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Analysis

India have a tailender problem and it's not one they can solve easily

Whatever combination of quick bowlers and spinners they pick, their tail is longer and much less good at batting than England's

Ben Stokes celebrates after trapping Ishant Sharma leg before for a duck, England vs India, 4th Test, Ageas Bowl, 4th day, September 2, 2018

India were 150 for 5 chasing 245 to level the 2018 series in Southampton, but lost their last five wickets for 34 runs  •  Stu Forster/Getty Images

That's five of India's last seven defeats in Test cricket away from home. In each of those five Tests, India's first-innings score at six wickets down was better than (or, in the case of Perth, equal to) that of their opponents at the same point. But while the lower orders of England, Australia and New Zealand added 160, 75, 82, 80 and 87 to their scores in those innings, India's last four wickets added 84, 32, 45, 38 and 35.
India, quite clearly, have a lower-order problem.
How bad is it? Well, since the start of 2018, the average of India's lower-order batters (Nos. 8 and below) is 13.39, better only than those of South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan in Test cricket. If you limit this to just the tail (Nos. 9 to 11), India have been the very worst in the world.
This lower-order issue doesn't affect India unduly at home, where, as they showed during their home series against England earlier this year, they can call upon a seemingly endless array of spin-bowling allrounders. Away from Asia, they can't pack their side with spinners. Their first-choice fast bowlers are world-class at their primary skill, but they are severely limited with the bat.
India's Test-match team management in England may, therefore, have watched with a wry smile as Deepak Chahar and Bhuvneshwar Kumar completed a stirring lower-order fightback to steer an entirely different India side to victory in the second ODI against Sri Lanka in Colombo.
Chahar has a first-class bowling average of 35.10, and isn't anywhere near getting a Test-match call-up. A fully fit Kumar would be a vital member of an India Test side in England, but his injury record and his lack of long-format match practice - he last played a first-class game in January 2018 - have made him something of a white-ball specialist of late.
The ODI side in Sri Lanka also includes Hardik Pandya, who would ordinarily be a useful option in a Test squad, capable of slotting in at No. 7 in conditions where India want a fourth seamer. But he's only just starting to bowl regularly in white-ball cricket after recovering from a back stress fracture, and would seem to be some distance away from being able to take on a red-ball bowling workload.
All this leaves only one fast bowler in India's Test squad with any real batting ability, Shardul Thakur. He only averages 16.58 in first-class cricket, but that's probably because he's a late bloomer with the bat. For India, he has been out for single-digit scores only four times in 16 innings across formats, and the 67 he made against Australia at the Gabba suggested he has the eye and basic technique to hold his own as a Test-match No. 8.
But Thakur only played that Test match because all of India's first-choice bowling options, pace and spin, were injured and unavailable. As well as he bowled in that game, particularly in the second innings, he remains, purely in bowling terms, sixth in line among the six pace options in India's squad in England. It's hard to see India picking him in a three-man seam attack; if he plays, it's probably only as one of four fast bowlers.
India, therefore, have a familiar headache going into the first Test, in Nottingham. They have picked five bowlers in each of their last four away Tests, and that, when their first-choice options have been available, has usually meant three fast bowlers plus R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, which gives them batting depth up to No. 8. But that 3-2 combination, as the World Test Championship final in Southampton showed, may not always be ideal in English conditions.
In that WTC final, which was played on a green pitch and almost entirely under overcast skies, New Zealand had four genuine fast-bowling options plus the accurate medium pace of Colin de Grandhomme. They could pick such an attack because de Grandhomme and Kyle Jamieson are allrounders to varying degrees, and their other three fast bowlers can all contribute usefully with the bat, even Trent Boult, who has the highest average of all No. 11s to have batted at least 30 times in Test cricket.
India were unable to match that seam-bowling depth, and while Ashwin bowled magnificently to pick up four wickets and concede only 45 runs in his 25 overs across the two innings, Jadeja ended up somewhat marginalised, and the three quicks overbowled - out of necessity, given the conditions.
This, with or without a second spinner in the attack, has been a recurring issue for India. Overworked fast bowlers - at least relative to those in the opposition - may have played just as much of a role in their lower-order mismatches as fast bowlers who can't bat. Have a look, for instance, at how the two teams distributed their bowling workloads during India's last Test series in England back in 2018.
A couple of things leap out of this chart. One, England's "others" sent down a significantly greater share of overs than India's did. And two, India's fifth-most-used bowler in the series, Jadeja, played just one of the five Tests. England's fifth-most-used bowler, Sam Curran, played four Tests.
That's a clear illustration of England's bowling depth through the series, made possible by the all-round skills of the likes of Curran, Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes. You can play more bowlers if more of them can bat, and those bowlers can ease each other's workloads. Over a series of five Tests, this can make a massive difference.
Having deeper bowling attacks also allows teams to reserve specific bowlers for specific phases of a game, or to match them up against specific opposition batters, as New Zealand did so well in their home series against India in early 2020. In an attack without that depth, each bowler will have to perform multiple roles out of necessity.
On the current England tour, India can't call upon that kind of bowling depth unless they sacrifice their batting depth. Or vice-versa. So how can they cope?
Playing four fast bowlers is one option, allowing them to spread the wicket-taking burden more evenly on seaming pitches. But it won't be easy for India to assemble such an attack. Picking their best four - Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Siraj - would leave them with the equivalent of four No. 11s, so Thakur would almost out of necessity have to be one of the four.
What of the spinners, then? It would be exceedingly difficult for India to drop Jadeja and play a 4-1 seam-spin attack, because that would leave either Ashwin or the untested Thakur batting at No. 7. Jadeja averages 44.47 with the bat over the last five years, and Ashwin 23.58.
A 4-1 attack might require India, therefore, to leave Ashwin out - a move that would be both extremely brave and extremely defensive, given he's in the bowling form of his life, having picked up 48 wickets at 17.95 since the start of the Australia tour, with four of his eight Tests having come away from home. That three of England's potential top seven - Rory Burns, Stokes and Curran - bat left-handed would make it even harder for India to leave Ashwin out.
The most radical option, which might only come into play in extreme seam-bowling conditions like in the Johannesburg Test of 2018, would be to pick four quick bowlers, no spinners, and a specialist batter at No. 6.
But whether they go 3-2, 3-1, 4-1 or 4-0, India's line-up will end with three old-school tailenders, unless their batting coach works some sort of miracle with the likes of Shami and Bumrah.
Compare India's options with those in England's squad for the first two Tests: three seam-bowling allrounders in Stokes, Curran and Ollie Robinson, a spin-bowling allrounder in Dom Bess, and a handy lower-order hitter in Mark Wood. No matter what combination England pick, they will have at least four seam options, and batting depth until at least No. 9. Over five Tests, that depth of resources could prove just as invaluable as it did in 2018, when India's players picked Curran as England's player of the series.
India don't have a Curran or a Stokes. They will once again have to compromise on their batting or bowling depth, or both, out of necessity. It's a fact they will have to live with, as they have done for the last three years, while occasionally casting a longing eye at the opposition camp.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo