Not so long ago, Mohammed Shami, a part of India’s exquisite pace battery, opined that the side’s pace quartet in Tests might be the best the sport has ever seen. That is both debatable and arguable, but without getting into comparisons, it is important to scrutinize their shortcomings in big games.
It was only 9 years ago that India fielded a three-man pace attack, in the fourth Test at Kennington Oval, comprising RP Singh, Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth, against an English side that had already smashed the visitors to smithereens in each of the first three Tests of the series. Injuries to both Zaheer Khan and Praveen Kumar meant that the team had to field both Sreesanth and RP Singh but taking the circumstances out of the equation, it was one of the lowest points in Indian cricket in the 21st century, for the sorrow showing by the ‘pacers’ posed no hope whatsoever for the future. And this came at a supposed ‘golden time’ for Indian cricket, months after they’d triumphed in the World Cup.
It’s fair to say that on that particular day, less than a handful of people would have expected India to be home to the ‘best pace attack in the world’ at the end of the decade. In nine years’ time, apart from developing a first-team pace battery that is being deemed the best in the world, India have also managed to revolutionize fast bowling in the country to such an extent that country is now, time and again, producing a platoon of young and talented pacers who can move the ball at pace.
The revolution started with the Test debut of Jasprit Bumrah in January 2018 - which coincided with the second-coming of Ishant Sharma, incidentally - and, ever since, it’s fair to say that the trio of Bumrah, Shami and Ishant have ruled world cricket; Umesh Yadav, too, has chipped in with valuable contributions, although limited mostly to home. Since Bumrah’s Test debut, the aforementioned trio are the top three highest wicket-takers in away games - and India played in all four SENA countries during this time period - and together, have picked up an astonishing 182 wickets.
On top of this, 2019 saw each of India’s four Test pacers - Umesh Yadav included - finish with a bowling average UNDER SEVENTEEN, despite playing five Tests at home.
Barring the abysmal and underwhelming tour of New Zealand earlier this year aside, the Indian pacers were, by and large, seen outbowling and dominating every single one of their counterparts both home and away and it was under 18 months ago that they enabled the country to achieve something that none of their predecessors had managed - win a Test series away in Australia. Thus, the Indian pacers’ impeccable and unassailed domination over their opponents in Test cricket, over the course of the last two years, has seen experts widely brand them as the best pace unit in the world, and rightly so.
However, while that is partially true, they are far from perfect and have one major problem in their hands that they have, till date, found no answers to - dismantling the tail, particularly in the big matches. It is indisputable that all three of Bumrah, Shami and Ishant have been all over every batsman they’ve come up against and have made them dance to their tunes - in all conditions - but a glaring flaw and a major problem amongst the Indian pacers that has been growing with every passing game, especially away from home, has been their flabbergasting inefficiency versus the tail. This was evident from the recent drubbing at the hands of New Zealand earlier this year but it has been an unfortunate and striking feature in their bowling that stretches all the way back to 2018 - and continues to hurt them repeatedly.
As good and dominating as the pacers have been, India’s record in SENA Tests away from home since the start of 2018, at the end of the day, still reads 4 wins, 9 losses and 1 draw in 14 games and the side’s inability to clean up the tail played a vital hand in them actually accumulating those 9 losses.
The series versus New Zealand earlier this year, which India lost 2-0, saw them squander multiple opportunities to take control of the game by putting the Kiwi batsmen to the sword. In fact, such was the dumbfounded nature of their inefficiency to wrap up the tail that for wickets 7-10, New Zealand averaged an astonishing 26.75; debutant Kyle Jamieson, himself, ended up scoring 93 runs at an average of 46.50.
In stark contrast, however, the Kiwi bowlers brutalised the Indian tail, so much so that for wickets 7-10, the Indian batsmen averaged a paltry 9.75 - in identical conditions.
At 225/7 in the first Test in Wellington and at 153/7 in the second Test in Christchurch, India had golden opportunities to bowl the Kiwis out and stay alive / go ahead in the game(s), yet they ended up conceding 123 and 82 runs respectively to hand the Kiwis the initiative and lose both games - and subsequently the series.
But what is to be noted here is it is not just a pattern that magically arose from the ground in the New Zealand series; it’s an Achilles Heel that has continued to haunt them for two years. In the last 91 innings against seventh to tenth wicket partnerships against SENA countries away from home (basically, since Jan 2018), the Indian bowlers have conceded a remarkable 2027 runs at an average of 22.27, with 10 fifty-run partnerships. What this effectively means is that every ninth innings against the lower-order away from home in SENA countries, the Indian bowlers, no matter how good or favourable the conditions are, are bound to leak a fifty-run stand. This figure, of course, does also include the contribution of spinners, but it is damfool to rely on slower-bowlers to clean up the tail on pitches tailor-made for the quicker bowlers.
