India's focus on strengthening Test bowling has allowed batting to slip alarmingly

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KL Rahul's stumps go flying at Edgbaston.

After the 2015 World Cup, England decided to focus almost all their energy on white-ball and especially one-day international cricket. Finding the right players and giving captain Eoin Morgan complete freedom to play without fear saw England rise to No1 in the rankings, emerging as the best all-round ODI team in the world and serious contenders for their maiden 50-over world title next year at home.

But that has come at a price. As England’s fortunes in limited-overs action have risen, their results in Test cricket have stumbled. The former No1 team in the world are now down to fifth. Before the start of the Birmingham Test, England had won just two out of 10 Tests. There were 4-0 losses in India and Australia.

England, who invented the game, suddenly were found wanting in the format that had become almost synonymous with English-ness.

The lesson learnt here is no matter how good you are or you think you are, you can never take it for granted. Which is something India are currently finding out with their Test batting.

This is the same Indian team that up until a few years back had icons like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag and Sourav Ganguly in the Test side. Runs were almost always guaranteed. And even if the batting failed, it would pick itself up almost immediately and get back on track.

But the current Indian batting truly has become a one man show. According to ESPNcricinfo, since the start of the 2017-18 season, Virat Kohli has scored 31 per cent of the team’s runs in seven Tests. It is either Kohli or nothing, especially in overseas matches.

Carrying the burden: Virat Kohli.

It’s not a coincidence that the fall in batting levels has coincided with the shift in focus towards developing a potent and all-round Test bowling attack. India have long struggled to have a pool of match ready bowlers who can take 20 wickets in most conditions. However, having an attacking bowling line-up fit perfectly with Kohli and Ravi Shastri’s vision of a fearless Team India. And that vision has been realised.

But what was once a given as far as batting is concerned has become a stumbling block. India’s batting, apart from Kohli, has no structure to it nor is adequate care given to nurturing batsmen, especially compared to how well the bowlers are being looked after.

The way a proven performer like Cheteshwar Pujara was pushed into improving his scoring rate, which then resulted in him completely losing his game, to the manner in which Ajinkya Rahane has lost confidence even away from home is all down to this overarching fixation on attacking cricket. Yes you need attacking bowlers to take 20 wickets and intent to score at a fair pace. But you also need solid anchors who can weather the storm when the going gets tough. Which is what Pujara and Rahane do in the Indian team. And this is exactly what the Indian management has failed to appreciate over the past few seasons.

Not only them, other such players who graft their runs are likely to fail to catch the eye of the team. Which is probably why a Mayank Agarwal hasn’t been selected to the Test team yet despite scoring more than 2,000 runs in domestic cricket last season.

India now have a fine bowling line-up led by a captain who who wants to attack every session and never backs down. That mentality, unfortunately, has seeped into batting and unless they realise the importance of a calming influence in the middle-order, they will continue to fall short when the stakes are really high; they failed to chase 176 in the 2015 Galle Test, failed to chase down 208 in Cape Town earlier in the year and now 194 in Birmingham.

Attack is not always the best option.

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Century-machines Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal knocking on the door for India Test selection

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Prithvi Shaw (r) has been in superb form in red-ball cricket.

Assured batting at the top of the order is in short supply in Indian cricket at the moment. India‘s Test team batting seems to be all about Virat Kohli with the rest of the line-up struggling to come close to him even collectively.

Cheteshwar Pujara, long seen as one of the most solid red-ball batsmen in the country, is now surplus to the team’s needs while those who had been backed to do well – like Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane – looked like a shadow of their former self in the first Test against England in Birmingham.

India’s batting is a serious headache at the moment as after a long time, they have the bowling to take 20 wickets cheaply on any surface that promises a result. Captain Kohli is batting on a different plane, scoring 200 himself at Edgbaston while their rest of the players accounted for 214.

The unimpressive technique of opener Shikhar Dhawan and the indifferent batting of KL Rahul means India are struggling. And as they look for a way to stop the bleeding, they should at least consider the next best options – Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal.

