England's middle-men prop up top-order as Ashwin goes missing for India: Takeaways from Southampton Test
The remaining Test match of the series may be a dead rubber after the hosts clinched victory last time out, but there is still plenty to work on for both sides
Even as the England and India cricket teams prepare for the fifth and final Test, due to start in London on Friday, the post-mortem for the series is already under way.
This was supposed to be India’s best chance to win a first Test series in England since 2007, given that the hosts had neither a settled side nor a seasoned captain, so it is safe to say that the tourists blew it.
But whatever be the reasons, ranging from planning to selection, there is still a game to be played at The Oval, even if it is a dead rubber.
It is important, therefore, for both sides to focus on the takeaways from the just-concluded Southampton Test.
Do England really need Nos 1, 2 or 3?
England supporters have good reason to worry about their team’s continued batting problems.
They have not been able to replace Andrew Strauss at the top of the order six years after the left-hander retired from Tests.
Alastair Cook, Strauss’ long-time opening partner who on Monday announced his retirement from international cricket once this series concludes, continues to struggle to score big runs.
They do not have a mainstay at No 3, and Joe Root the captain seems to be putting too much pressure on Joe Root the batsman.
But then, it does not seem to matter. England’s batsmen from No 5 onwards are getting the runs, one key reason why they won this Test series.
They have an embarrassment of riches as far as all-rounders are concerned in Ben Stokes, Moeen Ali, Everton Woakes and Sam Curran. They have two world-class wicketkeeper-batsmen in Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler, with the latter having cemented his place in the XI with strong performances at Trent Bridge and Southampton.
So as long as they are scoring consistently and England are winning, is the lack of runs from the top order really an issue? This is not to say they can go on this way for ever, but surely fans should see the glass half-full rather than half-empty.
India unable to chase
Under captain Virat Kohli, India have lost while chasing 200-plus totals four times in 2018.
They made 135, chasing 208 against South Africa in Cape Town. In Centurion, the target was 287, but they were bowled out for 151.
It was a similar story in England. Needing 194 to win at Edgbaston, they made 162, while in Southampton, they folded for 184 – 61 runs short of the victory target.
Kohli has conceded there is a problem.
“We have the ability and that is why we are getting close to a result,” he said at Southampton. “And we have belief in that ability. But when a pressure situation comes, how we react to it is something we have to work on a bit, something everyone is ready to work on that.”
There are two ways to try and tackle the problem. Either India keep the same line-up, back the same batsmen and hope to learn from recent mistakes. For instance, did Rishabh Pant need to hit out when he could have played more patiently on Sunday?
Or, India look for new personnel. With the last game being a dead rubber, might it not be worth picking the likes of Karun Nair to see how he responds to pressure?
Ashwin, where art thou?
Considering how well he started the series, taking seven wickets at Edgbaston, Ravichandran Ashwin’s performance at Southampton surprised many.
He constantly bowled quicker through the air, the quickest he has bowled in recent times if some statisticians are to be believed, when he should have given the ball more air and enticing England’s batsmen to make mistakes.
He took three wickets in all, but his second-innings figures of 1-84 may have cost India the game, for England were allowed to score 271. It is tempting to believe India would have had a much lower target to reach had it not been for unimaginative bowling from the striker bowler.
It was in stark contrast to the performance of the other off-spinner in the game, England’s Moeen Ali, look nine wickets in all, including the prize wickets of Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane in the second innings.
When the going got tough, Ashwin the bowler went missing.
No steady hand at Nos 6 or 7 for India
On the other hand, Ashwin should have been sent out to bat at Nos 6 or 7 given his experience and temperament to be able to steady the ship under pressure. His four centuries and a batting average of nearly 30 prove that.
Instead, however, Kohli went with Hardik Pandya and Rishabh Pant in those positions when neither player had the maturity or temperament to anchor the innings. Pant proved too aggressive, while Pandya appeared clueless in both innings in Southampton.
Never never ever drop Pujara and Moeen again
India have benched Cheteshwar Pujara from time to time, while Moeen was dropped following a difficult tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Both players bounced back in this series. The former hit a fifty at Trent Bridge and a fighting hundred in Southampton, while the latter scored 40 and took nine wickets on his comeback during the fourth Test.
There is a theme that binds both players: Kohli does not seem to know how to get the best out of Pujara, going to the extent of criticising his strike-rate, while Moeen has yet to find a permanent spot in the England Test XI.
Given their consistency, it is time for both teams to back them all the way.
Updated: September 3, 2018 04:36 PM