India’s batting stars came crashing down in 2014. How to avoid a repeat?

India’s batting stars were sent crashing down to earth when they last toured England for a Test series. As they go into their only warm-up game before hostilities begin, here are the trials and tribulations of 2014 and what each individual batsman will aim to achieve this time

Virat Kohli: Last batting frontier

One of his many sponsors should brew a special perfume for him and call it Ambition. Rarely has an Indian batsman willed himself to the heights he has; he was a pretty good batsman, not a prodigy by any means, but has already achieved a lot.

In many ways, England remains his last batting frontier. If the weather remains dry and affects the pitches, Kohli might get away untested by swing that caused him problems four years ago. No need to look up the numbers, James Anderson has been constantly reminding the world. The red ball swinging away late had created havoc with his balance and that assured front-foot movement, leading to iffy pokes away from the body. The initial doubts came up as he continued to bat the way he does elsewhere: stride out and punch-drive to cover. The shot requires tinkering to be successful in English conditions as you can’t commit wholeheartedly into the shot, and have to make adjustment for the late movement.

Since then, he has re-adjusted the width of his stance, and gained more control over his balance and movement. But his plans to play for county cricket to gain practice was done in by injury.

 

It’s a pity that he has somewhat underachieved in the last year. For, he has everything that one needs to succeed as a Test opener: temperament, ability, is unfussy about the number of deliveries that fly through to the ‘keeper, and an appetite for runs. But the demons always seem to be lurking near him – all of a sudden, he can start to look a bit loose.

The frustration of playing just one format probably plays its part. For the first time, really, the series in South Africa earlier this year threw up some problems that he had almost buried for years now. Suddenly, he seemed unsure of his off stump and in trouble second-guessing the seamers. He found it difficult to pick the likes of Vernon Philander, and unsure whether the ball was leaving him or darting in, he began to push out at most deliveries. Consequently, the bat-and-pad gap increased and vulnerability seeped in.

In theory, he shouldn’t have major problems in reading Anderson and Broad. But Vijay can’t afford a lacklustre series – this tour can (re)make him or break him.

 

Murali Vijay, Murali Vijay India, India Murali Vijay, Ajinkya Rahane, India A, sports news, cricket, Indian Express Ajinkya Rahane last played the one-off Test against Afghanistan and was not part of the limited overs squad. (Source: PTI)
A strange set of circumstances led to his ouster from the first two Tests in India’s last non-subcontinental away tour in South Africa. It was deemed he wasn’t in form, and the management plugged for Rohit Sharma. Rahane answered the critics with a superb fifty in the second innings of the third Test but the drop would have sobered him. That the man who sparkled in the last tours of England and Australia can also be dropped so easily.

As ever, runs are vital for not just his confidence but that of the management. He has had his problems against spin, notably in the last home series against England, and just when one thought it was just the spin demons, he started falling to the seamers – usually driving away from the body. Far too loose, unlike his usual self. He is one of those batsmen who likes to feel the ball as they say, and that impatience has led to some of his recent dismissals. He was among runs recently – 49 and 48 – when he turned up for India A in Worcester, and remains India’s great hope for this series. Not only has he got the technique to survive seam and swing, he can also dominate.

 

Shikhar Dhawan, Shikhar Dhawan India, India Shikhar Dhawan, Shikhar Dhawan rankings, sports news, cricket, Indian Express Shikhar Dhawan’s knock of 107 in the historic Bengaluru Test against Afghanistan saw him become the first Indian to complete a century before lunch. (Source: PTI))
A recent surge has kept him in the reckoning just when the two tame dismissals in the first Test against South Africa this January threatened to upset his Test career. It had raised ever-present doubts about his batting overseas in tougher conditions but since then, he has kept his end of the bargain – scoring runs at every opportunity.

This England series could well be the most important of his career – he can’t afford another series of failures. His troubles are well known against swing and seam: the feet start to freeze, the hands almost involuntarily poke at the ball, and all the intent and fire he is known for, fades away. Even his attempted pull shots start looking a bit desperate.

It has to be said that he has already overachieved in his Test career to an extent through his intent and will power. But this series will be crucial for his longevity.

 

Just when everyone was fretting that this T20 age would throw up batsmen with mediocre talent, Rahul arrived as almost a throwback to an earlier era. A purist’s delight, with not just his attractive batsmanship but a sound technique to go along with it.

