Sometimes, despite fundamentally correct intent, things do not unfold as they are meant to. It is not uncommon in Test cricket. You have bad days, no matter how hard you may be trying. But then there are days like today, when India’s brittle top order again combined to massively underwhelm when confronted with a top-class bowling attack. Forget intent, it was hard to spot technique.
This is a batting order with celebrated players; three of the top four have records that have put them at the forefront of their generation. One of them, in fact, has broken all batting records. But on Friday in Nagpur India’s famed yet fretful batsmen failed to shake of their jitters.
Test cricket has a simple philosophy: bowlers win you matches, batsmen set them up. In India’s case, it is the batsmen who have roundly disappointed in this series. Even if the bowlers manage to rally, as they have in Nagpur, the batsman have not showed the tactical nous. If Cheteshwar Pujara was unfortunate on Friday, given out caught when replays showed he had not gloved the ball, then Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar had no such alibis.
While analyzing India’s batting performance it must be noted that England’s bowlers were excellent – James Anderson in fact outstanding in a potentially match-winning spell of 4-1-3-2 late in the day. Tim Bresnan achieved a bit of reverse swing and had MS Dhoni uneasy, while both Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann beat the bat and produced some lovely deliveries. As a unit, all four bowlers stuck to a plan, did not give away too many runs and exploited the conditions. Yes, batting on this surface was not easy but India didn’t seem to have a plan.
With Anderson swinging the ball and the pitch playing slow and low, India’s batsmen should have been watchful. They needed to look no further than the 21-year-old Joe Root, who batted 229 deliveries without taking a risk. Instead, a leaden-footed Sehwag played inside the line and was bowled third ball of the innings. Sadly, there is also nothing he Gambhir is more prone to doing than giving it away when well set and today he fell victim to an old fast bowler’s trick; after a series of inswingers from Anderson Gambhir – who had already been reprieved twice by Matt Prior - chased one with a bit of away movement and edged behind the stumps. Tendulkar’s crouch suggested he was beaten by a lack of bounce, but the truth that was the ball from Anderson was not as low as he made it out to look and that he was playing back instead of forward. He had ample time in the field to observe during England’s innings that playing back was not advisable on this dodgy pitch, but chose to play from the crease.
From 59 for 1, India were 71 for 4. It was Mumbai and Kolkata revisited; four innings, four floundering batting lineups, two defeats, no lessons learned. If the debutant Root could bat with patience, and then Swann at No. 9, then India’s top order had no excuse not to. Root showed remarkable composure in his first Test innings, while Swann chose a great time to score his first half-century since 2009.
If there was one thing lacking from England’s performances before Nagpur, it was a significant contribution from one of the lower-order players. A major feature in England’s success in the past five years has been the shortness of their tail, but on this tour the lower order has largely failed to stand up. In the first Test Stuart Broad made a brisk 23-ball 25; in Mumbai the last four wickets fell for seven runs; at Eden Gardens the last five went down for 70, with four going for 13 runs once Swann departed for 21.
Cameos from the lower order make a difference; even if it's only a matter of a few additional runs there's a change in mood, a dressing-room more buoyed. In England’s case, Swann’s 57 turned a good total into an excellent one. He walked in at the fall of Bresnan for 0, who himself had entered moments earlier, and after realizing that this wasn’t a track conducive to shots found settled down to play a significant innings.
India will not have consigned themselves to defeat, but to salvage this match they must relocate the patient approach. Somewhere after Ahmedabad they misplaced it, and have not found it since. Already the trail of criticism behind Dhoni and his team stretches farther than lines for the new iPhone, and if India go on to lose in Nagpur – all signs are pointing the way – and the series 3-1, then a major overhaul of this batting lineup is needed.