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Analysis

Can India's batters restore the balance of power against England's spinners?

They have done it before but will have to do it with a shuffling batting order finding its feet

R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Axar Patel, Kuldeep Yadav.
Jack Leach, Rehan Ahmed, Tom Hartley, Shoaib Bashir, Joe Root.
One of these spin attacks began this India-England series with 849 wickets at a combined average of 23.35, and the other with 191 wickets at 36.83.
Two Tests into the series, one of them has taken 33 wickets at 33.90, and the other 23 at 38.39.
It's one thing that the averages are as close to each other as they are, given how brutally India's spinners had outperformed their opposite numbers over their decade of home dominance leading into this series. It's another thing entirely that those averages are the wrong way round.
There's reason to believe, too, that luck has contributed significantly to England's returns so far. Where India's batters have achieved a significantly better control percentage against spin than their England counterparts, their errors have cost them a lot more often. Roughly one in eight false shots from India's batters has cost them their wicket, while England's batters have survived 12 false shots per dismissal on average.
Luck tends to even out over long series, but so far in this one, it has felt like India have contributed to their own misfortune, failing to turn their control into dominant positions.
On day two in Hyderabad, a string of their batters were out to attacking shots against spin, with none of their top five falling to the traditional modes of dismissal: bowled, lbw, caught by keeper, slips or bat-pad. It was a passage of play that Rahul Dravid, India's head coach, singled out as critical to their failure to convert a dominant position into one from which they could not lose. India's first-innings lead of 190 was a tall order to overturn, but not one immune to a once-in-a-lifetime innings from Ollie Pope.
"I thought we left probably 70 runs on the board in the first innings," Dravid said. "You know, I think in our first innings, when conditions were pretty good to bat in on day two, I thought in the kinds of situations we got ourselves into, some good starts and we didn't really capitalise. We didn't get a hundred, you know, we didn't get somebody getting a really big hundred for us. So, in some ways, in India, I just felt we left those 70-80 runs back in the hut in the first innings."
The feeling that India were leaving scorable runs unscored persisted into the second Test in Visakhapatnam. Five of their top six got past 20 in their first innings, and one of them scored a double-hundred, but their total fell just short of 400. In the second innings, India were at one point 354 ahead with six wickets in hand, but the target they set England fell, once again, just short of 400.
Both innings were peppered with strange, hard-to-diagnose dismissals. In the first innings, Rohit Sharma glanced an offbreak straight into the lap of leg slip, and Axar and KS Bharat hit uppish square cuts straight to backward point. Shubman Gill gloved a reverse-sweep soon after reaching his hundred in the second innings, and Bharat pulled a long-hop straight into midwicket's hands. On that Visakhapatnam pitch, spinners occasionally got the ball to stop and bounce awkwardly, so all those shots came with a certain amount of room for things to go wrong. Individually, it was hard to say whether the batters chose the wrong shot or executed the right shot poorly or happened to get that one ball that turned or bounced just that little bit more. Collectively, they added up to a picture of a line-up failing to cash in against a not-particularly-threatening attack, and failing to bat their opposition out of the game, for the second time in a row.
It cost India a Test match in Hyderabad, and without Jasprit Bumrah doing Jasprit Bumrah things, who knows what could have happened in Visakhapatnam.
It can happen when a batting line-up loses experienced heads. Virat Kohli is out of the entire series, and India seem to have moved on fully from Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. They began the series with a top six of whom only three had played more than 30 Tests, and two of these three - KL Rahul and Jadeja - missed the second Test with injuries. Even the more experienced batters who have featured in this series are getting used to new roles: Gill and Rahul are still new to the middle order, and Axar in Visakhapatnam was designated to bat in the top six for the first time
Most of these players, meanwhile, are white-ball regulars, so the only red-ball cricket they have played in recent months is the Test series at the turn of the year in South Africa - a series played on extravagantly seam-friendly pitches where they didn't face a single ball of spin. It isn't surprising then, that these batters have seemed a little rusty when it's come to milking inexperienced spinners for session after session, keeping the runs flowing steadily while keeping certain risks - hitting the ball in the air, sweeping from the line of the stumps - to a minimum.
It's a skill that viewers often take for granted when they watch Indian batters, but it needs constant polishing like every other skill. India are no doubt working assiduously on it in the lead-up to the third Test in Rajkot, hoping that their batters can do their bit to restore the balance of power between the two spin attacks.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo