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Are Indian batsmen flat track bullies?

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India_batting_batsmen_flat_track_bullies_cricket_Test_home_awayThe first Test between India and Sri Lanka at the Eden Gardens in the recently concluded series made for some intriguing observations. The pitch had a tinge of grass and the moisture in the air made it conducive to swing & seam bowling. Asked to bat first, the Indian batting order, arguably one of the best in the world, crumbled badly as the ball swung and moved around viciously. Save for Cheteshwar Pujara’s fighting 52, the other batsmen of the Indian batting unit were found wanting on a pitch that challenged them.

While a Virat Kohli special in the second innings changed the game for India, the performance from the batsmen in the first innings, when the ball was moving around a fair bit, has raised a lot of concerns among Indian fans as tours to South Africa and England are lined up in the coming months.

Yes, they did well when the pitches were “normal” in the subsequent two Tests. But the habit of failing regularly on seaming tracks seems to follow Indian batsmen everywhere. The old question has risen up again: are Indian batsmen just flat-track bullies?

For quite a while now, the notion has often been brought up that Indian batsmen excel only in tailor-made pitches at home, and the moment they have to face swinging and seaming conditions abroad, they come a cropper. Given the way they have often faltered in overseas conditions, that point becomes hard to argue.

There are such big names in India’s batting and yet, on social media and countless other platforms, they are regularly mocked for being bona fide flat-track bullies. But should this also be said about the current Indian Test batting unit after one failure on a green top surface? Or is there some truth to the insult?

Let’s dig deeper.

It won’t be prudent to consider the shorter formats here as in this day and age, literally every batsman in the world is a flat-track bully in ODIs and T20Is thanks to lifeless pitches and short boundaries.

Analyzing the Indian Test batting lineup’s overseas performances

To understand whether the current Indian Test batting lineup is indeed only successful on flat tracks, an assessment of each batsman from the unit must be done based on their performances in places like England, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, as those are the places that pose the most challenge for any Asian batsman at present.

Shikhar Dhawan has had a terrific run this year. But is he a quality Test batsman who can be a consistent performer in every condition? The shot that he played in the first innings of the Eden Gardens Test against Sri Lanka – a rash stroke on a seaming track to an inswinging delivery – certainly doesn’t bear well for a proper Test batsman.

Dhawan averages 43.78 in Tests in 28 matches. That is decent, but 15 of those Tests have been played in Asia. The left-handed opener has just 37 runs in 3 matches in England at an average of 20.33. In Australia, he has scored 167 runs in 3 Tests at an average of 27.83. In South Africa, he has mustered only 76 runs from 2 Tests at a poor average of 19. In New Zealand, he has better numbers with 215 runs in 2 Tests at an average of 53.75.

Overall, Dhawan does seem to have a problem on wickets with bounce or swing. He tends to play rash strokes to hit his way out of trouble. Clearly this is something he needs to work on.

 

While Cheteshwar Pujara has been absolutely brilliant for India at home – he has an average of 65.55 in 37 Tests with 13 hundreds and 13 fifties in Asia – he is yet to leave a significant mark overseas. In Australia, Pujara has just 201 runs in 3 Tests at an average of 33.50. In England, he has gathered only 222 runs in 5 Tests at an average of 22.20. In New Zealand, he has managed 60 runs in 2 Tests. His only overseas hundred came in South Africa, where Pujara has a decent record of 311 runs in 4 Tests at an average of 44.42.

 

It is clear that Pujara has struggled on pitches overseas and prospered on the sub-continental ones. His technique is solid but he has a problem with genuine seam and swing, and gets stuck often. The next two tours to South Africa and England will be crucial for Pujara if he has to shed his image of a batsman who is successful only in Asian conditions.

Not many can put up a solid argument of Virat Kohli being a flat-track bully with his terrific numbers in overseas Test matches. Kohli has been phenomenal in Australia, with 992 runs in 8 Tests at an average of 62. In South Africa, the star Indian batsman got 272 runs in 2 Tests with an average of 68. In New Zealand, he has collected 214 runs in just 2 Tests at an average of 71.33.

The one place where Kohli has been completely unproductive has been England. In 5 Tests there, he has just 139 runs at a shocking average of 13.40 without even a fifty. On India’s last tour to England in 2014, he was repeatedly found out by James Anderson and other seamers with the swinging ball outside the off-stump.

