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As reality starts to kick in, it’s time for India to confront some harsh truths

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Time for India to confront some harsh truths

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As reality starts to kick in, it’s time for India to confront some harsh truths

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Anirudh Suresh

06/24/2021

Cue the overreactions; when there’s a defeat of this magnitude, they are inevitable.

On one hand, you have your typical passionate™ fan who wants Kohli sacked, Pujara and Rahane gone and Bumrah and Jadeja dropped. And on the other, you have your quintessential diplomat who feels that the WTC Final was nothing more than ‘just another game’. This is the type of fan who usually, after a defeat, logs in to Facebook to post “If you can’t support them during their bad times, don’t support them when they win” and takes pride in the journey and past achievements. 

These two extremes are like the left and right of politics: they don’t get along and have a vehement dislike for each other. The common ground, though, is that both parties instantly get outraged when they come across an opinion that does not fit their agenda. 

We, though, are not here to take sides; we’re just here to spit facts. And strictly factually speaking, India do have quite a few problems. Problems they’ve willingly chosen to overlook and brush aside; problems that need to first be acknowledged if anything good is to come out of this WTC heartbreak. 

Like it or not, Cheteshwar Pujara is in the midst of an alarming decline

No, Pujara’s strike does not matter. Yes, this is a fact. If you have a problem with Pujara *only* because he scores slowly, you’re missing the bigger picture. The truth is that Pujara, since his outrageous showing in the 2018/19 Border-Gavaskar Trophy, has been on a steep decline. And his numbers, which are appalling for a number three batsman supposed to be one of the best in the world, showcase the same. 

In the inaugural World Test Championship cycle,  Pujara averaged 28.03 across two years and 18 Tests. This is a figure lower than what the likes of Liton Das, Joe Denly, Tim Paine and Travis Head managed and the lowest for any number three batsman who scored a minimum of 300 runs. And no, the “but but but he spends time at the middle” excuse is not valid.  17 batsmen, including Rahane, Mominum Haque and Dhanajaya de Silva, faced more balls per innings than Pujara in the said time frame, and all 17 batters averaged way higher than the Indian #3. 

That Pujara was an architect in the heist Down Under - though he averaged only 33.87 - cannot be denied but his inability to score runs has been both damning and scathing. In the six series India played in the WTC cycle, Pujara averaged over 40 in only one - against Bangladesh at home -  with his average dipping under 30 in 3 of the other 5 series, two in which he averaged below 25. Pujara scored no tons in the cycle and it has, in fact, been 904 days since he last got to the three-figure-mark in the longest format.

Regardless of the conditions, the Indian #3 has found it impossible to dominate attacks, even when set, and his sole purpose in the team these days, it feels, is to eat up deliveries in order to give other batsmen the best chance of scoring. While this tactic might work in Australia, against a Kookaburra, it’d be nothing short of suicidal against the Dukes, which, as we saw in the final, moves all throughout the day. It is worth noting that the last time Pujara came up against the Dukes ball in a bilateral series - versus the Windies in 2019 - he averaged a mere 15.00 across four innings.

Pujara is not a bad batsman by any means, but it is time for India to stop glorifying his middling outings and start demanding runs from his bat. 

Virat Kohli can still play great knocks, as he showed on Day 2, but he no longer is the ruthless batsman he once was

Of all the takes in this article, this might be a bit overblown. But looking at how Kohli has fared over the past couple of years, particularly in Test cricket, it is hard not to speculate that the ruthless consistency that once made him the most feared batsman in the world no longer exists. Consider this: at the conclusion of the 2018 England tour, Kohli averaged 54 in Test cricket, 47 away from home and looked on course to shattering every record that existed; he’d conquered his final frontier and the prospect of him ravaging the entire universe seemed inevitable. 

Yet since then, in 21 Tests, Kohli has tumbled. The Indian skipper’s overall and away averages have dropped to 52 and 44 respectively, but more concerningly he seems to have lost his ability to deliver clutch performances game in and game out, like he used to three years ago. 

Worryingly for India, this has become a pattern, particularly in big matches. It started with the outrageous ton in Perth in 2018. There, after twin failures in Adelaide, Kohli played a near-perfect knock on a minefield at the Optus Stadium. The knock, to put it simply, was world class, and made many believe that it was the start of something special. Yet that wasn’t to be. Across the next 4 innings in the series, Kohli averaged just 30.5, passing fifty just once. 

