Though the Indian bowlers were on the mark on Day 5 of the World Test Championship final, the age-old woes of bowling to the tail came to haunt them yet again, writes Sarah Waris.
Days before leaving for Australia for the Test series in 2018, Indian pacer Ishant Sharma was seen honing his batting skills in Delhi. Picking the grassiest track at the Feroz Shah Koyla, Ishant looked to block deliveries that were hurled at him by the Delhi coach Mithun Manhas.
Why was Ishant practicing his batting ahead of an important tour Down Under? Surely, it is with the ball that India would need him the most, you would reckon. However, the pacer’s intentions were spot-on — India’s lower order batting contributions, or the lack of it, had been a major issue in the build up to the series.
This, a perennial problem, hasn’t quite been solved yet. To make matters worse, the rival tail has wagged almost consistently against them, and India’s inability to dismiss them has often turned the game away from them.
Against New Zealand in the WTC final, the Indian bowlers took the last four wickets while conceding 87 runs, taking the New Zealand score from 162-6 to 249 all out. Kyle Jamieson and Tim Southee added a total of 51 runs in just 62 deliveries, hitting three maximums between them, which helped the Kiwis take a crucial lead in the first innings.
India’s vs the opposition’s tail: A tale of contrasts
Since the start of 2018, the opposition tail (batsmen from positions eight to eleven) has scored 2,766 runs at an average of 15.19, with six fifties against India. What makes the numbers even more frustrating for an Indian fan, is that the runs have come at a quick pace – almost 2.88 runs are scored per over, with the tail hitting 48 sixes in this interim against the team. Against no other team has the tail scored more than 40 sixes in Tests in the last three-and-a-half years.
On the other hand, India’s batsmen between eight, nine, ten and eleven have averaged just 13.53 in this period, scoring 1,814 runs in 33 games. The average is the seventh-worst in the world, and only above Bangladesh, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Afghanistan. What inflates the numbers are Ashwin’s performances with the bat — he has scored 516 of India’s 1,814 runs since 2018 batting at eight or below, and the state of affairs when he does not play a game is not hard to imagine.
Overall, the opposition tail has scored 952 runs more than the Indian tail since the beginning of 2018, and there is no denying that the disparity in runs scored has often had an impact on the result of the game.
When the opposition tail has hurt India
The rival tail has, more often than not, scored vital runs to change the complexion of the game since 2018, but no one can forget the frustrations they caused in England in 2018. India’s loss in the series can, in many ways, be attributed to the batting performances of the tail of the home team. Overall, numbers eight to eleven of England scored 505 runs at an average of 21.95, while the Indians scored 319 runs at an average of just 11. Southampton, in particular, proved to be quite a sting. After restricting England to 86-6 in the first innings, the Indians seemed to have the upper hand, but vital knocks from Moeen Ali, Sam Curran and Stuart Broad meant that they eventually scored 246, which proved to be a game-changing effort in the end as England won by 60 runs.
A few months later, in Australia, at Perth, the Indian tail added just 11 runs off 78 deliveries across both innings, while the last four batsmen of the home team — Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc — contributed 71 runs in 150 balls. It paved the way for a huge win.
Against New Zealand in the World Test Championship final, where rain has played spoilsport, and where the winners could be decided by the barest of margins, the 87 runs added by the lower order batters could well turn out to be the difference between a team winning the trophy and a side returning empty-handed.
Reasons for the poor showing by India’s bowlers against the tail
Tiredness by the Indian bowlers remains a major reason for the opposition tail faring well against the side. With the team not having any part-timers, the onus is often on the specialist bowlers to bowl out the opposition, with no respite in between. Against New Zealand, with the duo of Ravindra Jadeja and Ashwin bowling just 22.2 overs between them of the 99.2, the fast bowlers had plenty on their plate. Mohammad Shami, who ended with a four-fer, was persisted with by skipper Virat Kohli even after a long spell due so the bowler could pick up a five-wicket haul.
Bumrah, spoke about the tiredness that creeps in without many bowling options after the game at Southampton. “When you have an extra bowler, it gives you some cushion while bowling. When you bowl with four bowlers, you bowl more overs as you have to come back [to bowl] quickly. We bowled our hearts out yesterday as well as today, because we bowled a lot of overs. Sometimes, having an extra bowler gives you more rest.”
Ashish Nehra has a simple solution — bowl at the stumps with a consistent line. “It’s not about the length you bowl to tail-enders, but the line. The reason Starc and Hazlewood got those runs at Perth was because they were offered width. The Indian pacers did a good job against the top, but once you give the tail width, they will swing their arms freely. Tail-enders these days are capable. There is no point bowling a slower ball or yorker to them. Just attack the stumps.”
India’s pitch maps against the tail often displays the lack of plans that the Indians have against the tail. This is best reflected in how they bowled to Stuart Broad in 2018 and Southee on day five of the WTC final. The Kiwi tail-ender was peppered with bouncers, handed yorkers and full balls and the good length, which they mostly maintained to the top-order, went missing as they bowled to the tail. Combine this with the lack of batting skills of India’s own bowlers, and the woes seem to have no immediate end.
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