WTC Final loss gives Virat Kohli reminder of middle-order concerns and other issues ahead of England Tests
“In the past, we’ve landed in places three days prior even in a proper schedule and have had a hell of a series and hell of a competition. So, I think it’s all in the head.”
As India got ready to take the flight to England, Virat Kohli was quick to dismiss the concerns surrounding India’s lack of practice matches ahead of the World Test Championship (WTC) Final.
May be it’s all in the head but there’s a lot in the air also in England. And Kohli’s tune since the final of the championship which India lost by eight wickets has been a little different. With over a month to go for the Test series against England, Kohli, at the WTC Final post-match media meet, wondered why his team has not been offered practice matches.
“We obviously wanted first-class games which I believe has not been given to us. I don’t know what the reasons for that are,” the Indian captain said.
It’s a very valid point. The conditions in England are vastly different than what they are in the Indian subcontinent. It’s quite often cloudy and overcast — conditions promoting swing bowling. The green tops are fast and support seam bowling. To put it bluntly, batsmen and bowlers going from India would require a lot of technical adjustments to adapt successfully to English conditions.
Holding ICC rankings as the benchmark, India have been the best Test side in the last few years and fought valiantly against New Zealand in the WTC Final, but fell short by a big margin. Some would say for such a talented and experienced side, the lack of practice matches can’t really be a concern. The fact that India didn’t play a practice match before the final would be, in any case, forgotten soon. However, what people caring for Indian cricket mustn’t forget is the impact it had on the performance of the team and how costly it could prove to be during the England series.
India need warm-up games
Kiwi skipper Kane Williamson gave a masterclass during the final on how to bat in England. He played late and connected with the ball always “under the eyes”. Kohli doesn’t play late, but he adapted well technique-wise until Kyle Jamieson undid all the good work in both innings. The other Indian batsmen weren’t even that good in encountering the conditions leading to batting collapses in both innings.
Indian pacers often struggled to hit the five to six meters length that gets the batsmen to drive and make mistakes. They also looked short on match fitness as bowling suffered during the end of New Zealand’s first innings.
Thankfully, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has now sprung into action and will be requesting England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to arrange two warm-up matches for India ahead of the five-match Test series against England. That should help Indian players to iron out some of the flaws from their performance in the WTC Final. More importantly, it will help them get into shape and improve match fitness, after all before the WTC Final, they last played competitive cricket in the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2021 which got suspended on 4 May due to COVID-19 cases inside the bio-bubble.
The lack of match practice and dearth of time in acclimatising to conditions, however, was only one among many factors that led to Kohli and Co once again missing out on an ICC trophy, another being the brittle middle-order. It’s an issue that stuck out even during their last away tour in Australia, but the lower-order contributions from Washington Sundar, Shardul Thakur, Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja combined with Rishabh Pant’s astonishing batting helped India win the series.
There are fewer chances of that being repeated in England. The swinging and seaming tracks of England, as compared to Australia’s pacy and bouncy pitches, will challenge the lower-order batsmen the most. The tail also hardly wags for India.
In such a scenario, in bowling-friendly conditions, it’s imperative for the top and middle order to come good, to stand a chance against England. The opening combination is still a work in progress. Rohit Sharma failed to convert the starts (34 and 30) into big scores in the WTC Final but showed composure and willingness to fight. Shubman Gill’s lack of backfoot play is a concern but he is young and will learn with time.
A lot will depend on Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane and Kohli — India’s batting mainstay. Their form, however, is a concern. Kohli, in 15 matches of the first WTC cycle, scored 934 runs at an average of 42.45 — a far cry from his usual lofty standards. Pujara averages 28.03 from 18 matches.
Rahane has an average of 42.49, but once you take out the runs against West Indies, South Africa, and Bangladesh, it drops to 28.15. These numbers make for a grim view, and India’s batting fulcrum has its task cut out.
One of the things Kohli pointed out after the WTC Final included reassessing the Test squad.
“You have to reassess and plan and understand what dynamics work for the team and how we can be fearless and bring in the right people who have the right mindset to perform,” he said.
The mention of “right mindset” in many quarters is being seen as criticism for Pujara’s slow approach to batting and there are reports that the Rajkot batsman may find himself out of the playing XI come the England series.
This is where Kohli needs to tread carefully. If these are mere rumours then Kohli mustn’t pay heed to them but if they aren’t he needs to remember the Sydney Test earlier this year when Pujara coped numerous body blows to help India draw the match against Australia. His 205-ball 77 was certainly slow but worth its weight in gold. Test cricket requires fighting knocks where strike rate at times becomes obsolete.
Yes, Pujara’s 54-ball 8-run first innings knock didn’t help India in the WTC Final, but an equally slow 49 off 177 from Kane Williamson helped New Zealand take an invaluable 32-run lead. The form could be a worry but the approach cannot be a problem in Pujara’s case. In a team full of stroke-makers, Pujara comes with the tightest defence, and temperament to play long innings, either to build the foundation or to tire out the opposition bowlers.
Another area that India may reconsider is the team combination. Under Kohli, India admirably have more often than not opted to play five bowlers. The strategy has paid rich dividends, especially at home where batting is relatively easier and top and middle order often chips in with the required runs.
However, in England, batsmen will face their toughest Test. In such a case, India may look to lengthen their batting lineup with the inclusion of Hanuma Vihari. That would mean leaving out a spinner, most probably Jadeja. Which would be without a doubt a very harsh and difficult decision. Ideally, India would have loved to play a seaming all-rounder but that’s a hole they have been trying to plug for years unsuccessfully.
Playing Hanuma, however, would increase the workload for the pacers and India could look at playing Shardul Thakur as a fast-bowling all-rounder but that will be a very brave call one we are happy we don’t have to make.
The only good thing for India to come out of the unfortunate WTC Final loss was that they now very well know where they stand and what they need to do to win the Test series against England, From here on, it’s important they plan perfectly and execute it flawlessly.
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