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Indian batsmen and overseas conditions - a marriage from hell?
For generations before I was even born, the consensus among the cricketing faithful was that while India were a formidable opponent in their own conditions, once the team left the comfort of home, they would become tame and weak. At the time of writing this, India have just lost another series in South Africa with another match still to play. This series has seen outstanding bowling spells from the Indians, even from players who have been discarded after potentially match winning performances (which included an astonishing decision to drop Bhuvneshwar Kumar for the second test). However, just like so often in my lifetime, a batting collapse has never been too far away from the team. The question mark heading into the series was whether the bowling could support the inordinate amount of batting prowess India had, but now they are unable to solve the batting conundrum. Why does it continue to be so difficult for Indian batsmen to score in overseas conditions, except if your name is Virat Kohli in the current team?
It is worth taking a look at how test matches develop in the subcontinent. During their stunning run of nine consecutive series victories, a couple of things were characteristic of the Indian team’s performance. With regards to the batting display, one of the top four players has always gone onto making a big score. These have not necessarily been hundreds (or double centuries in Kohli’s case), but they have stopped the possibility of a top order collapse. For example, in the home series against Australia, the first two matches saw inexplicable batting collapses. But Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane (I just had to mention my favourite player even if he is not playing, didn’t I) were able to steady the ship in Bengaluru just when the team needed it most to give hope of a victory. In series away from the subcontinent, they have not been able to mitigate against that factor.
Of course, bowlers know their own conditions far better than Indian conditions and their high skill will be more apparent. However, they are still the same bowlers they played at home. Pujara’s case is a fascinating one and since he has been India’s occupier of the number three spot, it probably explains the extent of the problem. Away from the subcontinent, he averages a meagre 28. Even a high class batsman like Rohit Sharma averages in the low twenties when stepping outside Asia. In India, they are able to handle the good line and length for some time and they can then trust the pitch and start scoring at a rate of knots. Even Pujara goes through the gears when he gets himself in and takes risks. In conditions like South Africa, batsmen do not have this luxury. Even if you are on 135*, the pitch can still seem like a minefield and you may struggle to get another run for 30 minutes. In Kohli’s changeless innings of 153, there were many moments like this but he did not succumb to that pressure. He gave himself time and trusted the fact that the South Africans cannot bowl every single delivery on a perfect line and length. The team should learn from their inspirational captain and give themselves the opportunity to make runs. Nothing will go wrong if you get 10 runs in the first 100 balls, you can make it up when the opposition become frustrated at your resolute technique.
They often say bowling partnerships can be lethal and match-winning, but batting partnerships not only more prevalent, but equally as important. Coming back to this test match just passed, a lot was made about Kohli’s advice to his partners and the “politically correct” language that he used. Once again, the team needs to look at their skipper and see all the things that he is doing right. Going out to bat for your country is not just about making a legacy for your own career, it is really about trying to get the team into a better position. A problem is often solved better with two people rather than one. The great story of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar changing the hand they hold the bat with at the non-striker’s end against New Zealand to show which side the ball is reversing is a classic example of this cooperation. Too many times we see Indian batsmen seem to just worry about their own game in the middle and not giving a helping hand to their partner. Coaches cannot come to the middle amidst a high octane contest, so the players must realise they are their best coaches. Make use of that and aid each other in making big totals by constantly communicating.
Another hapless series in South Africa threatens to be a whitewash and the number one ranking looks a false sense of bravado for India. However, a few tweaks to the way the team approaches batting in overseas conditions can reap huge benefits over the next one year as these tests will keep getting tougher and tougher.