India vs Australia: A tale of stinging tails for Virat Kohli and Co and the desperate need for an antidote

India vs Australia: A tale of stinging tails for Virat Kohli and Co and the desperate need for an antidote

India’s struggle against opposition lower-order in the SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries has been like a persistent migraine that crops up every time you’re in an important meeting.

“We need to come up with ways to get the tail-enders out quickly.”

This wasn’t a partly frustrated or an apologetic Virat Kohli lamenting on the loop after each loss against England during the 2018 Test series. These were MS Dhoni’s words after the 122-run defeat against Australia in Melbourne in 2011 in a Test which was again fraught with their perennial nemesis – the opposition lower order.

After reducing Australia to 214/6, India ended up conceding 119 runs to the last four wickets in the first innings and unsurprisingly, at a crucial juncture in the second innings, the story repeated with the Australian lower-order (7-11) scoring 92 runs, recuperating from 148/6. The 292-run target had not only exerted extra pressure, it had also sapped the confidence.

“It’s something we need to keep an eye on. In games like these, both the innings together, if the amount of runs goes to 90 or 100 for the tail, it’s a big amount of runs to chase,” Dhoni added.

Seven years on and the Indian team is still trying to find those ‘ways’, to get the lower-order out. A lot has changed in these seven years. Captains have changed, India have shown intent and competed overseas. The metamorphosis of Indian pace battery has instilled excitement but the struggle against opposition lower-order in the SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) countries has been like a persistent migraine that crops up every time you’re in an important meeting or maybe that nightmarish engineering math exam that keeps poking you every semester.

It has happened on a consistent basis where the opposition lower order has frustrated India, and proved to be costly. Look no further than the England series this year. In six out of the nine innings, India ended up conceding more than 70 runs to the lower-order (7-11) which included more than 150 plus runs in two innings. In the series, the England lower-order scored 36 percent of the team’s runs (880/2431) and averaged (28.38) more than the entire Indian batting unit (23.90).

In the end, it was the difference between the two sides and Kohli admitted it in the pre-departure press conference ahead of the Australia tour.

The story had continued from the South Africa series earlier that year where, after getting into dominating positions, the Indian bowlers let the lower-order off the hook which proved to be decisive on fast, bouncy and low-scoring tracks. In the last five years (Since 18 December 2013), among the top five ranked countries, India have had the worst average against the lower order – 27.22. The number might not be massively inflated but it becomes significant with regards to game situations.

In a game of small margins, the lower-order runs prove decisive. The South Africa series was a perfect example.

The one question that might make a fan bang his head on the wall going into the Australia series is, why does it keep happening again and again?

Well, it’s not just one factor that’s causing the troubles, there is a cluster. One of them seems to be lack of planning. Against the top 5, they hunt like hungry lions before turning into deers in headlights.

“The planning has to be there,” says former India cricketer and coach Anshuman Gaekwad. “Because of the way everyone studies now, with the digital world you have the laptops, you find the faults, plan how to get somebody out. It’s been happening with the top and middle order. But not with lower order. We are not planning the way we should. If they can get the better batsmen out which is the top order, then it should be comparatively easier to get the lower order. But it’s not happening.”

By the look of things, the plan hasn’t been conjured yet. The 2013 South Africa series showed the first glimpse that this Indian team can compete overseas and since then they have shown the fight and battled hard compared to meek surrenders of 2011. The fights, though, haven’t transformed into results, primarily because of the impeding thorn that is the opposition lower-order.

In the last five years (From the start of 2013 SA series in December), India have conceded 31.97 average runs per tail-end partnership, second-most (for teams to have played more than 5 matches) behind West Indies (33) in SENA countries and conceded most number of 50-plus stands to lower order- 23 (Seven 100-run and 16 50-plus)

On the 2014 New Zealand and England tours, the absence of a plan was glaring. After England’s last three wickets added 294 from 202/7 in first Test in Nottingham, Cheteshwar Pujara said, “We will have to think about how to get the tail-enders out.”

They were still searching for the plan.

That strategy was still non-existent at Lord’s, Manchester and The Oval as they lost the series 3-1 and the trend had crept into the 2014-15 Australia tour. Sunil Gavaskar pointed out how India lacked plan B on overseas tours as the short-ball strategy to Mitchell Johnson went completely wrong in Brisbane. He went on the attack and India had no answers. ”Johnson has the tendency of missing full and straight balls”, Ian Healy informs while commentating and India kept on banging it short, giving easy singles to Steve Smith at the other end. When one plan didn’t work, India were left clueless and Australia’s last four added 258 runs from 48.3 overs. The Indian bowlers averaged 36.35 against the last five and gave away runs at 4.41 per over in that series.

