As India return home after yet another away series loss, the question of what this team needs to do to more than just compete – which they have done well in some testing conditions on this tour – and win a series abroad remains unanswered.
At various points during the course of these five Tests, India did look like a team that could win, but those moments begged to be seized, especially by the Indian batsmen, who just didn’t seem up to it. It has been ordinary all right, with the exception of their captain Virat Kohli, the best batsman across the two sides, and the batsmen must cop the bulk of the blame.
Kohli finished the series with 593 runs from 10 innings. The second-highest scorer for India till the start of the final Test, Cheteshwar Pujara, had 278 runs from eight innings – less than half of what Kohli scored. Vice-captain – and occasional captain – Ajinkya Rahane averaged 25.70 from 10 innings.
Barring KL Rahul, who took up his average to 29.90 from 10 innings after his fourth-innings 149 at The Oval, the other Indian openers – Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan – did not do much of note; Vijay was, in fact, sent home after scoring 26 runs from four innings.
And although Rishabh Pant came to the party with his maiden Test century in the same final Test – a brilliant 114 in the fourth innings – it all came too late for the visitors, as the series had already been lost by then.
This after the fast bowlers – Ishant Sharma (18 wickets at 24.27), Mohammed Shami (16 wickets at 38.87) and Jasprit Bumrah (14 wickets at 25.92) – matched their English counterparts blow for blow and exploited a fragile-looking batting order, where none of the batsmen – bar Chris Woakes, who played two Tests – topped 40 in the averages.
But it goes back to those moments, and many of them had Sam Curran, England’s Player of the Series, as the main protagonist.
When England were 87-7 in the second innings at Edgbaston with their lead a mere 100 runs, when they were 86-6 in the first innings in Southampton and then 92-4 in the second and the lead just 65, and again when they were 181-7 at stumps on the first day at The Oval.
These missed opportunities point to the Indian bowlers’ inability to wrap up the tail in no time. But the buck stops with the batsmen. Admittedly, Jos Buttler and Curran were heroic in their rearguards, but at no stage did they give India too much to aim at. Even then, the Indians aimed lower.
Take Edgbaston as an example. Five of India’s top six, excluding Kohli, had scores of 20, 26, 4, 15 and 0 in the first innings, and 6, 13, 13, 2, and 13 in the second, as India failed to chase 194 in the fourth innings and lost narrowly by 31 runs.
Kohli’s 149 and 51 in the first Test set a trend that was to largely continue for him through the series, but not many others picked it up.
At Lord’s, India’s top six, Kohli included this time, managed 0, 8, 1, 23, 18, 11 and 0, 10, 17, 13, 17, 26. The ducks belonged to Vijay, whose 95 in the second innings on the last occasion India played a Test at Lord’s, in 2014, had helped India script victory.
A pair on his return to the venue, coupled with scores of 6, 20, 25, 8 and 9 in his last five away innings meant that the 34-year-old had to be shown the door three-fifths through the series.
Two-nil down in the series, Kohli asked his team to lift their game for Trent Bridge, another venue where India had tasted success in the past, albeit 11 years ago in 2007.
And just like that, two men who don’t answer to ‘Virat’ or ‘Kohli’ put their hands up. Of course, so did Kohli.
Rahane’s 81 and Kohli’s 97 in the first innings and Pujara’s 72 in the second in addition to Kohli’s 103 helped India notch 300-plus scores in both innings at Trent Bridge, and five-wicket hauls by Hardik Pandya and Jasprit Bumrah, helped skittle England out, as India went into a week-long break – the only prolonged one in a five-Test series that was stuffed into six weeks – with hopes of levelling the series.
Along with the break came Prithvi Shaw and Hanuma Vihari, and out went Vijay and Kuldeep Yadav.
But question marks on the batting still remained.
Southampton started with the extraordinary – Kohli picking an unchanged XI for the first time since taking over as India Test captain – but ended with a familiar collapse in both innings, with India slipping from 142-3 to 195-8 in the first innings and from 123-4 to 184 all out in the second, when they were chasing 245, thereby conceding the game and the series to England.
Ravindra Jadeja replaced Ravichandran Ashwin in the XI at The Oval, and Pandya, India’s latest attempt at finding a fast-bowling all-rounder, finally lost his place in the side after having played 11 consecutive Tests. Fresh hopes emerged in the young Vihari, who averages a solid 59 in first-class cricket and he was handed a debut.
Some of the characters changed but the story didn’t. Another ordinary top-order show – 37, 3, 37, 49, and 0 from the top five – meant that India had to be rescued by debutant Vihari, who scored a gritty 56, and comeback man Jadeja, who starred with 86*.
India still fell short of England’s first-innings total by 40 runs, and Joe Root and Alastair Cook, in his last Test, plundered centuries and gave England the first 400 of the series.
A target of 464 seemed well beyond India’s reach, and although Rahul broke his string of low scores and registered the first century by an Indian opener in the series, Pant got his maiden Test hundred and a 204-run stand between them sparked some hopes in the Indian camp of a miraculous chase, it was only a matter of time before they capitulated.
So what does the future hold for this Indian team? While the pace bowlers have emerged as the spark, and after the South Africa evidence, can be trusted to deliver in favourable conditions, it is the batting that has let the team down for the second straight away series.
India might still be unsure of who their go-to wicket-keeper is, even though Pant finished with 162 runs from three games at 27 and may have put up a claim for the spot for the time being. Dinesh Karthik (21 runs from two games) looked lost with the bat, and both he and Pant struggled behind the stumps – India conceded 106 runs as byes in five Tests.
And Pandya, who picked up 10 wickets and scored 164 runs in four Tests, lost his place in the fifth, perhaps indicating that he no longer enjoys the captain’s full confidence.
With the tour to Australia coming up in two months’ time, India have the batting order to fix. It must start with the openers and then end with Pujara and Rahane. Yes, they didn’t fail altogether, but they faltered often. There are few better batsmen in world cricket than Kohli, but he can’t do it alone.
India came to England as a batting-heavy side that had a bowling unit on the rise. They leave as a solid fast-bowling side with a rickety batting line-up. Not good if world domination is the plan.