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India's fourth-innings fumble: What has gone wrong?

They have now failed to defend targets in three successive overseas Tests, but is it just an India thing?

Johannesburg, Cape Town, Birmingham. India have now failed to defend targets in three successive overseas Tests. Each time, the targets were sizeable - 240 and 212 in challenging batting conditions in South Africa, and 378 on a flat pitch against England - and each time, India only picked up three final-innings wickets.
It's a jarring run of results, and a particularly concerning one for India, given how much they pride themselves on the ability to take 20 wickets in all conditions. So what has gone wrong?
Is it just an India thing?
We're just over halfway into 2022, but there have already been six successful chases of 200-plus targets this year. One more, and 2022 will equal 2008's all-time record.
Overall, teams have averaged 34.27 runs per wicket in the fourth innings this year. It's been the best year for batting in the fourth innings since 2008, and not only that, this year of plenty has followed more than half-a-decade's drought. From 2014 to 2021, teams averaged 27.50 or less in the fourth innings.
England, of course, have been - as a team - and has been - as a host country - responsible for four of the six successful 200-plus chases of 2022 - three times against New Zealand and once against India. Never before has one team pulled off four such chases in a single year, and England have achieved this unprecedented feat by batting in a near-unprecedented manner in conditions that have been unusually batting-friendly.
Both India and New Zealand toured England in 2021, played each other once, and then played against the hosts, going away with a 1-0 series win and a 2-1 series lead respectively. The England of 2022, however, was a land of flatter pitches and a batch of Dukes balls that lost most of its sting after around the 30-over mark. The England of 2022 were also a team that batted in a proactive manner that both befitted the conditions and made them even harder to bowl in, reducing the bowlers' margin for error significantly. For both New Zealand and India, touring England in 2022 was like visiting an entirely new cricketing nation.
Have India missed Ishant Sharma?
One common factor across India's three fourth-innings reverses was a worrying lack of support for Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. Mohammed Siraj, who was injured during South Africa's first innings in Johannesburg, only bowled six overs during their chase and struggled for rhythm. Umesh Yadav, who replaced Siraj in Cape Town, failed to sustain the pressure created by Bumrah and Shami, conceding four an over during the fourth innings. At Edgbaston, both Thakur and Siraj went for more than a run a ball across the two England innings.
In India's last four away Tests, including their win in Centurion, Shami and Bumrah bowled nearly 60% of their fast bowlers' overs, and the reason for this has been obvious: they have been India's biggest wicket threats while also offering the most control of all their seamers. In these four Tests, they were the only two seamers with an economy rate of less than 3.5, with Thakur going at 3.76 and Siraj and Umesh conceding more than four an over.
In Johannesburg, Cape Town and Birmingham, India's bowling often lacked both potency and control when Bumrah and Shami took breaks between spells. At these times, they seemed to miss a third seamer in the mould of Ishant Sharma, who, in the 14 Tests he played alongside Bumrah and Shami, had both the best average (20.46) and economy rate (2.56) of all of India's quicks.
Ishant was part of India's squad in South Africa but didn't get to play, with Umesh chosen ahead of him when Siraj picked up his injury, and was dropped from the squad for the Edgbaston Test. He was a key contributor to India's win at Lord's last year, but he was down on both pace and accuracy in the next Test in Leeds, where he went at more than four an over in an innings defeat. He has only played one Test since then, in Kanpur last November.
It's unclear if Ishant remains in India's long-term plans, but it's clear that they need someone who can do what he did in his best years, whether it's a rejuvenated Ishant, or Prasidh Krishna - the successor India seem to have identified for the tall, hit-the-deck fast bowler's role - or simply Siraj with improved control.
Have the fast bowlers over-attacked?
England's chase at Edgbaston had a few broad similarities to their unsuccessful chase of a similar target in the fourth Test at The Oval last year. Their openers put on a century stand, before India struck back with quick top-order wickets, including the run-out of a left-hand batter during a Ravindra Jadeja over.
But where Rory Burns and Haseeb Hameed took 40.4 overs to put on 100 at The Oval, Alex Lees and Zak Crawley only took 21.4 overs to add 107 at Edgbaston. While England had an entirely new batting philosophy and the conditions were quicker-scoring, India's bowling had also changed.
In the first 30 overs of England's chase at The Oval, India's fast bowlers were relentless with their lengths, hitting a good length 63% of the time, according to ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data. This despite not taking a wicket in that period. In the first 30 overs at Edgbaston, however, they only hit a good length 39% of the time, with more frequent forays into the full and short-of-good-length zones, and also slipping in the odd attempted yorker or bouncer, which they didn't try at The Oval.
A lot of this was down to the conditions, of course. The pitch was benign, and where the Dukes ball has generally gone flat after around the 30-over mark during this English summer, even the new one India picked out at Edgbaston did very little. It's always easier to bowl a good length when a bit of help is available. At The Oval, Burns and Hameed scored at just 1.61 per over off good-length balls. At Edgbaston, good-length balls went at four an over even when the ball was less than 30 overs old.
To add to this, England's top order made every effort to put India off their lengths. Lees made the gameplan very clear in just the second over, when he stepped out of his crease and swiped Shami through the leg side. Crawley would soon show a similarly adventurous spirit too, frequently driving on the up and on one occasion whipping a fourth-stump ball through midwicket.
Even so, should India have deviated so much from a good length? And the events of Edgbaston weren't a one-off. In Cape Town, you could have made the same case against India's bowlers in far more helpful conditions.
On the fifth morning of that Test, they took the high-risk, high-reward option of bowling full lengths to Keegan Petersen and Rassie van der Dussen, and suffered when luck went South Africa's way. Bumrah and Shami beat the bat repeatedly without creating outright chances, and also went for quick runs. It was a gamble that could have come off on another day, but might India have been better served by hammering away on a good length, given the help on offer?
The South Africa tour and Edgbaston Test were India's first overseas assignments under Rahul Dravid and Paras Mhambrey. It's too early to tell if this tendency to search for attacking lengths - if two examples can point to a tendency in the first place - is part of the new coaching staff's wider gameplan, but it's clear enough that the coaches and the bowlers need to spend a lot more time together before we get a coherent sense of their ideas.
Did the batters do enough?
In Cape Town, India took a narrow first-innings lead before their batting collapsed around a sensational third-innings hundred from Rishabh Pant. Conditions were tricky to bat in, but there was one passage of play that India may have rued, when Virat Kohli, R Ashwin and Shardul Thakur were all out to drives away from the body, and 152 for 4 (effectively 165 for 4) became 170 for 7. Rather than set South Africa upwards of 250, as seemed likely when Kohli and Pant were batting, India ended up setting them 212.
The third innings at Edgbaston - particularly in the light of how easily England ran down their target - could be seen as another missed opportunity. From 153 for 3, India only added another 92 runs to their total, with Cheteshwar Pujara and Pant falling to attacking shots when well-set, Shreyas Iyer falling into a clearly telegraphed short-ball trap, and the lower order bounced out in a hurry. India had the series lead. They had a significant first-innings lead, and the ideal batting conditions in which to extend it. They had the chance to bat England out of the game, and they failed to take it.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo