Opening Woes, and Shorter Pacers – Why Do India Struggle in England and South Africa?

Cricket is a unique sport. When two sides lock horns – home and away – it becomes evident that different climes do play a major role in deciding the outcome of the game. Even among a subset grouped together, a few differences can be seen in relation to conditions on display. The current Indian cricket team has been putting up a good show across frontiers. But if you peel away the edges of the black box, you would see that India still have an issue or two to tackle when they travel to South Africa, New Zealand and England.

So what could be the reasons behind India not being able to conquer the challenge of playing in those countries? In the backdrop of India losing consecutive World Test Championship (WTC) finals in England in 2021 and 2023, and with the 2025 final also set to be held there, this particular point gains even more significance. Although for India to reach the summit clash for the third time, they have to again go through the process of beating different sides in the next cycle.

India haven’t won a Test series in England since 2007. But they played with grit and some snarl in the 2021 Test series in England, and would likely have won the rubber but for the postponement of the last Test due to the Covid-19 situation. England then won the rescheduled final Test at Edgbaston in July 2022 to draw the series 2-2. If we delve deep into the 2021 Test series, India won their Tests at The Oval and Lord’s on the back of at least one score of over 300 in either of the two innings: 466 in the second innings at The Oval, and 364 and 391 at Lord’s. 

In both those Test matches, the Indian team’s openers – Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul – played vital roles. Rohit scored a ton at The Oval, alongside essaying a hand of 83 in the first innings at Lord’s. Meanwhile, Rahul composed a superlative hundred at Lord’s. Even in the second innings at The Oval, he had helped Rohit to stitch together an opening stand of 83. 

Now, barring perhaps the 2022 summer, the Dukes ball used in England has generally offered more assistance. Not just in the air, but it also wobbles a little more off the pitch. On occasions, we have seen a good covering of grass at certain grounds, and there could be a bit of moisture around as well. So, the openers play a key role in nullifying the early threat.

In 2021, Rohit and Rahul were able to partially negate the threat of James Anderson and Ollie Robinson. Unfortunately for India, Rohit and Gill added just 30 and 41 for the opening wicket in the just-concluded WTC final. The top-order also comprises the No.3 bat Cheteshwar Pujara. Barring one hundred in Southampton, he he too hasn’t been able to find his groove in England.

On the bowling side of things, it isn’t just about a pace-bowling unit finding movement with the Dukes ball. There would be occasions when someone in the pace attack has to put his hand up and bowl dry. In 2021, the experienced Ishant Sharma did that job with distinction. A case in point would be the first innings of the Lord’s Test, where Ishant turned out to be the only Indian bowler who went at under 3 runs an over. Alongside keeping the runs down, he also ran through the cream of England’s lower-middle order, dismissing Sam Curran, Jos Buttler and Moeen Ali. In the final analysis, Ishant’s bowl-dry skills made a difference as England could eke out a small lead of 27.

If you once again glance through India’s disappointing show in the WTC final, Rohit couldn’t find a bowler to stem the run flow when Travis Head came out all guns blazing on day one. So much so that at the end of the day’s play, every single bowler was going at about 3.50-4 runs an over. It is true that The Oval is renowned as a quick-scoring ground due to the lightning fast outfield. But India’s performance with the old ball, on day 1, left a lot to be desired.

India faced a few other issues in the final. One of them was Mohammed Shami’s rather modest showing. In the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, Shami was expected to lead the attack. But he could only take a couple of scalps in the crucial first innings. 

Is Shami unlucky in England? Yes, if you do some number-crunching, it can be seen that Shami has beaten the bat more than 400 times in Tests in England. It is a head-scratching number indeed. It also perhaps indicates that Shami bowls a trifle short – around good length/short-of-a-length – in England. In fact, both his wickets in the first essay were on the back of bowling fuller deliveries. 

Until now, we have mostly analysed problems at a micro-level. At the macro-level, India have one more issue to address, and that is preparation time. The IPL 2023 got over on May 29, and a week later, the Indian team was playing a one-off Test, in completely different conditions. Now, did that play a part in the Indian pacemen not being able to find the right length and, more so, line on the first day? 

