Tale of two eras: Bowlers shine, batters in decline
- India's batting averages away from home since January 2013 have fallen compared to the previous generation
When India toured South Africa in 2018, all 40 wickets fell in each Test, the first time it had happened in a series of three or more matches. Since then, bowlers have won India more Tests than batters. Gabba was an eminent exception where India chased down 328 to become the first visiting team in 32 years to win. In fact, of the 10 wins away from home since that South Africa tour, eight came when India batted first. The Boxing Day Test at the MCG in 2020 too was won partly because India could bowl out Australia for just 195 in the first innings.
Batting isn’t easy away from home, especially for a subcontinent team. Individually, India’s batting has been floundering for a while now—Virat Kohli hasn’t scored a century since November 2019, Cheteshwar Pujara since January 2019; it was Ajinkya Rahane’s century that anchored India’s win at the MCG but he has averaged below 20 in the 12 Tests he has played this year.
This isn’t an extended dry run but a longer trend.
In fact, a quick analysis shows a decadal difference—India’s batting averages away from home have fallen compared to the previous generation.
Even though Sachin Tendulkar played till 2013, the bulk of India’s batting transition was complete by 2012 when VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid retired from Tests.
Taking that as the pivoting point, the Indian batting in overseas Tests can be stacked into two eras: between 2000 and 2012 and since January, 2013 to now. Between 2000 and 2012, India’s five highest partnerships were 410 (1st wicket), 353 (4th wicket), 336 (3rd wicket), 303 (5th wicket) and 259 (2nd wicket). Corresponding figures since January, 2013 are 283 (1st wicket), 262 (4th wicket), 253 (2nd wicket), 227 (3rd wicket) and 213 (6th wicket). The gap doesn’t change when the stats are narrowed down to SENA countries (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia). Between 2000 and 2012, the highest partnerships for India’s first five wickets in SENA countries were (chronologically) 153, 175, 176, 353 and 303. Since 2013, they have been 126, 157, 222, 262 and 126.
Two things stand out. One, that there has been a decline in strong partnerships across the entire top order.
Two: in the first era, the highest partnerships for the sixth and seventh wickets in SENA countries were 115 and 172 respectively. Since 2013, it has risen to 204 and 204. While this is an improvement—India’s increasing batting depth away from home—it wouldn’t have come to this in the first place had the top-five been more consistent, not to mention the selection conundrum it has often triggered in terms of selecting an extra batter over a bowler. As much as the blame can be pinned on India not showing enough steel through No 3, 4 and 5, the opening partnerships too haven’t been inspiring. Sticking to the SENA benchmark, if India had three opening century partnerships to show for between 2000 and 2012, since 2013 there has been just one—the 126-run stand between KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma at Lord’s earlier this year. This despite India having a slightly more settled opening combination (11 partners) compared to the earlier period (16 partners).
Decline in batting standards away from home is a worldwide phenomenon now. With the advent of T20, the overall quality of Test cricket has taken a definite beating when it comes to batters taking more risks and being more averse to preserving their wickets. Tests in the second period have consistently higher run rates, sees wickets fall at a faster clip, fewer draws and more four-day finishes. Test specialists are on the wane as more batters try to be relevant by trying more shots, an instinct hardwired into them by T20s.
On the technical front, India’s batters show all these universal symptoms. Kohli has a clear problem with away-moving deliveries on the fourth or fifth stump. Not too long ago, Pujara was often found to be in two minds to the moving delivery in England. Rahane, at this moment, is possibly standing on the precipice of his career where one more failed innings could prompt a quiet farewell. India’s highest partnership in South Africa last time was 99, between Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Hardik Pandya for the eighth wicket in Cape Town. But their highest ever stand in South Africa also came from this generation, when Pujara and Kohli stitched together 222 runs for the third wicket in Johannesburg during the 2013 tour. An encore is needed now, perhaps more than one, to prove they still have that touch.