India's lower middle-order batsmen no longer pushovers
It is rightly said that bowlers win you Test matches, and hence, Virat Kohli's strategy of using five bowlers for most games during his captaincy tenure can be justified. It is the bowlers who have to take 20 wickets, and for them to bowl the opposition out, you need to have enough runs in the bank. The top-order batsmen always hog the limelight, mainly because they score often and score big.
Kohli has been scoring double hundreds, Cheteshwar Pujara has been scoring centuries for fun, and Murali Vijay has been consistent as well. Shikhar Dhawan has scored two Test hundreds on this tour. So these top-order batsmen have been scoring runs in crunch situations, and that has augured well for India.
However, the lower-order has gained significant ground over the past 12 months or so. The lower-order batsmen, to be counted as all-rounders henceforth, have scored runs, which although have not been as many in number as their top-order counterparts, but have been effective nevertheless.
Ravindra Jadeja has a triple-hundred at the first-class level. And he has been converting those runs at the international level. Ravichandran Ashwin has been batting brilliantly and has made the No. 6 position his own. The confidence that the team management showed bore rewards for the off-spinner; his four Test hundreds bear testimony to it.
These batsmen can't be counted as tailenders anymore --India's lower middle-order comprising of Ashwin, Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha, Jayant Yadav, and Hardik Pandya. Players like these give the captain the confidence to play five bowlers. Plus, if the lower order occupies the crease for long, the opposition tends to get frustrated.
For instance, if the team is 6/250, the opposition would expect to bowl them out for 300 or 325. But if the batsmen drag that score to 400 or 450 it becomes frustrating for the bowling side, much like how Hardik Pandya scored a century in Kandy and took the Indian total close to 500. Innings like these hamper the confidence of the opposition.
Giant turnaround for Ashwin
The turnaround for Ashwin, as a batsman, ever since he was promoted to No. 6 in the West Indies last year, has been remarkable. It's not like he gives you 30-40 runs batting at 6 and throws his wicket away.
If you see, whenever Ashwin has been set at the crease he has soldiered on to score a fifty and has converted four of those fifties into hundreds. There are several batsmen who fail to manage four centuries in their careers, and here's an all-rounder who already has that many.
He spends time at the crease, plays his natural game, and times the ball well. Ably supported by Jadeja, the Ashwin-led Indian lower order has been giving a clear advantage to the team. And India would carry this advantage with them when they travel overseas for some of the tougher tours.
You see, the confidence that these batsmen gain by scoring runs also rubs off on their bowling. Players like Ashwin, Jadeja, and Jayant carry their batting form into their bowling and vice versa. That's also advantageous.
Looking at the last year or so, India have not been in perilous situations. They have been oddly placed at times and the lower order has helped consolidate their position in the game and has taken India to a commanding position.
But going forward, if India lose their top order early in the innings, especially on unfriendly surfaces outside Asia, the lower order would be put through a litmus test. It will be then, just like it would be for the batsmen, that their skills would be tested to the core and it would interesting to see how they cope with it.
This is not to take the credits away from them, but tougher challenges remain for the Indian side, for which, I believe they are well-prepared.