson rattled Pujara and Rahane with deliveries they should have ideally left alone. In both the Tests, the middle-order collapse hurt the hard work and the solid platform created by opening pair of KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma.
While we are talking about three of the best batters in modern-day cricket, including Kohli who is a bonafide great, no one will disagree that their struggles are beginning to become a concern for India. More than the lack of runs, it is the repetitive mistakes each is committing that will bother head coach Ravi Shastri and batting coach Vikram Rathour.
In India's second innings of the WTC final, Kohli went pushing at a length ball from Kyle Jamieson that was moving away from the fourth stump and thereby offered a simple catch to the slips. At Trent Bridge, Anderson pitched the exact same delivery which Kohli once again got sucked into playing and walked back with a golden duck on the first ball of his series. These were the kind of deliveries Kohli had successfully left aside against Anderson and co. on India's 2018 tour of England where he emerged as the best batter on both sides. Kohli has been restless to score runs but with a vulnerable defensive technique on the off stump.
Two days before this Test, Kohli worked on his trigger movement and head position under the close watch of Shastri. While Kohli portrayed confidence scoring runs at a fair clip on Thursday, former India Test opener Deep Dasgupta remained unconvinced by the technical tinkerings. According to Dasgupta, Kohli's front foot (left) is now straighter, pointing to the bowler, which is affecting his balance and his head is consequently falling sideways with his right hip and shoulder opening up in the process. Previously, that same front toe, Dasgupta says, would move towards mid-off and cover allowing him to get a better stride towards the ball as well as leaning into the stroke with the right balance.
Adaptability has been a strength of Kohli and mentally he remains confident as the steadfast innings against England in the first Test of the home series in Chennai, and the 44 against New Zealand in the WTC final proved that.
In contrast, both Pujara and Rahane have been brittle with the bat and the mind. With Pujara you sense the team management has had a word with him post the WTC final about him looking for runs. Pujara signed out of Trent Bridge with an aggressive square-driven four on the penultimate evening and once again showed the same inclination to score during his brief stay on Thursday.
However Anderson had got him twice with deliveries where Pujara was all at sea and responded without moving his feet. On Friday morning, Pujara faced throwdowns from Rathour, who chatted to the batter about finding the right balance in his stance by flexing his knees and staying still at the time of facing the delivery.
VVS Laxman, who is one of the ESPNcricinfo experts for this series, can relate to some of the technical errors that have crept into Pujara's game, something the former Indian great was bothered by in the last years of his career due to a bad back. "Pujara just needs to find the right balance and weight distribution on both legs which will allow him to move his feet and be nimble," Laxman says. "He always had a tendency of crouching too much because of which his head is not still and he gets stuck on the crease. I had this issue in 2011-12 because of my back injury. He needs to exaggerate that feet movement in nets/ throwdowns only then can he move better in the match."
Then there is Rahane. Post his heroic century in Melbourne in December, Rahane has made just 269 runs in 14 innings with just one half century. On the first ball he faced from Anderson on Friday, Rahane was rooted to his crease playing at a delivery that was always shaping away if you just read the seam. But Anderson was bowling from wide of the crease creating the impression that he was angling it into Rahane, who failed to resist the temptation.
Laxman believes Rahane got lured into playing a delivery he should have ideally left because of his "eagerness to score". Rahane, Laxman points out, has been "restless" and "searching" for runs from the Australia tour. "Even today (he had) very, very tentative footwork. Whenever you are indecisive, and whenever you are trying to look at the outcome you always (are) trying to reach out towards the ball especially when you are not high in confidence. You saw Rahane get out in Australia (in) very similar fashion - you talk about Adelaide, you talk about Brisbane."
Laxman then went on dissect the delivery from Anderson on Friday that defeated Rahane as well as Pujara on Thursday. "If you see the replay very closely I thought he was late on the ball. Because his front foot (left) was still in the air. It was not planted (and) that's why there's no transfer of body weight. Once there is no transfer of body weight, once you don't take a front foot stride, you are always playing besides the body, which means you are always reaching out towards the ball. Which is what lead to the dismissal of Pujara and it was the same with Rahane."
From the outset of this tour Kohli has been asked more than once about the lack of contributions recently from Pujara and Rahane. Kohli has defended his two senior batters saying it is a "collective" effort that India needs to pick the team to respond to difficult situations. But without the contributions the questions will keep mounting.
The inconsistency and weak form of the three senior batters has not yet come to haunt India in this series, but it has allowed England to stay in the game. India started Friday on 278 for 3 but their last seven collapsed for just 86 runs. If they want to stick to the template of playing four fast bowers - regardless of whether Shardul Thakur plays - then the Indian middle order needs to show more spine and head.
Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo