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India's tail end woes


India_South_Africa_tail-enders_pace_speed_bowling_cricketA week before leaving for Australia, Ishant Sharma was seen practicing his batting skills at the Feroz Shah Kotla. The pacer chose the quickest, grassiest track at the ground and looked to block or fend off balls that were hurled at him, with Delhi coach Mithun Manhas taking the umpire’s position.

Every 15 minutes, Manhas would ask the Delhi cricketer to lean towards the ball a little more, as this would help in the rotation of the strike as well as open up a few more scoring areas. However, Ishant, no matter how hard he tried, only ended up nicking the ball behind, and thus preferred dead-batting most of the deliveries he faced.

What the lanky bowler was trying to do made sense - India’s tail, unlike their rivals’, has not wagged recently. The series loss to England this year can in many ways be attributed to the performances of the English tail, India’s inability to dismiss them, and in turn the lack of runs scored by India’s numbers 8 to 11. In England this summer, the home team’s numbers 8 to 11 amassed 505 runs at an average of 21.95 over five Tests, with Sam Curran’s batting lower down the order often taking the team from a helpless situation to a match-winning total.

In contrast, India’s last four managed only 319 runs at an average of 11. This comical exhibition of batting by the Indian tail has continued in the ongoing Australian tour too, with only 11 runs in 78 balls being added by them in two innings at Perth. In contrast, the Australian bottom four - Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood - stood tall for 150 deliveries, contributing 71 runs, which included a resilient 36-run stand between Starc and Hazlewood for the last wicket.

In Adelaide, the tail-enders from Australia managed a total of 155 runs from both innings, which is what kept India’s victory margin to a mere 31 runs. With the Aussie tail-enders outscoring even India’s openers, Murali Vijay and KL Rahul, the problems for India seem never-ending. With the top two looking completely out of sorts, the team is always on the lookout for some crucial runs and it would do the side no harm to have a wagging tail.

However, just 801 runs from them in 2018 (not counting the Boxing Day Test at Melbourne) at an average of 11.78 hampers the progress of the team in many ways, whilst also affecting the team selection. The above numbers have been bolstered by Ravindra Jadeja’s 86* at The Oval, without which the average of the tail in 2018 falls to just 9.

At Perth, India went in with Mohammad Shami, Ishant, Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav - all walking wickets. With Ravichandran Ashwin injured, Bhuvneshwar Kumar surprisingly not in the management’s plans, and Jadeja being asked to sit out the Perth Test after Virat Kohli read the pitch wrong (again), it was imperative that the ‘batsmen’ coming in after Rishabh Pant put on a strong fight. But to no avail.

Since the very first Test played in 1877, India have the unfortunate record of allowing the rival tail to wag a little more than expected, whilst they themselves have been below-par. Numbers eight, nine, ten and eleven average 15.88 against India - the most among England, West Indies, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Australia and South Africa. In the last ten years, this average has increased to 16.90. This year, the average stands at 15.97, which is more than all teams except Ireland and Afghanistan.

In contrast, India’s numbers eight, nine, ten and eleven had averaged an impressive 17.43 from December 20, 2006 to December 20, 2011, when bowlers like Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Praveen Kumar and Zaheer Khan played. These individuals held on to their wickets and were keen to give it back to their rivals, which is what caused this inflated average.

The wagging tail against India

Impatience and tiredness can be a major reason for the opposition tail performing well against India. Till a year ago, the Indian pace attack had hardly inspired confidence, especially abroad. Even on bouncy tracks, India’s seamers struggled and by the time the top order was dismissed, the bowlers had tired out.

With India usually going in with four specialist bowlers especially under the reign of MS Dhoni, the exhaustion was clear. Even at Southampton this year, when Hardik Pandya had been omitted, the pressure on the four bowlers was evident. Bumrah stuck to bowling too straight to Adil Rashid, whilst Ishant consistently bowled length balls outside off to Stuart Broad.

“When you have an extra bowler, it gives you some cushion while bowling. When you bowl with four bowlers, you to 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,” Bumrah had said after the game.

However, even when the side played with five bowlers (at Edgbaston and Southampton), the results were the same. Considering that the first the English side and now the Australian one keep extending their advantage, it remains an aspect that needs to be worked on.

Ashish Nehra advocates bowling at the stumps and attacking the tail-enders 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 tail that does not wag

With a number of India’s batsmen looking iffy against England and now Australia, it would be asking for too much to expect the likes of Ishant and Shami, who have played their cricket on placid tracks, to play well against the bounce and pace of Starc or James Anderson. So even though Ishant might block off the front foot, the inability to score against pace will always remain. As the Australians or even the Englishmen are accustomed to playing pace, they naturally have better technique and footwork against the swinging ball.

This is what Ishant pointed out too. “We try our best to score as many runs as we can. Yes, we might not score as many runs abroad, but that is true for other teams too. When Australia come to India, their tail doesn’t score many runs.”

While the helplessness in his words were evident, there is also no denying the fact that over the years the opposition tail has snatched games away from India frequently- Mitchell Johnson’s 88 off 93 balls against India in 2014 comes to mind - and stalling their flow of runs is of supreme importance.

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