On 5th March, 2021, the Indian cricket team stared down another perilous barrel, when England reduced them to 80/4. At that juncture, the hosts still trailed the Three Lions by 125 runs, despite there existing a consensus that the tourists had batted woefully to end up with such a shoddy first innings total.
Unsurprisingly, England seemed to be the side in the ascendancy, with the Indian cricket team hoping to match the Three Lions’ tally, let alone establish a lead. Yet, as has been the case recently, the hosts’ lower order stood up to be counted, meaning that the Indian cricket team didn’t just breeze past England’s total, they overhauled it with some disdain.
Thus, at the close of play on Day 2, India find themselves boasting a commanding 89-run lead, which against an insecure batting line-up and on a surface that will certainly deteriorate, seems quite enormous.
Consequently, one might not be wrong in terming the Indian cricket team’s exploits as another dominant performance, wherein they’ve blown the opposition out of the water. Yet, on closer inspection, there is perhaps one aspect that seems to rear its ugly head incessantly. And, if the Indian cricket team isn’t careful, it could undermine each rear-guard action their irresistible lower order produces.
Indian cricket team's top order has been woeful since 2020
To put things into context, the Indian cricket team has batted 18 times in Test cricket since the start of 2020. Of those, two have been in the fourth innings when they’ve comfortably chased down totals (at Melbourne in 2020 and Ahmedabad in 2021).
In the ones that remain though, the first four wickets have scored more than 50% of the runs only 9 times. On the other seven occasions, the lower order has bailed them out considerably – something that adds further weight to the argument.
During the aforementioned phase, Virat Kohli has played 7 Tests and averages 24, with 3 half centuries to his name. More worryingly, only one of those has come in a winning cause (at Chennai in the 2nd Test), meaning that on other instances, he has resorted to being reactive instead of being proactive.
Cheteshwar Pujara, despite his stellar knocks against Australia in the recently concluded series, averages 28, with 5 fifties. Additionally, the Chennai Super Kings batsman has failed to cross the 100-run mark in 28 consecutive innings – a run that stretches back to January 2019.
Ajinkya Rahane, on the other hand, has one century since the start of 2020. However, his returns are also on the wane, considering that he has averaged 27.70 during the period. And, if one were to take that hundred out of the equation, his average dwindles to 22.43, indicating that he has been anything but a reliable option in the middle order, at least according to the facts.
To add to all of those woes, Shubman Gill, who began like a freight train Down Under, has just lost a bit of steam. Mayank Agarwal, meanwhile, has also fallen off a cliff after beginning his international career exceptionally.
In contrast, Rishabh Pant averages 46.46 and is arguably one of the primary reasons for the Indian cricket team harboring hopes of making the ICC World Test Championship final.
Washington Sundar, too, in his brief international career, has been excellent with the willow – something that has further masked the deficiencies at the top of the order.
At Melbourne in 2020, when the Indian cricket team was still reeling from the annihilation at Adelaide, they had to rely on a fifth wicket stand between Ajinkya Rahane and Ravindra Jadeja. Post that partnership, the Indian cricket team looked significantly secure and scripted a historic victory.
A couple of games later, at the Gabba, the Indian cricket team were on the cusp of being decimated in the first innings. In sync with their recent history, they found a way to claw back into the encounter courtesy Messrs. Shardul Thakur and Washington Sundar. And, for the uninitiated, the former was playing only his 2nd Test while the latter was making his debut.
Even against England in the 1st Test of the ongoing series, the Indian cricket team’s top order collapsed spectacularly – something that forced Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar to do the heavy lifting. Though the pair notched up half-centuries, it still couldn’t help the hosts salvage a draw – again, highlighting how crucial top order runs are.
To put things further into perspective, for a side like India, it is imperative that they start matches on the front foot and remain in control. Yet, with a misfiring top order that becomes incredibly difficult, for the batting unit is always playing catch-up.
Fortunately, though, in recent times, the Indian cricket team has assembled a world-class bowling attack, meaning that they’ve been able to mount comebacks, even from the most arduous circumstances. However, expecting the lower order and the bowlers to stave off the side from the brink hardly looks a fool-proof plan and one that could be sustainable.
So, despite Indian cricket being on the verge of confirming their spot in the summit clash of the ICC World Test Championship final, there is one grey area that could spoil their party drastically.
And, rather ironically, that grey area has been on display against both the red and the pink ball, thereby quelling any potential speculation of that sort.
So far, Rishabh Pant and the lower order have done exceedingly well to keep the Indian cricket team afloat, even when they’ve been gasping for air. Perhaps, it is time the top order starts earning its meal.
If the Indian cricket team indeed professes to have the best batting unit across the globe, it certainly can’t keep relying on all-rounders and wicket-keepers to haul them out of holes that have been dug by the more illustrious names, can it?
Though that could be termed resilience and be looked upon as something enviable, it also reflects at repeated failures of the top order. And, for an outfit like the Indian cricket team, they simply can’t allow that to happen as frequently.
After all, Rishabh Pant and his bubbly band of bowling all-rounders won’t always be around to save the day, will they?