It isn’t often that a team ends up on the losing side after its wicketkeeper-batsman scores a century and a fifty, and a spinner makes a century. It took a combination of a Bazball-inspired England, chasing a record target of 378, and India’s batting vulnerability, hiding behind ‘Pantball’, to produce that outcome on Tuesday in Birmingham. Ultimately, Engand won the Test relatively easily by seven wickets, to level the series 2-2.
Rishabh Pant made 203 out of the 661 runs India scored in the Edgbaston Test. That’s nearly one-third of the total. His century in the first innings was followed by a fifty in the second. But this was eclipsed by Jonny Bairstow’s centuries in both innings to take England to victory.
Pant’s 146 in the first innings came off just 111 balls, where he led India’s counterattack from a precarious 98-5. That’s similar in approach to what England have adopted to win four Tests in a row since Brendon McCullum (aka Baz) took over as coach last month. But while the solid Joe Root complemented Bazball spearhead Bairstow in the victory march, ‘Pantball’ fizzed out in an Indian middle order quagmire. The only significant contributions for India, other than Pant’s 146 and 57, came from makeshift opener Cheteshwar Pujara’s 66 in the second innings and all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja’s 104 in the first innings.
None of India’s specialist batsmen, barring Pujara, crossed 20. Opener Shubman Gill evidently could not readjust to Test cricket after an IPL season, as he fell early in both innings poking at deliveries outside off-stump from the redoubtable James Anderson.
No doubt India sorely missed openers Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul who did so well in providing positive starts last year in England when India took a 2-1 lead in the series. But the bigger issue is the prolonged underperformance of India’s middle order.
Former skipper Virat Kohli is testing the creativity of commentators in finding excuses for the megastar’s failures which can no longer be attributed to bad luck or a lean patch. Both his dismissals in the Edgbaston Test came when he lunged forward to deliveries he could have left or played off the backfoot. Bowlers know the post-2019 Kohli has a predilection for the front foot, and keep pulling their length back to get him. His average after his last century against Bangladesh in November 2019 is a mere 27.25. It’s just his past greatness and megastar status that keep him in the Test side.
It doesn’t help that the batsmen around him have been faring equally badly. Hanuma Vihari, elevated to Pujara’s erstwhile No.3 slot, failed in both innings at Edgbaston. His contributions so far have come down the order against an older ball, and an average of 33.56 in 16 Tests doesn’t inspire confidence that he will be India’s new Wall. India may be better off giving a chance to top order T20 talent for the No.3 Test slot, such as Ruturaj Gaikwad or Sanju Samson, betting on them to develop the defensive skills to survive against the moving new ball. The advantage in that option is that if a proactive batsman gets set, he can put bowlers under pressure and take the game away from the opposition a la Bazball.
A transition from T20 to Test cricket can only be successful, however, if a batsman can deal with bouncers. Shreyas Iyer’s inability to do so has been his undoing after coming into the lower middle order in place of Ajinkya Rahane. Iyer entered the Test arena with a bang, scoring a century and a fifty in his first Test. That was on an Indian wicket against New Zealand bowlers who rely more on swing and seam movement than bounce. Besides, they perhaps didn’t know just how vulnerable he is to the short ball. That became painfully apparent in the last IPL season when bowlers targeted him with a short pitch barrage match after match. With his IPL coach McCullum in England’s camp now, it wasn’t surprising to see McCullum indicating to skipper Ben Stokes and the pace bowlers just where he wanted them to direct their deliveries when Iyer came out to bat in the second innings—his armpit.
It was a relentless short pitch onslaught with three fielders positioned on the legside boundary. Iyer got away with bunting one through a vacant mid-wicket but when that hole was plugged, he looked besieged and soon popped a catch there off Matthew Potts. Even Anderson, who mainly relies on swing, got Iyer in the first innings with a ball dug into his ribs that he fended down the legside into the wicketkeeper’s gloves.
That he was unable to find a solution despite knowing exactly what was coming at him made the performance pathetic. Unless Iyer can learn to either sway out of line or hook and pull with authority, India’s new middle order hope may prove to be a damp squib. Other T20 stars like Suryakumar Yadav may then get an opportunity in Tests.
With the batting lineup in such a shambles, it was left to Pant’s brilliance and Jadeja’s rising credentials with the bat to make a match of it in Edgbaston. For all his brilliance, however, Pant’s dismissals in both innings were as exasperating as ever.
England were at their wit’s end when India recovered from 98-5 in a 222-run partnership between Pant and Jadeja. Stokes resorted to the part-time off-spin of Joe Root whose obvious ploy was to buy Pant’s wicket with lollipops outside off-stump. When Pant smacked him back over his head for a six and over extra-cover for a four, Stokes applauded the bowler.
Sure enough Pant reached for one floated even wider and edged to first slip. To get out to a spinner on a first day wicket at Edgbaston when England were on the mat with a 66-over-old ball was like conceding a gimme in golf. The opposition didn’t have to do anything particularly clever or skillful to get the wicket of a set batsman approaching his 150-run mark.
It was a similar story in the second innings, except that it was left-arm spinner Jack Leach this time, bowling into the rough outside the left-handed Pant’s off-stump. An extravagant sweep off-balance got him a boundary off the first ball, but he soon succumbed to a reverse sweep into Joe Root’s hands at first slip. His dismissal in the 63rd over left the door ajar for England to barge back into the game. “Live by the sword, die by the sword” is the proverb usually trotted out when Pant gives his wicket away. But there’s more to it than that. It partly smacks of overconfidence and egoism, as in his dismissal to Root.
Pant is smart enough to know by now that bowlers will resort to wide balls when he’s in full flow and the conditions are in the batsman’s favour. He can choose to bide his time until bowlers come within his arc where he doesn’t have to hit shots off-balance, especially in Test cricket. Bairstow showed, for example, that he could be patient when leftarm spinner Jadeja bowled negatively outside his leg-stump into the rough.
Extravagant shots are also Pant’s way of throwing bowlers off their rhythm when he feels some pressure, as in Leach turning the ball into him from the rough in the second innings, or when he tried to reverse sweep pace bowler Chris Broad after being beaten a couple times outside off-stump. It’s when Pant learns to trust his defence and forces bowlers to earn his wicket that he will realize his full potential. He can take a leaf out of Bairstow’s book for consistency.
Luck plays a part too. Bairstow was dropped off Siraj at second slip early on in the victory chase when stand-in skipper Jasprit Bumrah made the mistake of putting Vihari in that crucial position instead of one of the regular slippers, Gill or Iyer. England’s hero probably deserved that luck because he played smarter cricket than Pant.
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.