The pitch map from day 1 of the test showed that the Indian seamers homed in on the stumps only nine per cent of the time. It is true that it is practically impossible for a pace bowler to hit top of off stump every single time, but nine per cent is very low on a day when there was consistent movement. Maybe the pacers carried on bowling the same lines that they used in IPL, where defensive lines and lengths work better? This indicates that if India qualify for the final again, they would need more time to prepare.

Looking ahead into the near-future, India have another important assignment coming up: A full tour of South Africa in 2023-24. Less than two years ago, India were expected to win their first-ever Test series in South Africa, against what seemed like a modest home side on paper. Yes, South Africa did have a strong bowling unit for the prevailing conditions, but the batting line-up seemed bereft of experience and, to some extent, class. Unfortunately for India, they slipped to a 1-2 series loss.

So how could a team that succeeded against a full-strength Australian side slip to a series loss in South Africa? On paper, aren’t the conditions similar in both the countries? During the course of the series in 2021-22, Rahul debunked the theory that the conditions in Australia and South Africa are quite similar. “My experience is that the pitches could be challenging because of the tennis-ball bounce,” he said at a press conference. “We have played in Australia, where the pitches are fast and bouncy. But here, it (the pitch) can be bit spongy for the first couple of days and then starts to quicken up.”

Alongside spongy bounce, some of the tracks in South Africa also offer movement off the seam. So, in South Africa as well, the openers have to lay the foundation stone by negating the early threat. Incidentally, in the only Test that India won in South Africa in their previous assignment, Rahul and Mayank Agarwal shared an association of 117 for the opening wicket at Centurion. On a trademark Centurion deck, which cracked up as the match progressed, Rahul’s hundred proved decisive.

With indentations and cracks expected at Centurion, winning the toss and batting first could also give a significant advantage. In the last ten Test matches played at the venue, eight have been won by the team batting first. This is also a ground where spinners have a very minimal role to play. Muttiah Muralitharan, the Sri Lankan legend, is the only visiting spinner to have found some success: 12 scalps at 27.08. Among the home side’s spinners, Paul Harris has 13 wickets at 27.23. But at least a few of his wickets came from bowling negative lines.

After winning the opening Test at Centurion, India then hurtled to defeats in the next two. At the Wanderers and in Cape Town, the Indian pace bowlers combined to pick up just four wickets between them in the second innings. While watching the Test series, it seemed crystal clear that South Africa’s pace bowlers had an advantage in relation to the height factor. 

All four of the South African pace bowlers who bowled in the final two Tests were over 6’3″ – Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen and Duanne Olivier. Yes, the four pace bowlers had slightly different strengths, but on pitches that offered a touch of variable/spongy bounce, the foursome seemed to extract more life, especially in the second innings. In that backdrop, Prasidh Krishna’s hit-the-deck skills from a high release point could have helped India in that rubber. 

“It just felt like the ball seemed to misbehave a little bit more for them, and that could be [because of the] height,” Rahul Dravid, India’s coach, said during a post-match press conference. “On up-and-down wickets sometimes, just having that extra height might tend to make a little bit of a difference, so it just felt for us [that] the balls didn’t misbehave as much. Some did, of course there were some balls that did misbehave even for us, but probably not as many as it did for them. I guess they have that natural height advantage. We are bowlers who tend to pitch the ball up a little bit more, we look for swing, we kiss the surface a little bit more.”

On their next tour to South Africa, India might prefer playing in Durban and Port Elizabeth – tracks at those two venues are known to be on the slower side.

India have also found touring New Zealand tricky, having not won a Test series there since 2009. But India aren’t scheduled to play the Black Caps away from home in the next WTC cycle. Over the last six to seven years, India have done a commendable job of being competitive across conditions. However, a few nuts and bolts and ancillary parts perhaps need to be added for India to conquer a couple of frontiers.

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