When I step onto the field, I have to believe I am the best. I am not going to allow anyone to think I'm a pushover on the field. It's not to disrespect anyone, it's belief in my own abilities - Virat Kohli.
Virat Kohli wears his heart on his sleeves. It's a trait that stays, whether it's about taking on the most fearsome of fast bowlers, rescuing his side from tough situations, keeping his head high even when things aren't going his way, or facing the camera during a media interview. His interaction with Dinesh Karthik ahead of the big English Test challenge was a riveting one, where he touched on a variety of topics. Over the years, it's his self-belief that has taken him to greatness. He's one of the best batsmen the world has ever seen, and there's no love lost if he expresses and reaffirms that.
The ongoing season however, has somewhat been an unusual one for Kohli as much as his admirers. Here's a batsman par excellence, who can wield his magic with the willow in hand, irrespective of the bowling attack, the nature of the pitch, and the various challenges thrown at him. He's a winner and has made it a habit for people to see him win, score runs, tons of them, cross the three-figure-mark like a walk in the park, and dominate cricket, something he always looked destined for.
However, his returns on the tour thus far - 44, 13, 0, and 42 - don't quite live up to the expectations. Barring the 44 in the World Test Championship finale, Kohli has seemed distant from what we call his trance zone, where everything turns into poetry in motion. In this ongoing series, the English pacers have exercised the ghosts from the 2014 series and have been able to keep the Indian skipper silent, drawing a fatal outside edge successfully on each of the two occasions.
A lean patch has never evaded any professional athlete and Kohli remains no exception. Unfortunately for India, his poor run has coincided with that of the other two Test batting stars of the side, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane, which magnify the concerns further. The trio makes up for the backbone of the Indian batting line-up with experience of 255 Tests to the team. No wonder India are in a spot whenever they fail collectively.
In the first innings of the opening Test, the three combined for a meagre total of nine runs. It didn't change much at Lord's, where the collectively aggregated 52 runs in the first innings and as a result, India, despite a 126-run opening-stand failed to cross the 400-run-mark. It has been an increasing cause of concern ever since the start of 2020, as projected below:
As evident, they have significantly struggled, with averages in the mid-20s. Barring Ajinkya Rahane, no one else has scored a hundred, despite playing a considerable number of Tests. The combined efforts put them behind four other Test teams, in terms of collective contributions from No. 3, 4 and 5 in the period.
India have the second-worst returns in the period, and barring West Indies, no other team even averages lesser than 36.95, which reflects poorly on the inaugural WTC finalists.
While Virat Kohli's concerning form can still be overlooked to an extent, the same can't be said about Pujara and Rahane. For Ajinkya Rahane, a man who made a name for himself with his stellar overseas performances, the recent downward spiral has been steep. To put things into perspective, since the start of 2017, only once has he averaged more than 38.85 in any calendar year, which is clearly below par for a premier middle-order Test batsman. He has delivered some high-quality knocks under pressure situations, but they have been too infrequent.
While for Pujara, there have been talks about his intent or the lack of it, nothing can take away his heroics Down Under. His returns in England, New Zealand and South Africa however, make a poor reading with an averages of 27.40 and two centuries from 42 outings across 22 Tests - definitely not the best numbers for a one-drop Test batsman. The manner of Pujara's dismissals in this series have also caused considerable concern. Known for his solidity and discipline at the crease, the Indian No. 3 has been been guilty recurring mode of dismissal. Both his dismissals in the ongoing series have been a result of him failing to cover the line of the ball.
For the senior duo of Pujara and Rahane, they have always come with a risk and reward factor for India in Tests but with Virat Kohli also starting to fare terribly, their troubles appear all the more magnified. While Kohli remains undroppable, given he's India's best batsman across conditions, besides being the skipper of the side, the pressure has started to mount on both Pujara and Rahane, perhaps more than ever before. A second-ranked Test team can't afford to have their most experienced Test batters underperforming for too long.
For now, the brilliance of Indian openers and Ravindra Jadeja and Rishabh Pant has been serving Kohli's men fine. However, the over-reliance could well hurt them in the long run, as it did in the World Test Championship final against New Zealand. Each of the big three might just be one good outing away from a glorious run to follow. India certainly need that to come soon, as they seek their first Test series victory in England since 2007.