The Headingley Test seemed to be interestingly poised heading into day four until India lost eight wickets inside 16 overs to surrender meekly. Rohit Sankar on why the second new ball is India’s nemesis in England, and how they could counter it in the remaining two Tests.
The most compelling, yet understated stat of the series is that India have lost nearly one-third of their wickets in a short 20-over period after the second new ball is taken. Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Rishabh Pant and Ravindra Jadeja have been dismissed twice each in this phase while Cheteshwar Pujara and KL Rahul have also been dismissed once.
Twice in the series already, the phase has already India detrimentally. At Headingley, the eight wickets lost in 16 overs resulted in a thumping loss when they had gained some hold in the game on day three to at least make a contest out of a hopeless situation.
At Lord’s, they looked well on their way to making a 400-plus total in the first innings when KL Rahul and Virat Kohli were involved in a century stand. But the second new ball sent back Kohli, Rahul and Rahane in a seven-over period that saw India finish on 364. The last eight wickets added just 97 runs.
It is no coincidence that India have fared way better against the first new ball and that the openers are India’s highest run-scorers in the series. KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma have been exemplary in dealing with the new ball. They have faced 561 of the 684 balls inside the first 20 overs in this series. While Rohit has been dismissed just once, Rahul has been dismissed four times, but only two of them has come inside the first 10 overs.
It is no secret that India’s middle order struggles against the moving ball. Virat Kohli, who has now nicked off to the wicketkeeper or the slip cordon six times out of seven since landing in England, and his dismissal template have been India’s too. Of the 29 catches India have given in the last two Tests of this series, 24 have been to the keeper or the cordon. 19 of them have come from batsmen in the top seven.
England know the channel to target this batting line-up with. Ollie Robinson, after the Headingley Test, stated that it was a fairly “simple plan” to get rid of Kohli – “fourth and fifth stump, get it to angle away, and hope he nicks it and he did”.
This hasn’t quite worked against Rohit, in particular. Rohit has been caught out hooking twice in the series but hasn’t nicked one behind the wicket yet. Playing the ball late and being extra guarded outside his off-stump has helped Rohit, and in turn India, massively. It is fair to say that the Rohit way is one the middle-order has failed to emulate, especially against the new ball, and when exposed to the new cherry (with the shield provided by the openers missing), the shortcomings have been glaring.
There is no fool-proof way to protect the batting line-up against the second new ball, but something the team could try is bringing in Hanuma Vihari, a top-order batsman who has had a taste of the English conditions with his recent county stint, and showed immense resolve with the bat in Australia in his last Test in Sydney. Ajinkya Rahane’s slump has gone from bad to worse and it would probably do him and India good to hand him a break.
My colleague made a pertinent point the other day that “Pant is unlikely to ever change how he really bats, and that’s how it should be”, but it also means India need to know when exactly to inject him into the game and when not to. Exposing him to the second new ball when his defensive game isn’t really top-notch is counter-productive. Of course, it is difficult to plan for this, but India could be flexible with Pant’s batting position, moving him up or down the order to utilise him either before the new ball is due or try and delay his entry when the new ball is just in. It helps that the men around him — Vihari and Jadeja, if the former were to replace Rahane — are better equipped to handle the new ball.
India’s batting is evidently vulnerable to the odd collapse as we have seen multiple times in the recent past, but the barrage of wickets that has fallen to the second new ball is something they could try and stave off with creative thinking.