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India's cheat code: lower-order muscle

The Nagpur Test against Australia was the most recent example of India's lower-order scoring invaluable runs to win the game

For two-thirds of the second day of the Nagpur Test, Australia seemed to channel the spirit of India's bowlers from the Bengaluru Test of 2017.
In Bengaluru, India had been bowled out for 189 on day one and by stumps had slipped further, by allowing Australia to get away to a strong start. Then they had regrouped and turned in a bowling display of remarkable discipline to begin the process that culminated in one of India's greatest-ever comeback wins.
In Nagpur, Australia were bowled out for 177 on day one, and by stumps had bowled loosely and let India's top order get away to a quick start. Then they regrouped at the start of day two, tightened their lines and lengths, and chipped away at the wickets.
In Bengaluru, India reduced Australia to 269 for 7. In Nagpur, Australia did even better, reducing India to 240 for 7.
At this point, the trajectories of the two Test matches, so tightly entwined this far, decided to go their separate ways. In Bengaluru, India bowled Australia out for 276. In Nagpur, Australia ran into Ravindra Jadeja and Axar Patel.
If this were a videogame, India had keyed in their cheat code.
Jadeja and Axar put on 88. In home Tests since the start of 2021, it was India's 11th partnership of 50 or more for the seventh wicket or below. Axar and Mohammed Shami would then go on to make it 12, adding 52 for the ninth wicket.
In this time, no other team has had nearly as many 50-plus lower-order stands at home as India, with England and Pakistan a distant second with eight each. Four of India's 12 50-plus lower-order stands, meanwhile, have gone on to breach the century mark. Only one other team, Sri Lanka, has had as many as two.
The most remarkable thing about India's lower-order interventions in home Tests is how frequent they've been. The 50-plus stands have come at the rate of nearly one every four partnerships; New Zealand are next best, with one in 7.33 partnerships adding 50 or more.
It's always been a facet of home advantage in Test cricket that the lower orders of home teams tend to perform better than those of the visiting team. Lower-order batters tend not to have all-weather techniques, and they are likelier as a result to contribute with runs and stickability in familiar conditions. At home, moreover, they face bowling attacks who are less suited to the conditions than the home attack.
Over their decade of dominance at home, India have almost always had strong lower orders. Jadeja, R Ashwin and Wriddhiman Saha, for instance, were heavy contributors to their four series wins in the 13-Test 2016-17 season. Australia will remember Saha's century in Ranchi, where he and Cheteshwar Pujara turned a situation of parity into one of overwhelming Indian dominance, and the Saha-Jadeja partnership in Dharamsala that put India's noses ahead in a tense struggle for the first-innings spoils.
Since the start of the home Test series against England in early 2021, however, India's lower order has gone to another level in home Tests. Jadeja sat out that series with an injury, but Axar made his debut, and Washington Sundar, who had made two key lower-order contributions in his debut Test just before this series, at the Gabba, also featured.
India profited from five 50-plus lower-order stands in that series, and four of them stretched to 80 or beyond. Washington and Ashwin were involved in three each, and Axar in one, an eighth-wicket century stand in Ahmedabad.
Axar's lethal bowling in that series turned him into a near-certain pick in home Tests. With Axar joining Jadeja and Ashwin, India now had three frontline spinners who were also genuine allrounders in home conditions, with one of them, Jadeja, a genuine allrounder anywhere in the world.
This meant India could pick all three in nearly every home Test without worrying about their batting, and still play two fast bowlers.
Since the start of 2021, India's spin-bowling allrounders have terrific records at home. Washington and Jadeja average over 60 - they've played only three and four home Tests in this period, respectively - Axar 31.22, and Ashwin 28.38.
This has made winning in India, already the hardest task for away teams in Test cricket, even harder.
As Nagpur showed, lower-order contributions have knock-on effects that go beyond just runs added. From seven down, India added 160 runs to their total, and extended their innings by 56.2 overs.
All those extra overs of wear and tear meant Australia batted on a more challenging pitch than they would have if they'd run through India's lower order quickly. All those extra overs in the field meant Australia's batters played on a more challenging pitch with tired legs and tired minds.
Over the course of a four-Test series, all those extra overs bowled are extra workloads for bowlers to recover from. Australia played a four-man attack in Nagpur, and they may have to do so again in Delhi if Cameron Green isn't fully fit to perform his all-round duties.
All the lower-order contributions have had another effect too - they've moved the spotlight away from India's top-order issues. Since the start of 2021, both Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli have home averages in the 20s, and have looked far less assured against spin than they did in their pomp. KL Rahul's only played one Test in this period, but he's facing scrutiny over his form too. Their two most consistent middle-order contributors in home conditions in recent months, Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer, both missed the Nagpur Test with injury. Pant is out for the entire series, and possibly the rest of the year too, and it isn't yet certain if Iyer will return to play in Delhi.
This piece could have been talking about all that. But it isn't, because India have a cheat code in home Tests.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo