If only India’s batsmen would stay apace with its pace bowlers

The pattern of India’s overseas losses in recent times shows that its batsmen are becoming over-reliant on individuals while its bowlers are cohering into a formidable pack.

Updated - January 10, 2019 07:27 pm IST

Published - September 14, 2018 05:07 pm IST

India has developed such an arsenal of fast-bowling talent that the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav form the fifth and sixth options. | Imaging done with Reuters images

India has developed such an arsenal of fast-bowling talent that the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav form the fifth and sixth options. | Imaging done with Reuters images

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The aftermath of the 60-run loss at Southampton in the fourth Test of the series against England saw the Indian team being crucified for their inability to close out games. The same criticism might have followed the Oval Test but for the fact that it involved an improbable target that was contrived to look possible by the sheer brilliance of two young dashing batsmen.

While calling the team out on its tendency to ‘choke’ in overseas conditions is fair enough when you consider the margin of its overseas losses in recent times, it would be rather unfair to place any blame on India’s immaculate pace bowling attack.

On paper, the fourth-innings targets which teams like South Africa and England have set India in recent times weren’t quite walks on beds of roses. This appears to reflect badly on the bowlers for their supposed inability to bowl the opposition out sooner.

It would be only fair on this unrelenting, penetrative Indian pace attack to analyse each of the close games the team has lost this year (omitting the Oval Test for fairly obvious reasons).

SA v IND (January 2018)

First Test, Cape Town

At Cape Town in the first Test of an enthralling series, India were set 208 to win in the final innings and lost by 72 runs. While 208 seems a very gettable target, fourth inningses of Test matches are tricky. India have won only thrice while chasing above 200 in Tests away from home. So, were the bowlers at fault for letting South Africa off the hook?

India’s seamers (read, Bhuvneshwar Kumar) had South Africa reeling at 12/3 in the first innings. Thanks to an AB de Villiers–led resurrection, South Africa ambled along to 286, a pretty average first-innings score. India in reply, though, made just 209, blushes saved by a gripping counter-attack by Hardik Pandya at no.7. With a deficit of 77, heading into South Africa’s second innings, India’s four-pronged pace attack picked up all 10 wickets between themselves to prise the Proteas out for a measly 130. A target of 208 always seemed too big, given India’s history of chasing scores in the final innings, but aside from Ravichandran Ashwin none of the Indian batsmen crossed 30, and the visitors folded for 135.

ENG v IND (August 2018)

First Test, Edgbaston

This was probably as close as India ever got to winning without managing to do so in an overseas Test. The hosts were reduced to 287 in the first innings and the visitors did reasonably well to nearly match their score. In the second essay, Ishant Sharma, a revamped and rejuvenated bowler, wreaked havoc on England, his five-for helping skittle the hosts out for 180 and give the Indian batsmen a reasonable target of 194.

Now, there are two things that favoured India this time around in the fourth innings.

1) The pitch had few demons, and the bowlers — fast and spin alike — weren’t getting too much out of it.

2) The psychological advantage of a 200-plus target was denied to the home team.

Though India had lost three wickets by the time they got to 46, the ominous presence of Virat Kohli, who had smashed a century in the first innings, should have sealed them the game. Instead, they kept losing wickets at regular intervals. 46/3 turned into 63/4, 78/5, 141/8 and 162 all out. Seven of India’s eleven got starts in this innings, but none apart from Virat Kohli managed to build on.

ENG v IND (August 2018)

Fourth Test, Southampton

This time around, India’s seamers wanted to leave no stone unturned. They breezed past England’s top order, reducing them to 69/5. Sam Curran’s ill-timed intervention might have put brakes on India’s penetration but the eventual first innings total of 246 was by no means above par. This was evidenced when India, rallied by a determined Cheteshwar Pujara, took a crucial 27-run lead. By now, the wicket had flatted out, which is a fairly neglected point in the aftermath of the loss.

As expected, England made better use of the flat surface and went on to pile up 271. Yet again, England’s top order floundered and the lower order flourished. But, to put this down to an incapability on the part of the Indian bowlers to bowl the tail out would be grossly unfair. England’s top 5 have averaged 33.99 since 2015 in 51 matches. At the same time, their batsmen from positions 6 to 8 have averaged 36.14. The hosts’ reliance on their strong lower-middle order was well-known even before the inception of the series.


Set 245 for win, India teased to chase down the target with Kohli and Rahane — India’s best fourth-innings batsmen — combining in a century stand. The wicket of Kohli, though, led to a collapse which is a rather familiar tale in recent times.





So what exactly has the Indian pace attack done to deserve criticism that should ideally be directed at the batsmen alone?

In this England series, India’s pace attack has struck at a rate of 50.8, which means that off every 51 st ball (roughly), India’s pace bowlers take a wicket. For those unfamiliar with the strike rate phenomenon and how to evaluate the numbers, here’s putting this into perspective — this is the second-best strike rate since the turn of the Century in a series of five or more by any visiting team in England. This number was 45 (second-best after the inaugural Test series) before the final Test where conditions were aligned in favour of the batsmen.


Wondering if this is a one-off?

The series against South Africa earlier this year saw Indian seamers pick up 50 wickets across three Tests. They had a collective average of 22.48 in the series (second-best since readmission in South Africa) and a strike rate of 45.9 (second-best again).

Since 2016, India’s fast bowlers have taken 258 wickets at a strike rate of 53.7, second-best after South Africa (43.3). When you consider the kind of wickets India plays on back at home, these numbers are remarkable. Even in terms of bowling averages, India come second only to South Africa, whose seamers are helped by vastly different, favourable wickets at home.

The collective effort of the pace attack is notable in this surge. India isn’t reliant on one Zaheer Khan or Javagal Srinath, as was the case till a few years ago. They have a formidable quartet of seamers without any de facto spearhead.

Ishant Sharma, a vastly improved bowler; Mohammad Shami, the one who scythes through opponents with his sharp, short bursts; Jasprit Bumrah, the new wonder-kid in the pack; and Hardik Pandya, an underrated bowler, complete India’s current four-man pace attack in the current scenario (this is without accounting for the consistent Bhuvneshwar Kumar and the whippy Umesh Yadav, both skilled exponents of swing bowling). India might still lose overseas Tests but rarely is it the fault of their seamers.

Their numbers speak for themselves. None of them are in the top 20 of the ICC rankings. Their strength is in attacking as a group. As the famous Rudyard Kipling quote in The Jungle Book goes, “The strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” And what a punch this pack packs.

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