And still, the results in England were not much different from South Africa. The failure to chase down reasonable targets in the first and fourth Tests was reminiscent of the failed fourth-innings efforts in Cape Town and Centurion. India’s bowlers, so often the subject of the lamenting Indian cricket fan, broke through the dark clouds of doubt to ensure that 20 wickets would be picked in every Test.
But the batting, which was India’s bulwark in testing conditions historically, fell away. This was the case even as the skipper Virat Kohli broke new boundaries. With a Test still to be played, Kohli has already become the first Indian skipper to exceed the 500-run barrier in a series abroad. Except the rout at Lord’s, he delivered significant contributions in each innings with two hundreds and three half-centuries.
The resistance from the captain and the bowlers would have counted for more if the openers and lower-middle order had pitched in. However, the three opening batsmen used—Murali Vijay, KL Rahul, and Shikhar Dhawan—failed to, individually, touch even 30 in the Tests India lost. This heightened the pressure on the batsmen who followed, especially during chases.
India’s worries were compounded by the inability of anyone below Ajinkya Rahane at five to offer support with the bat. Dinesh Karthik’s return to the Test side was a tale to forget while the callow Rishabh Pant will certainly need more time to establish himself as a viable option in this format. India’s fortunes received a major setback also because Hardik Pandya once again flattered to deceive. His five-wicket haul and half-century in Nottingham showed why the team management readily backs him but his displays in the rest of the series were more persuasive arguments against his suitability.
In light of the series loss, Kohli’s words bear recalling. “The result hasn’t gone our way,” he had said, “but we have certainly played the kind of cricket we wanted to.” This statement arrived at the Adelaide Test in 2014 — the first for Kohli as captain — when India heroically fell short on the final day, chasing 364. But it is a theme to which he has had to return on foreign tours. India is playing the cricket it wants, but it is not getting the results.
Worryingly, the captain and coach’s rhetoric does not inspire confidence that self-reflection is the team’s strongest forte. Instead their public pronouncements seem like disingenuous attempts at spinning defeats into wins and near-wins, even as spin leads to defeat. So when the Test series was lost in South Africa, Shastri resorted to counting all the matches on the tour and claimed that India won eight out of the twelve. This trend is symptomatic of the post-Kumble environment.
Kohli can, of course, reasonably claim that the scoreboard does not tell the whole story but it remains a difficult case to make that India should have won any of the Tests it lost. In fact, familiar failings came home to roost. The Indian pacers, even in the absence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, performed well but England’s batsmen six, seven, eight, and nine were constant thorns in the flesh. Sam Curran’s crucial interventions in Birmingham and Southampton proved decisive; the Indian batsmen from positions six to nine, contrastingly, scored almost 500 runs less than their English counterparts.
This is what Kohli referred to when he said England was ‘braver in tough situations.’ But there is also a case to be made that the Indian players were not secure enough. Cheteshwar Pujara, whose unbeaten hundred was crucial in India’s first innings lead at Southampton, did not even make the team for the first Test. For the first three Tests, India fielded different opening pairs. Left-arm spinner Kuldeep Yadav was chosen for a seaming wicket at Lord’s and then sent back home. It was only in Southampton that Kohli, for the first time in 39 Tests as captain, chose the same eleven. Team selections had caused much debate in South Africa, and they continued in England.
In the end, it was Moeen Ali who spun India out even as R Ashwin laboured on the helpful pitch in Southampton. It was a sight all too familiar. India’s trusted plans had come apart at the seams. This time, even rhetoric could not obscure the truth.
Priyansh is an independent writer based in New Delhi. He tweets @GarrulousBoy.