Indian top order and the tumbling like dominoes syndrome

Indian top order and the tumbling like dominoes syndrome

The middle-order wasn't half as sturdy as it should've been, either.

KL Rahul
Lokesh Rahul of India is bowled by Sam Curran. (Photo by Gareth Copley/Getty Images)

Possibly every Indian cricket fan all over the globe was left dejected on Friday (August 3) when the team’s scorecard read 78/5 in the face of an achievable target of 194 runs against England in the first Test at Edgbaston. However, what’s more troubling than the figures themselves, is the alarming frequency of their repetition in recent times. The classic Indian top-order conundrum.

The batting top order fizzling out in pressure situations has emerged as one of the biggest woes for Virat Kohli’s boys. Matches turning into meek surrenders from winnable situations, especially on foreign soil is no longer an aberration. It’s become common enough to be cited as an example. Twitterati recently branded the team’s efforts as “Virat Kohli playing with a team of ten tail-enders.” Although a tad bit too harsh, the words do hit home.

Not altogether a new problem

The concept of depending on a single man to bear the weight of the entire batting order is not a new-found concept in Indian cricket. In the era of Sunil Gavaskar, a well-known quip summed up the Indian batting order to consist of “two and a half batsmen”, namely Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath and the rest of the players making up the other 0.5 portion of the team. Subsequently, the Indian team became equally dependent on the maestro, Sachin Tendulkar.

Remember that infamous Chennai Test between India and Pakistan in 1998? Having been set up a target of 271 runs in the final innings, India received blow after blow in terms of their top order failing to fire. Even then, the Mohammad Azharuddin-led side was cruising towards victory banking on Tendulkar’s mind-boggling 136-run knock. When the master blaster was dismissed by Saqlain Mushtaq, the score was 254/7. With only 17 runs to victory, the Indian tail proved to be an abject failure and Pakistan won the Test by 12 runs.

Present scenario

A nightmarish repeat of the 1998 Test was witnessed by cricket watchers at Birmingham for the last 4 days. Make no mistake, it was a grand game of cricket. The thrill of England’s 1000th Test ran unparalleled in all respects. Be it Kohli’s exceptional century in their first innings or the exciting new prospect for England named Sam Curran who shone both with the bat and the ball, the match was full of twists and turn all throughout.

However, the situation is far from pleasing for the Indian team right now. The top-order failing to fire up and subsequently, costing dolly matches has been repeated one time too many in the recent past. Two tests against South Africa, one against Sri Lanka and the Edgbaston Test, to be specific. Team India failed to chase down two of the top 4 lowest totals (194 versus England, 208 versus South Africa) this year, indicating that there’s ample reason for concern.

Deconstructing the top-order conundrum

To put it bluntly, the top five batsmen, barring Kohli, have only been a pale shade of their sub-continent selves. While Murali Vijay looked nothing short of jittery and uneasy on the crease, a major section of the grievance lies with the otherwise flamboyant, Shikhar Dhawan. The southpaw’s last significant contribution outside the subcontinent was way back in 2014, where 81 runs came off his bat against Australia at Brisbane.

The fact that he contributes to the left hand-right hand opening combination seems to be the only thin thread that Dhawan is hanging from at this moment. But that string seems to be on the verge of being snapped, on the back of the irresponsible batting that the 32-year old has been putting up consistently.

The perpetual instinct of flashing the willow outside the off-stump and nicking the red cherry to the slip cordon or into the waiting gloves of the wicketkeeper was seen to be rampant in the first Test as well. Ajinkya Rahane seemed to be severely under-confident, probably due to the duress of having to prove himself on every opportunity he gets and still stands the risk of not making it to the playing XI in the next game.

One team change that’s going to be debated for quite some time in the future is the decision to play KL Rahul in place of Cheteshwar Pujara. Till date, Pujara has played 5 Tests on English soil with 222 runs in his kitty – figures that don’t seem to tell much about his prowess in the longest format of the game. However, there do come times where the temperament of a player assumes supreme importance, overshadowing past figures and facts. The absence of that steely Rahul Dravid-esque temperament to grit one’s teeth and slog it out in the middle, even if it meant defending a hundred balls, in the team is what hurt India the most.

Rahul, on the other hand, was plain inexperienced in front of the forceful trinity of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Sam Curran. The 101-run T20I innings at Manchester was definitely a stellar performance. But to convert that into a hefty Test innings is a whole different ballgame, one that Rahul still needs time to settle into.

Apart from Virat, who acted as a beacon of light amidst the horrendous batting effort the top order was a let-down in all respects. Add to that a dream 4-wicket haul from the 20-year old Curran, and India were never able to get out of the pit they’d dug for themselves.

Looking ahead

The middle-order wasn’t half as sturdy as it should’ve been, either. Although Hardik Pandya put in an honest effort to rehabilitate the Indian innings in the last stage of the game, the unceremonious departure of Dinesh Karthik in the very first over of the fourth day for a paltry personal score of 20 doesn’t speak volumes about responsibility from a batsman, whose team was in as crucial a juncture as India were at that moment.

Ahead of the monumental Lord’s Test beginning from August 9, India have quite a few difficult questions to tackle; one of which will be surely the inclusion of Cheteshwar Pujara at any cost into the top order. Further, a conclusive decision needs to be made as to what is to be done about Shikhar Dhawan’s consistent lack of consistency. As was seen from the first Test, the most exceptional of bowling spells will not win India matches unless their top order woes are dealt with and dealt with promptly.

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