In England this year too they erred in lengths to the lower order and didn’t learn from the opposition. India tried to go short and it backfired. An analysis by analytics website Cricviz after day two of the final Test at The Oval showed that England bowled 38 percent deliveries fuller or on good length compared to India’s 29 percent and England tail (8-11) averaged 33 against the short balls compared to 17.50 against the full ones. When they had to bowl short, for example to Stuart Broad and Sam Curran, they didn’t and when they had to bowl full or a good length, they bowled short.

Gaekwad, who has handled two generation of Indian bowlers like Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Ajit Agarkar, Harbhajan Singh, in his two stints as India coach from 1997 to 2000, knows the importance of having multiple plans.

“We used to plan A to Z. There wasn’t just one plan,” Gaekwad explains. “There were plan A, B, C. And then whatever needs to be done on the field that is separate. Because sometimes your plan won’t work, the batsman will be clever than you so he won’t get out. Then you execute plan B and C.”

This also brings the captain’s role into the spotlight. In the past, Dhoni has been guilty of going into defensive mode straightaway against the lower-order. There has been so much talk about Kohli’s aggression and intent but on the field, under the cosh, it seems to go missing.

On many occasions he’s been found wanting tactically – be it removing Ravichandran Ashwin, who seemed menacing and in great rhythm, from the attack when Sam Curran arrived at 87/7 at Edgbaston or not giving Mohammed Shami the second new ball in swingy conditions on the morning of day two of the Oval Test or consistently setting spread fields to the lower-order batsmen and giving away easy singles even to specialist batsman off the final or penultimate deliveries of the over. In the England series, India gave away 256 singles to the lower-order, 29 percent of the lower-order runs were scored in ones. On the other hand, England conceded just 132 singles (almost half) constituting 23 percent of the lower-order runs.

“You don’t keep a sweeper out when a tail-ender is batting. The spinner and the fast bowlers have got to take a wicket,” explains former India all-rounder Roger Binny.

“If you don’t have the main batsman on strike, you have to attack the tail-ender. You have to try and give him at least three balls and attack him off those and set an aggressive field. If you put little pressure on any tail-end batsman, he is definitely going to take a chance. You can’t give him a single by putting a sweeper on the fence. Even if he gets a boundary it doesn’t matter, you have got to keep him on strike,” Binny adds.

And when things are not going your way, wickets are not coming, you need to play the attrition game of patience and choke and let the batsman commit a mistake. They haven’t managed that. Factor this – India have conceded an average of 4.23 runs per over to tail-end partnerships (in SENA countries), only West Indies have been worst – 4.47. They have conceded at 3.65 to the last five batsmen on an average, second-most expensive after West Indies (4.06). They haven’t managed to maintain the stranglehold. Building pressure is paramount, something that Sri Lanka’s highest wicket-taking pacer in Tests, Chaminda Vaas, managed consistently with his uncompromising accuracy.

“Treat the lower order with respect. Treat them like specialist batsmen and don’t take the foot off the gas,” Vaas tells Firstpost. “In modern-day cricket, you don’t find one-dimensional cricketers. Teams are always looking for two-dimensional players and sometimes three dimensional. Keep your focus and bowl in good areas. Don’t give any loose balls when they come in to bat and let them off the hook. I was determined not to bowl loose balls as much as possible.”

The responsibility doesn’t rest just on the captain’s shoulders though. According to former India spinner Venkatapathy Raju, the bowler needs to take it upon him to walk up to the captain and ask for fields and go for the kill straight up against the new batsman.

“Initially when the batsman comes in, he is also nervous, that’s when you have a chance,” Raju tells Firstpost. “That’s why somebody like a Kapil Dev always had the field up.”

For Binny, the larger responsibility lies on the support staff’s shoulders.

“They have a bowling coach. They have got a past Test cricketer who is a coach. Off the field, you have to depend on planning a lot of times. It just doesn’t happen on the field. The bowling coaches have got to put things into perspective for them,” says Binny.

Back in the days, technology was virtually non-existent. There were hardly any television sets, match recordings and video analysts to analyse the opposition, for Binny and Co it was all about keeping things simple and bowling on a good line and length. However, it’s become a lot easier to strategise in the present digital era according to the former all-rounder.

There is a flip side to it as well. Too much technology can also act as a deterrent. With so much analysis available on the plate, Gaekwad feels that players’ onfield thinking powers have reduced a little bit and there is a need to find the right balance.

