Shaky openers, unreliable lower middle order and the curious case of Hardik Pandya

As Umpire Bruce Oxenford raised his finger to signal the end of the fourth test match between India and England, it confirmed yet another defeat for India in an overseas series that promised so much at times. Ashwin could have survived if there was any review left but that would have just delayed the inevitable by a few deliveries. India lost the series with one more to go.

Earlier, India had plenty of opportunities to win in South Africa before letting the home team get away, and the story was repeated in England this summer.

87 for 7, 131 for 5, 86 for 6 are scores that every Indian fan will remember for a very long time. Each time, India had an opportunity, each time they found an English all-rounder slamming the door shut on them. It was Curran in the first test, Woakes in the second test and then Curran again in the last test in the company of Moeen in the 1st innings and Buttler in the 2nd.

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With the bat, England top order may have been very ordinary but with the ball, they have constantly asked questions to the Indian batsmen who have struggled to come up with the answers. Opening partnership has become a big problem for Kohli and Shastri; two half century partnerships at Trent Bridge apart, England have always managed to find a breakthrough early on to put pressure on the middle order of Pujara, Kohli and Rahane.

None of the three openers tried during this series has managed to cross 50 leaving the big scoring to the middle order. Among the alternatives to replace the openers tried in England, Mayank Agarwal is in good touch with the A team and Prithvi Shaw has been included in the squad already, but will India take a raw opener to Australia, the most brutal of away tours?

The major difference between the two sides has been the batting of the lower middle order. While Buttler, Curran, Woakes and even Rashid have made significant contributions, Karthik, Pant, Pandya and Ashwin have not been able to make their opportunities count with the bat. Pandya did hit a half century at Trent Bridge but by then, England was just bowling for a declaration.

The first innings at Southampton was a painful reminder of the fragility of Indian middle order as a dominant position for India turned into a position of strength for England when Moeen Ali went through the Indian batsmen in a span of a few overs. Pujara still managed to give India the lead in Ishant and Bumrah’s company but the advantage was already lost.

Hardik Pandya is a key man in that Middle Order and is obviously a player Virat Kohli has a lot of faith in. He has been ever present in the squad this year while every other player apart from Kohli has been dropped once, including a fit Bhuvi.

Pandya had a great Trent Bridge Test where he ran through the English side with the ball and contributed with the bat but questions still remain over his place in the side. At Southampton, He bowled 17 overs for 85 runs and 1 wicket, and contributed 4 runs while his counterpart, Sam Curran, made game changing contributions for England. While anyone can have a bad Test, they are coming too frequently for Pandya. Yet, Kohli seems to have total faith in his all-rounder and he continues to be an integral part of the squad as India looks forward to the Australian tour during the Indian winter.

There will obviously be changes for the Final Test because playing the same XI in three consecutive Tests will be too much of a leap for Virat but who is likely to come in. Give young Shaw an opportunity at the Oval? Play six specialist batsmen and give Vihari a look in? Jadeja instead of Ashwin? Can DK get a final chance over Pant?

Whatever they decide, one thing is for sure, Pandya will definitely be in that line-up.


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