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India's bowlers hold the key, but with their bats

India bowlers Virat Kohli loves his bowlers, but will want more from them with the bat in hand (Getty)

February 20, 2020

Tailenders. By definition, these players are not supposed to be the players upon which the fortunes of the batting line-up depend on in a cricket match. These are the batsmen who come and have a bit of a dash, or a bit of a block, but eventually and rather soon, they are expected to get out. Many of them are in the side for their bowling and what they do with their bat in hand is thought of as a bonus.

However, should they stay at the crease for a long time, grinding out the opposition or smashing the ball to all parts in the cauldron of a test match, it is thought to show the strength of team spirit within a group. Think back to James Anderson and Monty Panesar battling their hearts out for a draw at Cardiff in 2009 against Australia. Marcus North, who played in that series, said that felt like a win for England while he and the rest of the Australians headed to Lord’s “distraught”.

As New Zealand take on India in white coloured clothing for the first time in over three years, there is little to choose between two high quality sides. High class batsmen, exhilarating bowlers and brilliant fielders will all be on show in the next few weeks. Captains Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli will be eagerly searching for any edge they can find for their respective sides, but for Kohli at least, the answer may lie with how India bowl to New Zealand’s tailenders and how India’s tailenders handle New Zealand’s bowlers.

Despite the lower order batsmen of India having a very good home season last year, when they went on the tours of South Africa, England and Australia in 2018, they often struggled to provide any support to India’s top order. And the bowlers, who were a standout in that year and since, found it difficult to get out opposition lower order batsmen. The question now is whether they will find the answers they need to defeat New Zealand in their own home.

India has long had the obsession of winning test matches in ’SENA’ (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) and that is why 2018 was a bitter sweet year for them. They won a historic series in Australia, but knew they had a real chance of victory in South Africa and England. While a lot of the blame would have to be placed on the batsmen’s inability to support Kohli, there was also a noticeable pattern.

During the series against England in 2018, despite them losing 4-1, India were within a chance of winning every match except at Lord’s. At Edgbaston, England were 87-7 in the second innings. At Southampton, the home side were 86-6 in the first innings. In the final test at the Oval, England were 181-7 in the first innings. But from those three aforementioned scenarios, England made totals of 180, 246 and 332 respectively.

Time and again, bowlers like Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami, Jasprit Bumrah and Ravichandran Ashwin would roll over the top order of South Africa, England or Australia but would find it remarkably challenging to take the final three or four wickets. In the 12 test matches they played in those three test tours, India managed to get the top four batsmen of the opposition out with the average total being just 109.4 runs in the first innings, and 108.5 runs in the second innings.

The last four batsmen of the opposition made on average 49.8 runs in the first innings, and 53.1 runs in the second. These totals may not seem like a lot, but compared to India’s last four batsmen it is a significant difference. India’s last four batsmen averaged a total of 35.6 runs in the first innings, and just 27.5 runs in the second innings. This was all the while India’s top four averaged a total of 164.8 runs in the first innings, and 93.4 runs in the second innings.

Even in Adelaide, which played host to the first test of the series between India and Australia, Australia’s final four batsmen outscored their top four teammates by two runs in the second innings. India won that match, but the margin of victory was just 31 runs. When Bumrah got the wicket of Pat Cummins as he slashed a delivery to Kohli, the Indian captain was furious and threw the ball down in immense anger.

You suspect that anger was building up through what he had witnessed across the year, as time and again his bowlers had seemingly done all the hard work only to let it slip. And when it came to watching his tailenders bat, they would return to the dressing room almost as soon as they went out to the middle frequently.

Now, this is not to blame the bowlers at all. A big reason why India have performed well overseas, even though not necessarily winning, is because their bowlers have troubled all types of batsmen on their own patch. They deserve a lot of credit for the control and attacking instincts they have shown in all conditions.

But, there is a question mark as to why this indisputable skill is not shown against batsmen of ‘lower quality’ compared to the top order. There is a reason why these players are batting in positions eight, nine, ten and eleven. But whenever they came up against India, it always looks as if the batting order is in reverse. And when they themselves are not making the runs their opponents score, it only highlights that issue even more.

Coach Ravi Shastri said in an interview on India Today with Boria Majumdar that if India put 250 runs on the board, opposition teams will be worried because they are unsure whether their batsmen can make that total against the Indian bowlers. But, India could very well themselves be needing their lower order to help if their top and middle order is blown away.

That is why in this upcoming two test match series, it could be in fact India’s bowlers who hold the key. Not for their bowling, but in fact their batting.