As Indian cricket fans were recovering from an unexpected series defeat at the hands of one of South Africa’s weakest test side, came a shocker with Virat Kohli’s public announcement to step down from Test captaincy. He had unilaterally given up T-20 captaincy in September last year and as some rightly said, announcing it before the T-20 world cup was not a wise move.
Anyway, most hadn’t expected the humiliating exit in group stage itself that would eventually pave the way for the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to remove Kohli as One-Day Internationals skipper too. He was hoping to lead the team at least till the ODI World Cup at home next year and certainly be the skipper for Test side even longer, perhaps till his retirement.
And no one would’ve faulted him for thinking so given his stellar record, especially away from home. However, the BCCI removing him from ODI captaincy probably hurt his pride so much that he couldn’t continue to lead in Tests. The decision to quit was in all likelihood taken before the South Africa series but unlike last year, Kohli waited for the tour to be over before making it public. Maybe, he thought, winning in South Africa would be his last hurrah and a parting shot at the powers that be. Alas!
Nonetheless, as far as loss to South Africa is concerned, there is enough blame to go around. While the team has achieved stupendous success abroad in recent years on the back of outstanding (but stray) individual performances with the bat (many times from the lower order batsmen) but more importantly with the fast bowling attack (something India was never known for and Kohli deserves credit for this), batting collapses every now and then have grown to be a big concern, something the team kept ignoring as long as it was winning.
“The opposition bowlers bowled well this series but generally, we haven't been consistent. We have had too many batting collapses. Of course, it (batting) has been the reason, no doubt about that. Their bowlers were just better in terms of their execution and applying pressure. Batting is certainly something to be looked at. No excuses there. It's really disappointing for sure,” Captain Kohli said after losing the third test.
This is an issue that next skipper and the whole team management will have to look at very seriously. In fact, one of the biggest reasons for this could be the lack of synergy in the team owing to the fact that India doesn’t even have a consistent Test team and owing to various factors, it is forced to play such drastically different team combinations that it’s a miracle that India has still managed to chalk up some really impressive victories.
Let’s take a look at last six test series that India has played since early 2020. A snapshot of changing playing XI in not only each of those different series but even in matches within these series is revealing.
Against two match series in New Zealand in February 2020, India’s openers were Prithivi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal. Against Australia in late 2020, early 2021, this combination played only in the first match. In second match, Mayank and Shubhman Gill opened the innings. In the third and fourth matches, it was Rohit Sharma and Gill combo. Thankfully, same openers continued in the home series against England and in World Championship final but in the subsequent series in England against the hosts, Rohit and KL Rahul opened the innings. In next home series against New Zealand, it was the combo of Mayank and Gill. Then against South Africa, it was Mayank and Rahul who had to do the job.
Cheteshwar Pujara who comes in at number 3 has been the only constant in the top order but unfortunately he has averaged only 20.37 in four tests in 2020 and 28.08 in 14 tests in 2021!
The condition of middle order is better but only slightly.
Believe it or not, Ajinkya Rahane, who averaged 38.85 in four matches in 2020 and 20.82 in 2021 in 13 matches, has been the only constant player who has played in all the past six series and matches (except one against New Zealand at home where he had to make way for Shreyas Iyer who had scored a ton in his maiden Test match before this game).
Hanuma Vihari, Ravindra Jadeja, Washington Sundar, Ravichandran Ashwin, Shardul Thakur are some of the players in top and lower middle order who keep getting shuffled around and experimented with in every series. Even Kohli was unavailable for three tests in Australia. Wicket keeper Rishabh Pant has also missed three tests - first match against Australia and he skipped the NZ series at home. Wriddhiman Saha filled his place.
Even the bowling department which has done the best among all is not untouched by inconsistency. In NZ tour of 2020, Ashwin, Ishant, Shami and Bumrah led the attack in the first match but after losing it, Umesh Yadav was brought in for Ishant and Ashwin was replaced by Jadeja. In Australia tour, Siraj replaced Shami after the first test. Then, Navdeep Saini replaced Umesh in the third test. In the fourth and final one, T Natarajan and Shardul Thakur played instead of Bumrah and Ashwin respectively.
Against England at home, Ashwin remained the only constant bowler while others got shuffled around. Shadab Nadeem, Ishant and Bumrah played in the first. In the second, Kuldeep and Siraj came in for Nadeem and Bumrah. In the third, Bumrah played in place of Siraj and India played an additional batsman in form of Washington Sundar rather than going with spinner Kuldeep Yadav. In final test, Siraj came in for Bumrah.
With so many frequent changes, including of important players, no wonder it feels that India is fielding a totally new team against different opponents. Even those who are most consistent - Pujara and Rahane - have been in terrible form for the last couple of years while newcomers like Vihari, Sundar, Iyer et al not given enough chances despite promising performances whenever they get an opportunity to be in the team.
This is not to say that all these changes have been made on a whim. There are many reasons for them - injuries, rotation or giving rest strategically, personal commitments, different pitch conditions at home and away where one has to play different set of bowlers or pace attacks and so on. But the drastic and frequent changes over the past two years in the team point towards something more serious.
The upcoming captain and new team management has to ensure that India has a core team around which required changes every now and then can be made. In fact, the consistency of Pujara and Rahane can be an important lesson here. Pujara only plays in tests and Rahane has been out of ODI team since February 2018 and has played only 11 matches in IPL in last couple of years. While this is good for fitness, it may be impacting the performance. A decent balance has to be maintained, something which BCCI also needs to look into.
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