The only thing that pegged him back has been his head space. A sudden urge for destructive shots – it could be ungainly pulls to deliveries that aren’t short, an itch to go over the top against a spinner, or an inexplicable decision to shoulder arms to deliveries rushing to the stumps.

There has been no discernible weakness as such – unlike a few others in the team, the bowling plan against him is less likely to be filled with target areas. It would be more basic, more traditional – just keep firing on and around the off stump with the occasional bouncer and hope he gives it away himself. This tour offers him a chance to end all those perceptions about him.

Karun Nair: Shove is a failure away

He must have just about slipped in the squad after deliberations over Rohit Sharma. And that’s exactly the battle he is up against. He would be the first name that can be jettisoned away without a furore kicking up as people can go, “hmmm, yeah, he hasn’t really sealed his spot, has he?”

A batsman with wonderful hands, as the cricket jargon goes, that allow him to play spin well, and an almost nonchalant presence at the crease that sets him pretty decently against seamers too. In most of his knocks, he would look good until the moment it ends. Perhaps, that’s the reason selectors have shown trust in him, and if he gets an opportunity this tour – a long Test series in England is likely to see a few failures, he needs to bury that image about him. Else, if not Rohit, even a couple of players from the U-19 team can come knocking on the doors.

Dinesh Karthik: Second and final chance

What would have happenned if not for those nine deliveries in Colombo where he went berserk and triggered his comeback? The restlessness, the self-destructive streak, and questionable shot selections have hit him hard in the past.

Of late, the talk about him has changed dramatically. A sense of calm has pervaded, a more mature head has helped him build knocks – and he has always had the skill to play swing, seam, or spin. You can expect him to rub it in when the team is on top with an attractive knock, but the real test would be to see if he can pull India out of a batting hole. Can he show that he can not just play cameos but lead the team out of trouble?

If he can own that No. 6 position and give the confidence that he can weather semi-crises and tackle the second new ball — if India play that long — he can lengthen Wriddhiman Saha’s wait. Provided, his wicket-keeping holds up. Not that the other wicket-keeper in the squad is a natural behind the stumps, but Karthik can ill-afford complacency.

Rishabh Pant: On Karthik’s toes

India vs England, India squad, India Test squad, Rishabh Pant, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Karun Nair, sports news, cricket, Indian Express Rishabh Pant was on Wendesday inculded in the squad for England Tests. (Source: Express Archive)
He wouldn’t be here if not for Saha’s injury but it won’t be a surprise if he stays for a while now. He is everything that this Kohli-Shastri leadership seeks: firepower and intent, and the ability to win a match in a session.

It’s due to that perception that Rohit Sharma keeps finding the door ajar every now and then, and Pujara has found himself under pressure. He had had a horror time in the Ranji Trophy for Delhi, falling repeatedly to the urge to dominate with ill-chosen shots, but the failure was buried as people were sympathetic to the fact that he was also the captain of the most politically run team in India. Luckily, not only did the IPL go well but he also found runs on India’s A tour of England – and that form can well be used to push him in if Karthik flounders in a couple of games.

Cheteshwar Pujara: Lack of runs, intent

The recent past is threatening the future of who many regarded as India’s best Test batsman. It’s his intent that has again dragged Pujara to the precipice. It had seemed just a harsh perception from critics that he doesn’t score runs quickly enough and puts the other batsmen in trouble. But now, even the runs aren’t coming. He has averaged just 14.33 in 12 county first-class innings for Yorkshire.

When India came on these shores last, Pujara had troubled against movement off the seam and in the air. His footwork did not allow him to fully cover his stumps, and the incoming delivery often rattled his stumps, not a pretty sight for a Test No.3 batsman. His diagonal back-lift also caused problems for the Saurashtra batsman. It made him playing across the ball, and the away-going delivery often found the edge of his bat on its way to the slips.

This time, with Dhawan in form, the Indian management could well give Vijay and Dhawan a go at the start, and slot Rahul, in form again, at No. 3. Even Sachin Tendulkar was moved to talk about the lack of intent in Pujara. That led to tongues wagging about Pujara’s immediate future in the team, and more than any other batsman, he desperately needs runs. His strengths are known: he could be the glue that this young team needs, could soak up the fall of early wickets, his technique is good to weather a tough spell or two, but without runs, it will come back to form and intent – two factors Kohli’s team keeps talking about.

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