The two batsmen are not part of the Test squad for the first three Tests and instead are fighting it out for the India ‘A’ team. Opener Shaw, who captained the Indian team to the Under-19 World Cup title earlier in the year, cracked 136 against South Africa ‘A’ in the ongoing unofficial Test in Bengaluru while adding 277 for the opening stand with Agarwal who himself scored a majestic 220.

Shaw has taken his tally to seven centuries in just 13 first-class matches with five fifties and already averages more than 57 since his debut last year. Agarwal, on the other hand, has now scored four centuries in his last eight matches – which include List A matches in England. Also, Agarwal finished the 2017-18 domestic season in India with 2,141 runs for his state Karnataka.

With India’s batting, apart from Kohli, looking clueless in English conditions, maybe it’s time to have a look at one of these two or both as top-ranked India can’t afford to see the same players fail over and over again.

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Senior batsmen need to raise their game and other key areas as India search for victory in Lord's Test

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The likes of Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane need to step up for India.

The opening game of the five-match series between England and India was the perfect advertisement for Test cricket.

In the end of a thrilling Test in Birmingham, it was the hosts who came trumps with a 31-run win. For the visitors, it was a case of so close and yet so far as skipper Virat Kohli’s titanic effort of 200 runs in a low-scoring Test went in vain.

As the attention now shifts to Lord’s for the second Test, we look at the key areas India need to improve upon.

BATTING MUDDLE

India’s batting minus Kohli was their biggest drawback at Edgbaston with none of the other top-order batsman making any imapct.

The skipper himself accounted for 200 of the 436 runs in total scored by India with the next best batsman –  Hardik Pandya – contributing 53 runs.

India will be hoping Murali Vijay and Ajinkya Rahane provide a more meaningful contribution at Lord’s. The senior duo have played in English conditions and they will need to take more responsibility as the series progresses.

Apart from Vijay and Rahane, India have more headaches with the dismal form of Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul. Both batsmen seemed highly suspect against the moving ball at Edgbaston and India might consider playing just one of them as an opener at Lord’s.

This means a recall for Cheteshwar Pujara after the top-order batsman was dropped for the Edgbaston Test following his extended poor run with the bat. Pujara’s proven ability to wear out the red-ball could just be what the side needs with most Indian batsmen failing to spend any substantial time at the crease. It will still be huge risk reinstating him in the line-up but it can’t be much worse than what Dhawan and Rahul have served up so far.

India must choose between Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul to open.

India must choose between Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul to open.

INCONSISTENT PACERS

While Ishant Sharma and Ravichandran Ashwin were exemplary with the ball for India at Edgbaston, Kohli will be disappointed with what he saw from the rest of his bowling attack.

Umesh Yadav, Mohammed Shami and Pandya were inconsistent with their lines and lengths and failed to put the England batsmen under pressure despite enjoying the luxury of a lively pitch which had something for the pacers for almost entire Test.

Their inconsistencies were in stark contrast to England’s pacers who constantly troubled India’s batsmen and did not allow them any breathing space.

With no update on Jasprit Bumrah’s recovery process so far, India could be forced to choose from the same set of pacers at Lord’s. As such, Shami and Umesh will need to reflect on where they went wrong at Edgbaston and up the ante at Lord’s.

Umesh Yadav was guilty of wasting excellent conditions for pacers.

Umesh Yadav was guilty of wasting excellent conditions for pacers.

TWO SPINNERS?

As Ashwin’s performance at Edgbaston showed, spinners could have a big part to play in the remainder of the series if the heatwave in the UK continues. England’s left-handers looked at sea against Ashwin before Sam Curran took the attack to the off-spinner late in the second innings.

With India’s pacers apart from Ishant misfiring at Edgbaston, Kohli could field two spinners. That would mean sacrificing one pacer or Pandya. Umesh is more likely to sit if Kohli does go down this road.

Lord’s has traditionally had something for the spinners as Yasir Shah showed for Pakistan in 2016 with a ten-wicket match haul. In Ravindra Jadeja and Kuldeep Yadav, Kohli has a solid pair of extra spinners and it could just be the attacking option India need to get back into the series.

India could still be tempted to play the Kuldeep Yadav card.

Kuldeep Yadav is a good option for the Lord’s Test.

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