And against England earlier this year, the Indian skipper had two similar moments - the 72 and  62 in the second innings of the first and second Chennai Tests were so outrageously good that it had convinced the world that Kohli was truly ‘back to form’. But the form, or consistency, never arrived. 0, 27 and 0 read his scores in the rest of the series. He straddled between mediocrity and excellence, something he rarely did at his absolute best, particularly after playing that release knock.

We were once again witnesses to these two extremes in Southampton as after batting like an indomitable superior being on Day 2,  Kohli looked completely out of sorts on both Day 3 and Day 6. Would the Kohli of 2016 or 2018 have lost his concentration on the morning of Day 3 after working so hard on Day 2? Would the Kohli of 2016 and 2018 poked his hands at a wide on a decisive morning session, after taking the bold decision to not send a nightwatchman on the previous evening? These are questions that are worth thinking about. Kohli can still truly play world-class knocks, but, as his batting average of 24.64 since the start of 2020 suggests, he clearly is no longer that Mr. Dependable he once was. 

This is a very, very good Indian team, but they are not the best in the world

“New Zealand might have won the final but that does not take away the fact that the Indian team is still the best side in the world” is an opinion many, including Aakash Chopra, have shared. But are they, really?

Make no mistake, this is a very, very good side. The talent India boast in their batting is outrageous and they undoubtedly have the best all-round bowling attack in the world. And yes, the bowling attack is also their greatest ever. But to pretend like they ‘dominated’ world cricket for half a decade, and were convincingly the best side in the world, is a bit silly. 

The point remains that since mid-2017, India have lost away series' in South Africa (1-2), England (1-4) and New Zealand (0-2), three of the four SENA countries. You could argue that the scoreline was flattering and they could have easily won more matches but, at the end of the day, they still lost. Kohli and Ravi Shastri, post each of these three losses, brushed aside the results and insisted that the side had made progress and were on the cusp of something truly special. 

The WTC Final was the ultimate opportunity for this side to prove the coach and captain’s words right but come the big occasion, they faltered once again. So after yet another disastrous display in a big game, is it fair to still parade this team as some kind of invincibles who happened to just come marginally short in one game?

Champion sides unearth their greatness in the biggest of occasions and this Indian team didn’t. While on one hand New Zealand had their seniors - Taylor, Williamson, Southee, Boult, Wagner - stand up and deliver, contrastingly you had Pujara, Rahane, Rohit and Bumrah not turn up. And mind you, these are seasoned veterans, superstars part of the golden generation who are not just viewed as the best in the country, but revered as one among the best in the world. Yet does any of that ultimately matter when they just can’t seem to deliver the goods when the heat is on?

Dominance comes in many forms, and repeated failure to win silverware is not one. This is a very good Indian side, but are they great? Most definitely not.  

India’s bench strength with the ball is enviable, but they are thin on middle-order reserves 

As much as the thought of India being without both Pujara and Rahane 18 months down the line is terrifying, it cannot be denied that the duo are in the red zone. Not only are they in the midst of a decline, they are also on the wrong side of their thirties. They might not be evicted immediately but, sooner or later, the team would have to experiment with younger batsmen to build depth. In fact, Kohli suggested the same in the press conference yesterday. 

"We will not wait for a year or so and have to plan ahead. If you see our white-ball team now, we have great depth and guys are ready and confident. Same thing needs to be done with Test cricket,” Kohli said.

The question, though, is, who are the middle-order batsmen who could dethrone the seniors? For, as things stand, outside of Hanuma Vihari (who himself has not had great success in Test cricket) and Washington Sundar (who himself does not know if he’s a batsman or a bowler), there are none. Shreyas Iyer, you would think, is the most obvious candidate, but Iyer has not played any red-ball cricket in two years. 

In the 2019/20 Ranji Trophy - the last red-ball season in the country - Sarfaraz Khan was the only middle-order batsman outside of the bottom two divisions to feature among the Top 8 run-getters, but he has only played 17 first-class games in total and is yet to even feature for India A. Sheldon Jackson (who has now moved to Puducherry), Manoj Tiwary and Ganesh Satish were the only other batters from Elite Group A & B to feature in the Top 15 run-getters, but all three are in their mid 30s, nowhere close to the picture of national selection. 

So while India might be home to the best pace battery in the world (in terms of depth, at least), there is a paucity of young middle-order batsmen who can take over from the ageing seniors. It might not be an immediate concern, but should the management not be proactive, the country could be in for a long, long transition. 

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