Thursday, 27 January, 2022
HomeSportPorous middle order, selection: Where India’s bid for 1st series win in...

Porous middle order, selection: Where India’s bid for 1st series win in South Africa went wrong

India looked primed to achieve the goal after going 1-0 up at Centurion, but the Proteas’ turnaround in the new year exposed several of India's batting weaknesses.

Text Size:

New Delhi: Thanks to continuing batting failures that call selectors’ decisions into question, India’s bid to win a Test series away to South Africa for the first time since their readmission to international cricket in 1992 was thwarted Friday as the Proteas completed a come-from-behind 2-1 series victory at Cape Town’s Newlands Cricket Ground. 

While India had dominated proceedings with bat and ball at Centurion’s SuperSport Park in the Boxing Day opener, South Africa were victorious in near-identical run chases at Johannesburg’s Wanderers and Newlands after losing the toss on all three occasions.

Despite the history of this fixture favouring South Africa, the Proteas’ declining results in Test cricket since 2019 meant many had expected India to further assert their growing dominance in away Test series, and move up in the World Test Championship. 

But India’s questionable lineup selections and repeated batting failures meant that the dominant victory at SuperSport Park represented a false dawn. India now sit in fifth place in the World Test Championship, leapfrogged by South Africa, while Sri Lanka, Australia and Pakistan make up the top three. 

The good news is that India’s two most challenging series have, for the most part, concluded. The next red-ball assignments are a two-Test home series against Sri Lanka in February-March, and the fifth Test away to England, which had been delayed last September due to Covid-19 cases in the Indian touring party. 

Also read: It will rank up there in history of Test cricket in South Africa: Boucher

Senior middle-order batsmen come up short

As was the case in India’s previous away tour to England and the World Test Championship final defeat to New Zealand, senior middle-order batsmen Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara came under the scanner for their performances.

While Rahane has averaged just 20.25 in 15 Tests since the start of 2021, Pujara’s record in his last 13 Tests (going back to 2020) is 28.88. Similarly, the two stalwarts’ averages in the recently concluded series were 22.66 for Rahane and 20.66 for Pujara.

In contrast, South Africa’s rookie number 3, and player of the series, Keegan Petersen, scored 276 runs at 46.00, while vice-captain Temba Bavuma racked up 221 runs at 73.66, amid longtime criticism over his low 30s career average and his place in the side.

Rahane and Pujara’s best performances in the series were counter-attacking half-centuries during in third innings at the Wanderers. However, they were both dismissed as soon as the effect of the roller on the pitch wore off and the bounce became more unpredictable. 

Of the middle-order batsmen in that passage of play, it was Virat Kohli’s injury replacement, Hanuma Vihari, who showed superior temperament, defensive application and the ability to adapt to challenging conditions as he remained unbeaten at the end of the innings. 

Kohli’s return for the final Test meant that Vihari was dropped while Rahane and Pujara were again retained, as consistent domestic performers in Shreyas Iyer and Priyank Panchal remained drinks-carrying benchwarmers.

Vihari had also toured South Africa with the India A men’s side in November-December 2021 and scored three half-centuries in Bloemfontein against a South Africa A bowling attack that included a breakout performer in this Test series, Marco Jansen. Panchal had captained the A side in two of the three games played, and scored 96 in the first game.

It would thus have been more prudent for head coach Rahul Dravid and co. to show greater faith in batsmen (particularly Vihari) who had spent more time in the country familiarising themselves with the pitches and playing conditions. 

India’s on-field accusations towards South African broadcaster SuperSport made up the majority of the media coverage of the Newlands defeat since Thursday, as Kohli’s men faced criticism for alleging corruption or bias without evidence. 

But across the series, it was ultimately India’s first-choice senior middle-order batsmen who came up short most frequently, a recurring theme seen during India’s defeats to New Zealand, in February 2020 and the World Test Championship final in June 2021.

The immediate focus for Dravid and co. shifts to the three-match One Day International series (which forms part of the ODI Super League), which starts in Paarl’s Boland Park on 19 January. 

However, if India are to improve on their runners-up finish in the World Test Championship, the pertinent question of whether to stick or twist with regards to the make-up of the porous middle-order remains.

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: No running away from our batting collapses every now and then: Kohli


Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it

India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.

But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.

ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.

Support Our Journalism

Most Popular