While there is no denying that Kohli is one of the best in the world at present – after all, not many can accumulate 610 runs in just 3 Tests as he did against Sri Lanka recently – this is one area he will have to address. Because if he can’t find success in conditions where the ball swings, he will be hard-pressed to combat his naysayers.

 

One of the few Indian Test batsmen who has a better record overseas than at home is Ajinkya Rahane. The plucky middle-order batsman has scored 399 runs in Australia in 4 Tests at an average of 57. In South Africa, he has collected 209 runs in 2 Tests at an average of 69.66. In New Zealand, Rahane has scored 118 runs in 2 Tests at an average of 54. While he hasn’t exactly struggled in England, Rahane doesn’t have impressive numbers either – 299 runs from 5 matches at an average of 33.22. Despite this, one has to remember Rahane had struck a masterful 103 in India’s momentous victory in the Lord’s Test of 2014.

 

The modest numbers from England and his horrible poor home run in Tests notwithstanding, a mere 17 runs in the 3 Tests against Sri Lanka, Rahane is far from a flat-track bully and with his superior numbers in almost all conditions overseas, has proved that he is a very polished all-round batsman.   

KL Rahul is relatively new in international cricket and is yet to play a Test in New Zealand, South Africa and England. He has played 2 Tests in Australia and even scored a solid 110 at Sydney in 2015. The 25-year-old has impressed in the few chances he has got, and seems to have a robust technique to help him excel in all conditions, along with a very mature head on his shoulders.

Murali Vijay is another Indian batsman of high pedigree who has shown his caliber in testing conditions overseas - the tranquil 95 at Lord’s and the classy 144 at Brisbane are fine examples. He has collected 482 runs in Australia from 4 Tests at an average of 60.25. In England, Vijay has played 5 Tests and scored 402 runs in them at an average of 40.20. He has modest returns in South Africa with 176 runs in 3 Tests at an average of 29.33. Vijay has faltered in New Zealand, though, and in the 2 Tests he has played there the Indian opener has managed just 48 runs at an average of 12.

Clearly, Vijay is one of the better Indian batsmen for all conditions. His poise and technique, along with the excellent record overseas, makes him the perfect answer to those calling Indian batsmen flat-track bullies.

Until recently, Rohit Sharma was not a regular part of the Indian Test team, but after performing well in the Test series against Sri Lanka, it seems likely that he will be in consideration for future Test tours. The stylish Indian batsman has had rather poor yields in Tests overseas with just 173 runs in 3 Tests at an average of 28.83 in Australia, 45 runs in 2 Tests at an average of 11.25 in South Africa, 122 runs in 2 Tests at an average of 40.66 in New Zealand and just 34 runs in 1 Test in England at 17.

For all his talent, Rohit has indeed failed to put up strong performances on tough pitches outside home in Tests. Unless he manages to do so, question marks on his quality as a batsman will always be raised.

Conclusion:

There is no denying that the current Indian Test batting unit is a powerhouse of talent. However, with the numbers we have seen of the primary batsmen in overseas conditions, it is apparent that some things need to be corrected. While it would be unfair to label them ‘flat-track bullies’, one cannot call them the best in the world either.

There certainly is some problem there with the moving ball on seaming tracks and on pitches where the bounce is uneven. The numbers from England and New Zealand for almost all the batsmen of the current Indian Test batting unit are pretty mediocre, and that tells us something.

That said, this Indian batting unit still hasn’t played that many Tests overseas. Perhaps after they are done with another tour to South Africa, Australia, England and New Zealand, we can have a clearer picture.

The Indian Test team is ranked No.1 in the world at present. If they wish to retain that ranking, their batsmen would need to be a lot more consistent on pitches that don’t suit their batting. Most of the Indian batsmen have been too used to playing on the flat surfaces at home and the IPL has now further aided that practice. What also doesn’t help is playing a long Test season against teams like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and West Indies, who don’t really challenge the Indian batsmen.

Indian teams over the years have never been great travelers. So many of their Test batsmen have suffered overseas and yet have plundered heaps of runs while playing on the safety of their home. The calls of ‘flat-track bullies’ hence has always stayed on. Perhaps this Test side, under Virat Kohli’s spirited leadership, will finally turn things around in the seasons to come.

That first innings performance in the Test at Eden against Sri Lanka must serve as a wakeup call for them. One can hope that the Indian batsmen would have learned their lessons and would take the necessary measures to counter it. And for once, they can finally squash their notorious image as flat-track bullies. Interesting times lie ahead.

 

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