“There are bowling, batting and fielding coaches and everything is available readymade on the laptops,” Gaekwad explains. “If we (players) make any mistake they will point out. Because of this you reduce your thinking power.”

Over the years, the Indian bowlers have struggled with the rigours of a long tour. And with nonstop cricket being played round the clock, the physical exertion factor also creeps in. It impacts intensity, focus and endurance.

“I think they look tired after 55-60 overs,” says Binny. “Till then they bowl well but in the third and fourth spell they don’t have the same rhythm or the same effect what they initially had. That’s what they lack. The fitness levels are totally different. They may be quick but they are not able to maintain that quickness after the 70th or 75th over. They are not able to maintain the same hostility. If you see Anderson, his first spell and last spell is almost the same. He is bowling 135-136 in both spells. I think they are lacking a little bit in that area.”

Limiting the damage then becomes crucial.

“The longer you bowl and stay on the field, the more tired you get. The second new ball makes a difference, you have to make sure it counts,” former Pakistan and Sri Lanka coach Dav Whatmore suggests a solution.

Raju feels that it could be a case of anxiety where the bowlers end up trying too much in the face of frustration.

“The moment we get 6-7, I think we try too much. And when we try that, there are too many loose balls and too many boundaries leaked,” Raju opines.

Test cricket is all about sessions. One bad session and the game could be out of the grasp without you even realising it. In Days cricket, complacency becomes an ominous term.

“The problem is that when you have done the hard work and get to the tail, you relax and tend to think they will throw it away trying to hit out. It doesn’t happen like that these days,” Vaas explains.

Binny thinks it could be a case of overconfidence too.

“You’ve got the top half out and when the second half comes in, they tend to drop their guard a little bit and relax,” Binny opines. “Once you get into that rut, things start to go away from you and it is difficult to come back into the game. Test cricket is a different ball game. Till the last wicket falls you cannot drop your guard. ”

It might not just be a one-way traffic, with the arrival of T20 cricket, the dynamics have changed and the team strategy and selection too. Whatmore says that due credit must be given to the batsmen too.

“You have also got to give credit to the opposition batsmen, isn’t it? Whatmore says. “Everyone wants to bat deep. Stuart Broad, how may hundreds has he got? He’s a bloody good player you’ve got to respect the depth of the opposition teams.”

With the quality of lower-order batting going one notch higher, it demands much more focus and planning. And for that they need a talisman, a tail-cleaner.

“We had Murali, who would made a mockery of bloody (even) top-order batsmen, and were lucky to have him,” explains Whatmore who coached Sri Lanka. “Pakistanis would give you a bit of chin music, pace, the short ball would come up there on your head. Akram was a master, nobody wants to hang around when he is bowling if you are a tail-ender because you are going to break your big toe or he might break your fingers.”

Pakistan had Waqar Younis too, South Africa have Dale Steyn, Australia had Mitchell Johnson and now Mitchell Starc. India too had one – Anil Kumble.

“He (Kumble) had a fast bowlers’ aggression while bowling to tail-enders,” Raju quips. “He could really put that pressure on the batsman. He had that nagging line and length. The wicket was not a problem for him. He was always there on the spot. And that’s why he was more successful compared to the other spinners because he was quicker through the air and made the batsman hurry,” adds Raju who has known Kumble from close quarters and formed an effective spin trio with the leg spinner Rajesh Chauhan in the mid-90s.

Over the years, India haven’t found Kumble’s replacement. And they need one desperately. Raju feels that the spinners should step up.

“While bowling in India we (spinners) were doing the bulk of bowling but somebody like a Kapil Dev or Manoj Prabhakar would to always give us those breakthroughs. But here we need to have it other way round,” says Raju.

India head into the Australia Tests still searching for that elusive series win in Australia. They were undone by struggles against the lower-order against England. Australia too possess a strong tail that can wag. This Indian bowling line-up, especially the pace battery has breathed positivity with its transformation. They have managed to take 20 wickets consistently but succeeding against the lower order is the missing piece needed to fit in the jigsaw puzzle.

“Captaincy is about 60 percent off-field homework and 40 percent on-field”, Ricky Ponting has advised Kohli ahead of the series. Ponting has in the past led the Australian sides, which over the years, have developed concrete plans according to weakness of the opposition. The Australians have also used the short-ball as an intimidating tool to destroy the best of English batting line-ups.

What India desperately need is Kohli incorporating ‘tail-cleaning’ strategy as a major part of the off-field homework. The Indian captain has a habit of roaring. He wouldn’t want to again be seen as the deer in the headlights.