An equivalent comparison of how all the other sides - Australia, New Zealand, England and South Africa - have fared in SENA countries (including against India) against the tail does, in fact, shed light on just how inefficient the Indian bowlers, particularly pacers, have been - they are the second-worst of the lot, behind England.
And in the last 24 months, there has been damning evidence to suggest that the Indian bowlers’ ineptness to clean up the tail has been a major component behind them ending up on the wrong side of all these ‘50/50’ games; matches which could have tilted either way. We did, of course, scrutinize the New Zealand series a tad earlier, but what’s fascinating is that India were at the receiving end of eerily similar losses at the hands of England two years ago.
In the five-match series that India lost 4-1, which many believe they should have at least drawn, the English tail (for wickets 7-10) averaged a dumbfounding 27.25, scoring a fifty once every five partnerships. Debutant Sam Curran, much like Jamieson this year, batting at No.8 and No.9, scored an astonishing 272 runs in the series at an average of 38.85.
The English bowlers, meanwhile, conceded no more than 16 runs per wicket against the Indian tail in the same series.
This India vs England series, in fact, provides a very interesting insight into why India’s inability to clean up the tail has - and continues to, till this date - cost them games. Runs scored by tail-enders in that series served as the single biggest differentiator, for the four Tests saw specialist batsmen across both sides (numbers one to six) average a meagre 30.71 in 60 innings. And barring Kohli, who averaged 59.30 in the series, there was not a single batsman across both sides who managed to average over 40 (min 4 innings).
From the very first Test of the series at Edgbaston to the last one at The Oval, the Indian pacers were guilty of giving the English tail a free run towards the end, something which eventually came back to bite them on the backside. In the first Test in Birmingham, India had reduced England to 87-7 in the second innings after having fallen short of their first innings total of 287 by just 13 runs, yet they allowed the England lower-order batters to add 93 more runs to the tally. Eventually, the Indian batsmen fell short of their target of 193 by 31 runs.
The second Test at Lord’s saw the Indian batsmen get embarrassed in the first innings, being bowled out for just 107, yet in response, after reducing the English batsmen to 131/5, the bowlers allowed Chris Woakes and Jonny Bairstow to tee off and eventually, the home side scored 396 runs to win the game by an innings and 159 runs.
While India did win the third Test, the fourth Test saw them allow England to score 246 in the first innings after having them at 86/6 at one point, and the final result, unsurprisingly, saw the hosts win the Test by a 60-run margin. By the time the Indian bowlers pulled up their socks in the fifth Test - where they, instead, decided to leak runs to the top order - the series was done and dusted.
By the end of the series, the Indian pace unit had developed a reputation as one of the finest in the world, thanks to them making the English top-order look like a bunch of nobodies, and somewhere along the line, the bigger issue at hand, their ability to finish the job off, completely went over the head.
But the England and the New Zealand series - which we’ve already discussed - aren’t the only tours where the Indian pacers’ inability to clean up the tail went unnoticed. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy in 2018, which India won 2-1, saw Virat Kohli’s men outplay the Aussies on all three fronts, but even in such a one-sided series, the Indian bowlers were guilty of being inefficient versus the tail. The series saw Australia’s tail average 22.28 against the Indian bowlers and Cummins, Starc, Lyon and Hazlewood almost pulled off a remarkable heist in the first Test in Adelaide, where they marginally fell short of chasing 322, getting bowled out for 291, after teetering at 115-5 at one stage. Cummins, in fact, even ended up scoring a fifty in the series and all three of Cummins, Starc and Lyon ended the four-Test series with an average north of 20.
If the numbers and the pattern of play from the SENA games played over the last two years have shown us something, it is that India, incontrovertibly, have a world-class pace unit at their disposal which still is a work in progress and has a long way to go. While the pacers have been exceptional with the work they’ve done with the new ball, what simply cannot be ignored or overlooked is that they’ve been an abomination versus the tail and, as much as people hate to admit it, have ended up costing the team close matches due to their inability to close things off. If batsmen ought to be responsible for finishing games off then so should be the bowlers. While there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the quality of this golden pack of pacers that the country currently possesses, it is important to self-introspect and improve, for, at the end of the day, their domination has meant little so far, due to them being culpable of failing to secure the W’s next to the side’s name.