India vs Australia: Glimpses of a solution to India’s batting puzzlehttps://indianexpress.com/article/sports/cricket/india-vs-australia-test-series-batting-puzzle-5527626/

India vs Australia: Glimpses of a solution to India’s batting puzzle

It was the bowlers and Cheteshwar Pujara who turned things around for India in the Adelaide Test but Melbourne and Sydney showed how important it is to have significant top-four partnerships.

India’s Cheteshwar Pujara and Mayank Agarwal enter the ground after lunch on day one of the third cricket test between India and Australia in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)

After the first two days of the opening Test in Adelaide, it became clear that India and Australia suffered from a case of misfiring batting lineups. Unlike India though, Australia’s woes came from the fact that their top six was far too inexperienced to face the kind of bowling attack they were up against.

India, on the other hand, continued to be a group of talented players with matches under their belt but either struggling with form or inconsistency issues. Exceptions to these were Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. The Australian pacers puckered the Indian captain with deliveries that cramped him for room and only twice did they bowl that outside off-stump line that Kohli is so vulnerable to in the early stages of his innings. One of those two deliveries got him. It was an obvious plan and Australia won the first battle. What they forgot about was Pujara who later said that he had to stick in there for two sessions two understand what kind of shots he could play.

Over the rest of the series, the batting improved thanks to a combined effect of better shot selection, some addition and subtraction from the line up, Pujara’s love for “meditating” in the middle and the Australian bowlers’ inability to reap significant dividends from the conditions on offer. All of this came to a crescendo in the final Indian innings of the tour in which there were only two out of six partnerships that did not cross the 50-run mark. Three of these six crossed 100; Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja plundered 204 runs for the seventh wicket in a stunning post-Tea run-burst on Day 2.

The two stands that did not cross the 50-run mark are noteworthy. While the fourth wicket stand ended on 48 due to Ajinkya Rahane falling to a snorter of a delivery from Mitchell Starc, the opening partnership between Mayank Agarwal and KL Rahul ended on 10 thanks to the latter’s weaknesses outside off-stump.

The Agarwal-Vihari experiment

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After the Perth Test, India decided to bring in a debutant in the form of Mayank Agarwal to open the innings and his partner was Hanuma Vihari, a middle order batsman. A new opening pair was being introduced in the Boxing Day Test in front of an MCG crowd that had just seen the home team remarkably win the previous match. Naturally, it was a decision that raised eyebrows and former Australian captain Michael Clarke said in the pre-match show that a change of openers always has a ripple effect on the rest of the batting lineup.

Agarwal and Vihari’s performance was earmarked to be a pivotal one for the match and conversely the series. The former took to the big stage like duck to water while Vihari stuck around for 66 balls. By the time Pujara replaced him, the ball was nearly 20 overs old and by the time Kohli replaced Agarwal, it was the third session of the day. They would go on to put up an epic 409-ball partnership and by the time the Indian innings had ended, the Australians had bowled three balls short of 170 overs.

“If you want me to single out a contribution, (Hanuma) Vihari playing 70 deliveries with the new ball at MCG is as big as anyone getting a hundred,” Kohli said in the press conference in Sydney on Monday. He had made the same point at the end of the Melbourne Test too. “You might not think of Vihari’s contribution as significant in this game,” he had said at the MCG, “but he played out 15 overs with Mayank (Agarwal), allowed me and Pujara to just bat and bat and bat. We were not walking in under pressure, we were walking in thinking that we could build a partnership.”

The Agarwal-Vihari experiment worked in the first innings of the third Test but not so much in the second due to Vihari’s discomfort with facing short deliveries with the new ball. Even then, he faced 111 balls over the course of the two innings he played as an opener while Rahul managed just 102 in five.

Beyond Rahul and Vijay

Prithvi Shaw, center, is carried by support staff after rolling his ankle while attempting a catch during their tour cricket match against Cricket Australia XI in Sydney
Prithvi Shaw rolled over on his left ankle while fielding in the practice match against Cricket Australia XI. (Source: AP)

India had Prithvi Shaw in the squad before the first Test and a freak injury during a warm-up game ruled him out. The 19-year-old scored a century in his very first Test innings and that West Indies series at home also ended with him as man of the series. Combine that with the slew of records he broke at in age group tournaments throughout his growing up years, the talismanic role he played whenever he turned up for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, and Shaw looks like Kohli’s successor as India’s premier batsman. What he could have done in Australia remains an open ended question but one can expect Shaw to be walking out with Agarwal to open India’s during the next Test match.

Soft belly toned up?

Rohit Sharma played useful innings.

The effect of a strong top four could be seen in the contributions that the middle order made in Melbourne and Sydney. Rohit Sharma and Hanuma Vihari played useful innings and backed up the good work done by the top order batsmen. Ajinkya Rahane pretty much did the same but bigger things were expected from him. Most notably, when given the chance to build an innings instead of smash as many runs as possible in a short time, Rishabh Pant went ahead and scored an unbeaten 150.

The decision to drop Rahane during the South Africa series was met with criticism but his poor form and blow-hot-and-cold showing in Australia has significantly reduced sympathy for him. There is talk of demoting KL Rahul down the order while 19-year-old Shubman Gill’s extraordinary performances this season is bound to result in a Test call-up at some point.

Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri had said that the series victory in Australia gave India a new identity. That they possess one of the best bowling attacks in the world is now a universally accepted fact. It was the bowlers and Pujara who turned things around for them in the Adelaide Test but Melbourne and Sydney showed how important it is to have significant top-four partnerships. It is what made Australia world-beaters in the past decade with many teams going entire Test series without being able to force a player below Adam Gilchrist to pad up. World-beaters is the identity that Kohli wants his team to have and India might be a couple of new batsmen away from it.