Sans Virat Kohli, where is India's backbone?

A lower-back injury might leave India without their captain at Trent Bridge. If that comes to pass, how will their beleaguered batting cope?

Nagraj Gollapudi
On Sunday afternoon, as Virat Kohli lay flat on the ground, getting treatment on his lower back, he banged the turf with his clenched right fist. It was not just the reaction of a captain in pain. It was the reaction of man who knew India were now flattened in the series despite three Tests still remaining.
After losing at Edgbaston, a Test they probably should have won, Kohli asked his batsmen to hold up a mirror and reflect upon their mistakes. That mirror lies shattered. All the Indian batsmen, including Kohli in the first innings, made it clear no lessons were learned.
When none of your specialist batsmen cross 30 for four innings except one (Kohli), it is time for India to admit that their batting is in a rut. If only one batsman has made a century and fifty, as Kohli did at Edgbaston, you know there is a problem.
What would worry India more is the fact that this has not been the first time their batting unit has failed to show the mental rigour, make the technical adjustments, and show the presence of mind to capture the moment and conquer bowlers overseas.
The questions that confronted India's batsmen in South Africa at the start of the year have only grown more pronounced. If anything, some more questions have piled up here in England. In South Africa, where Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada used seam, bounce and pace to dismantle them, the batsmen only managed a century and three fifties between them in three Tests.
In England, James Anderson, Sam Curran, Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad have left India's batting exposed against sideways movement in overcast and seaming conditions. The most worrisome thing for Kohli, head coach Ravi Shastri and batting coach Sanjay Bangar is the uncertainty in mind and technique every specialist batsman has displayed, thus allowing England's bowlers to seize the initiative without needing to toil.
At Edgbaston India lasted 130.2 overs in total. At Lord's they could barely play out a session in the first innings, getting bowled out in 35.2 overs. Nothing much changed in the second as their vigil persisted for 47 overs.
Remarkably Kohli has faced 32% of all balls faced by India in the series so far, while M Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane put together have faced only 34%. Eight of India's top 10 partnerships involve Kohli. Only three times so far have India put on a partnership of 50 or more.
So even before they travel to Nottingham to deal with the questions posed by England's fast bowlers, India have a more pressing question to answer: What do they do about their top order?
Vijay cannot seem to figure out whether he wants to bat defensively, which used to be his strength, or push the run rate as he attempted to in South Africa. Leaving the ball was how Vijay built his innings and transferred the pressure back onto the new-ball bowlers in his best years. But that strength has diminished now and he looks uncertain.
Former India captain Sunil Gavaskar called Shikhar Dhawan the first "scapegoat" to fall each time there is a batting failure in the top order. Gavaskar felt India ought to play six batsmen and said Dhawan, being a left-hander, would provide variety. But Dhawan hasn't looked solid right through the red-ball leg of this tour, bagging a pair in the warm-up match, getting out twice to loose drives at Edgbaston, and looking vulnerable even in the net sessions at Lord's - where he was dropped - playing with hard hands and edging frequently.
In the first innings at Lord's, Rahul got a jaffa from Anderson. On Sunday morning, he overbalanced while playing forward and across the line, a risky idea given Anderson was bowling from the Pavilion End, from where the Lord's slope tends to aid the incoming delivery. Anderson's inswinger duly trapped him plumb in front.
Rahul understood his mistake and shook his head at Pujara, who might have suggested going for a review. In the first innings Rahul had stood outside the crease, as he had done at Edgbaston following Kohli's example to negate the swing. However, on Sunday, Rahul stood back in his crease. He spent close to half an hour at the crease in both innings, but struggled to find his footing and returned disappointed.
Of all the Indian batsman at Lord's, Pujara showed the most composure. He faced the most balls and spent the most minutes at the crease of all of India's batsmen, having replaced Dhawan. Pujara put aside the farcical run out in the first innings and started afresh on Sunday. Anderson tested his patience and his technique by probing the off-stump line while seaming the odd delivery back in.
A brief passage of play lasting about half an hour after lunch on day four, when Pujara and Rahane resisted grittily, was the best phase of batting for India. The runs trickled rather than flowed, but the contest showed portents of a resurgence.
The argument against Pujara is he slows things down, increasing the pressure on the rest of the batting order. But at Lords's, playing time was the best solution in the overcast conditions. Pujara plays to a pattern. For the first 30 runs of his innings Pujara's strike rate is 34 in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa while it is 44 in Asia since January 2016. Should Pujara not score at a faster clip so he can get build his confidence simultaneously and be more effective?
Then there is Rahane, India's vice-captain. Like Kohli, Rahane spoke about conquering the situations in the mind after India were bundled out for 107 in the first innings. Yet, on Sunday, when confronted with the challenge of arresting a collapse after India were 13 for 2, Rahane showed frail technique against the moving ball once again. Rahane's highest score so far in this series is 18. In four innings he has edged three times to the slips and once to keeper Johnny Bairstow. It makes for disheartening reading, given he was India's most consistent batsman on their previous cycle of overseas tours from December 2013 to January 2015.
Between Vijay, Dhawan, Rahul, Pujara and Rahane, only one - Pujara - has a 50 on this year's tours of South Africa and England. Vijay is the only one to have played all five Test matches. Rahul and Pujara have played four each, Rahane three and Dhawan two.
Given that only one has been an ever-present, critics have blamed Kohli and Shastri for chopping and changing constantly and failing to provide their players any security. Kohli has made at least one change in each of his 37 Tests as captain. It is a fair point. It is important that the team management has a clear chat with the players to figure out what is troubling them.
Summarising the batting woes, Kohli suggested the issue was more mental than technical. "I don't see any technical deficiency," Kohli said after the innings defeat at Lord's, his worst as a captain. "If a batsman is clear in the head and he's clear about the plans he's taking, then if the ball does something off the pitch, you're able to counter it."
The batsmen, Kohli stressed, need to stop clouding their minds with scenarios that don't exist. "The only thing that can work and which does work is being very clear and blank in your head, and then reacting to what the ball is doing rather than expecting it to do something. The focus has to be what the team requires and not what individual games need to be. We are going to try our level best to get into that frame of mind where we are thinking team all the time and then the intent will come through. We'll be scoring runs, taking on the bowling and showing more intent with the bat, which is what is required from the next game onwards."
The implications of Kohli's injury are serious. If he fails to regain fitness for the Trent Bridge Test, or even the rest of the series, do India have a back-up plan? Do India have the backbone?

Nagraj Gollapudi is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo