At the end of yet another failed ICC trophy campaign, Shubman Gill tweeted, “Not finished”.
Words of wisdom and optimism from the opener who is being dubbed as the “next big thing” in Indian cricket. Talk of big-match temperament, and his contribution has been 13 and 18 in the World Test Championship final against Australia at The Oval.
Runs matter in Test cricket and unless the top-order does justice to their reputation, India’s trophy cabinet will remain barren. In their second innings on Sunday, once Steve Smith plucked out Virat Kohli’s edge from mid-air, India lost their last six wickets for 55 runs inside 17 overs.
It had been worse in the first innings when the top-seven batters, barring Ajinkya Rahane, were dismissed for 152. This was not a one-off phenomenon with India’s struggling top-order, the reason behind their grim Test record in South Africa and England in the just concluded WTC cycle.
The final Test against England of an unfinished series in Birmingham last year also witnessed a similar batting collapse. The top-6 batters, barring Rishabh Pant who went on to score a solid 146, were back in the hut with 98 on the board in the first innings. They flunked again in the second innings as India allowed England to claw back and level the series.
It was worse in South Africa where India won the opener but lost the remaining two Tests. KL Rahul was the top scorer while Pant came second best.
It’s been a rarity when the top-order has fired in unison in conditions far removed from home. Having played most of their Tests on rank turners, where matches have finished in 3/4 days, they seem to have developed a false sense of security.
India’s record outside the subcontinent in the lead-up to the final during this WTC cycle (2021-23) thus reads: 8 Tests, 4 losses, 3 wins, 1 draw. What is more alarming is that in 15 out of the 32 innings, India’s No.6 has come in to bat with the score less than 100.
Grilled by Sourav Ganguly after The Oval defeat, Rahul Dravid tried to defend the batters. “Our top-order is very experienced... They have won us in Australia twice... They will also agree this performance is not up to their high standards. But we are doing the best we can, some of the wickets have been challenging like in South Africa... But the one at The Oval was good... It’s true once we provide our bowlers with the runs we can win Tests,” the head coach said.
However hard the team management might make us believe that their performance over the entire cycle should be considered and not just the one-off final, the reality remains that we have woefully failed in big-ticket contests. The margin of defeat reflects how dominant Australia were for large periods of this Test.
The debacle seemed all too similar to the one that took place in the final of the inaugural edition two years back in Southampton. India’s top-five remained the same in both the Tests and perhaps the time is now ripe for a change. Lack of application and inability to last a few sessions have been the bane of the batters for long.
The proliferation of limited-overs cricket and the lack of opportunity for most of our top-order regulars to play first-class cricket have also contributed to it. Dilip Vengsarkar’s proposal to make it mandatory for international players to play the Irani Cup and Duleep Trophy was dismissed by the members of the BCCI apex council recently. The former captain during a meeting had appealed to create a window in the month of July-August which would allow all international cricketers to take part.
With the absence of India A tours following the Covid hiatus, the ability of the next generation of batters has not been tested. Not surprising that the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Rahane have been given a long rope despite talk of transition every time a debacle happens in a showpiece event. Shreyas Iyer did perform at home but his surgery forced the selectors to go back to Rahane.
With no opportunity to try out the likes of Yashasvi Jaiswal, Ruturaj Gaikwad, Sarfaraz Khan, Abhimanyu Easwaran, Tilak Varma, Washington Sundar and Rajat Patidar — all proven performers in the domestic circuit— in challenging conditions overseas, the selectors had to persist with the Pujaras and the Rahanes. That Rahane rescued India from ignominy in the first innings is a telling commentary on the much-hyped bench strength of India’s batting.
That an inconsistent top and middle order has been persisted with also shows the defensive mindset of the team’s support staff when it comes to seeking reinforcements. This mental approach too needs a change in the age of franchise cricket where patience and concentration seem to have vanished into thin air. How else would one describe Kohli’s attempt to chase a wide delivery after having settled into his innings.
At the end of an emotionally gruelling Test, Dravid cut a sorry figure as he tried to convince Sourav, who as then BCCI president played a key role in his appointment, on India’s batting. Bold calls need to be taken to prevent another debacle in the next WTC cycle which begins with the West Indies tour next month. But will the BCCI and the selectors show the foresight and astuteness to take Indian cricket to the next level?