While the Indian top-order struggled

On Sunday evening, Joe Root sat with a big, satisfied smile on his face. A 3-1 series’ win over the world’s number one Test side was the reason. It didn’t matter that he had scored only 194 runs in four Tests, less than half of his rival.

Even so, Virat Kohli didn’t have a glum face either. Yes, his side lost a close, fighting series, but he had done his bit with 544 runs in eight innings. This was on the other Indian batsmen, and their failure to support both Kohli and a bowling line-up capable of taking 20 wickets repeatedly.

While the mind was busy making such calculations and comparison, Root made a stirring statement in the post-match conference. “It’s been the same for both sides, hasn’t it, very difficult for both top orders? It’s just the way the wickets have been,” referring to some fine top-order collapses witnessed in the four Tests.

Hardik Pandya has managed just 164 runs in the four Test matches in the series. AFPHardik Pandya has managed just 164 runs in the four Test matches in the series. AFP
On first thought, it seemed like an excuse but when taken in summation with how seam-friendly the wickets have been as well as the performance of the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Ben Stokes, Mohammed Shami, Chris Woakes and Sam Curran, it seemed like an obvious sentence. Together, they have accounted for 100 out of 140 dismissals in the series.

The sheer quality of pace bowling is the reason why Root, Alastair Cook (109 runs), Keaton Jennings (130), Shikhar Dhawan (158), KL Rahul (113) and Murali Vijay (26 runs) haven’t enjoyed the opening challenge against the Dukes ball. It also explains why the likes of Jonny Bairstow (212), Jos Buttler (260), Cheteshwar Pujara (241) and Ajinkya Rahane (220) have only had relative success, thus further underlining the chasm between Kohli and the remaining batsmen across world cricket.

In this list of run-scorers, one name sticks out – Curran with 251 runs in three Tests. Rescuing England in the second innings at Birmingham and the first innings at Southampton, it would be no understatement to say that he single-handedly had more impact than any other batsman in the series. Even Kohli couldn’t bring his team to victory despite scoring nearly twice the number of runs.

The impact of Curran’s runs can also be measured in weightage. It takes both Hardik Pandya (164 runs in four Tests) and R Ashwin (126 runs in four Tests) together to outscore him. Curran stitched vital partnerships in the lower-middle order in both the first and fourth Tests, and it helped England clinch the series. In effect, all things being equal in terms of top-order woes and fine bowling performances, a lack of runs from the lower-middle order is the core reason why India have lost this Test series.

Sample this. At Edgbaston, he put on 48 runs with Adil Rashid and another 41 runs with Stuart Broad for the 8th and 9th wickets to change the course of the game. At Lord’s, he put on 76 runs for the 7th wicket with Chris Woakes. At the Rose Bowl, he added 81 runs with Moeen Ali for the 7th wicket and 63 runs with Broad for the 9th wicket in the first innings. In the second, he added 55 runs with Jos Buttler for the 7th wicket and 27 with Rashid for the 8th.

In comparison, India’s lower-order batting has been abysmal. The 10th wicket partnership worth 57 runs between Virat Kohli and Umesh Yadav at Birmingham was the highest for the series, and since then it has been downhill. It tells a tale when Kohli himself was part of two other higher stands in the first Test itself – 35 with Ishant Sharma for the 9th wicket and 29 with Pandya for the 7th wicket in the second innings.

Ashwin and Pandya did add 55 runs at Lord’s (second innings). Ideally, their partnership should have blossomed as the series progressed, taking a cue from that small passage of play in an otherwise lost cause. Yet, the fact that it didn’t happen left a serious gap in the lower order, wherein the Indian tail has proven to be particularly long in the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar.

Herein, Buttler’s contribution – and the fact that he is the second-highest run-getter after Kohli in the series – cannot be ignored either. England’s ploy to bat him at number seven (on most occasions) paid off well, because he was able to form the crucial link-up between the middle and lower order. His success was also pivotal in allowing Curran more freedom later on.

Again, in comparison, India missed this link-up as they pushed Pandya up at number six, leaving Dinesh Karthik (21 runs in two Tests) and Rishabh Pant (43 runs in two Tests) to mind responsibility lower down. It was a disastrous move in that sense, with the duo not even crossing the 100-run mark (64 runs in between Karthik and Pant) in the series, thus further heaping more pressure on the lower order to come good.

Time and again during this series, Kohli said that it was imperative for batsmen to contribute as many runs as possible because conditions didn’t allow them to settle down enough. There would always be that ‘one ball’ with your name on it. While the Indian top-order struggled and needs to be relooked at (different debate), India faced another problem wherein the lower order came up short in bowler-friendly conditions.

In effect, that limited India’s batting prowess until number five on most occasions (already dependent on how many runs Kohli scored), and it is simply not good enough to win overseas Test series.