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From the start of the 2008 home series against Australia, when MS Dhoni took over the captaincy of the Test team, till the World Cup, six out of India's top seven were remarkably settled. In that period, excluding the 2010 series against Bangladesh, four of them faced an average of 95 balls or more per innings. Dhoni's balls per innings (BPI) figure was 71.53 and Virender Sehwag's (at a strike rate of 93.08) was 58.20.
Since then, their stickability has taken a collective nosedive.
Post-World Cup, 49 batsmen have faced 1000 or more balls in Tests, led by Alastair Cook's 3972 balls in 35 innings. Of those 49 batsmen, Cook has the fourth-best BPI (113.49). Cheteshwar Pujara sits atop that list, at 174.57.
Pujara, of course, has only played seven innings. But he has faced more deliveries (1222) in seven innings than Sehwag (910) in 24.
Rahul Dravid (102.44) is the next most stickable Indian batsman after Pujara, followed by Virat Kohli (71.27). In the same period, 31 batsmen from around the world have faced more balls per innings than Kohli, including Ricky Ponting (struggling), Andrew Strauss (retired after form slump) and Kirk Edwards (dropped). Obviously, BPI doesn't tell the whole story, especially for batsmen who score very slowly or very quickly or bat down the order. It's also tied to how teammates do. The other Indians have had a miserable time of it (see box).
And their miserable time hasn't been confined to the tours of England and Australia. A better team than the West Indies might have exploited India's first-innings collapses at Kingston, Bridgetown and Delhi. A better team might not have let their number eight score a century when India were six down 259 behind at Mumbai. A better team than New Zealand might not have let India get away from 80/4 and 179/5 in reply to 365 at Bangalore. England, at the Wankhede, were that better team.
The bowlers have been no better in this period, having conceded 400-plus 10 times in 18 Tests. But India have seldom boasted potent attacks. Their recent travails probably stem from the same causes that have plagued them historically.
But the batting slump has been out of character. There are a number of probable causes. For one, the top six is in transition. The form of Dravid and Laxman waned as they approached their retirements, and Sachin Tendulkar seems to be going through a similar late dip.
The regression of Sehwag and Gambhir has been less explicable. If they build on the form they showed in Ahmedabad and Mumbai, they could build a platform for the recovery of India's collective batting mettle.
The rest haven't played enough Test cricket yet to warrant harsh judgment. But Pujara's promise does suggest that batsmen groomed from bottom up in the long format might be better prepared for Tests than those who have arrived from the U-19 World Cup, ODIs and the IPL.
The IPL has had an effect even on established names. Last year, Sehwag and Gambhir, carrying injuries, played the IPL but didn't go to the West Indies. Tendulkar missed that tour too. He was fit, but opted out to spend time with his family. He too had played the IPL. All three looked out of sorts in England. To compound matters, the Indians only played one tour game before the first Test.
Just before the return series against England, a number of India's Test players were in South Africa, playing the Champions League T20. Shane Watson played the early part of the tournament, but was called back by his board to prepare for the Tests against South Africa.
The BCCI are major stakeholders in the IPL and the CLT20. It isn't in their commercial interests to act in similar fashion. The Indian players, therefore, might have no choice but to prioritise their franchises.
The one change that overlapped precisely with the World Cup was the identity of the head coach. Under Gary Kirsten, India often batted with a sense of backs-to-the-wall grit. Their tailenders helped save matches at Bangalore (Australia, 2008) and Ahmedabad (New Zealand, 2010) and win a thriller at Mohali (Australia, 2010). Their batsmen dug in for 180 overs to save a Test match at Napier after following on, in 2009.
Under Kirsten, South Africa have just batted 148 overs to save the Adelaide Test. As he did with Gautam Gambhir, he seems to have helped attacking batsmen like AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis deal with the challenge of defending for long periods. Duncan Fletcher is reckoned to be brilliant at coaching technique. It remains to be seen if he, like Kirsten, can help batsmen make mental adjustments.
In the first Test of Kirsten's last tour, at Centurion, India collapsed in the first innings, but dug deep to score 459 in the second, when all was already lost. Their resistance barely took the Test into the fifth day, but it played its part in giving their batsmen confidence for the rest of the series. In Durban, on a made-to-order pitch for the South African quicks, India outbatted and outbowled their opponents in a famous victory. Much like England at Ahmedabad and Mumbai, 2012.
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