INDIA TOUR OF AUSTRALIA, 2018-19
From Cape Town to Perth, were these missed chances or systemic failure? © Getty
If it was a case of "three Misses and you're out" at Perth, this test match would already be over by now. Yes, there is always a lot of playing and missing on pitches that are green and have help on offer for the bowlers. But rarely have both the bat and the ball played hard-to-get as incessantly as they have over the last four days at the Optus Perth Stadium. And rarely have a bunch of world-class fast bowlers across both teams had to experience such an equal mix of excitement (at the ball playing a gamut of Tricks off the surface) and frustration (at those tricks not resulting in wickets often enough) as they have here.
So KL Rahul decided to make their lives, Mitchell Starc's anyway, slightly easier when the left-armer fired in full swing toward him. He did not play at it, making sure there was no question about him missing it. The ball though caught a faint inside-edge of his bat, before crashing into his stumps. Just like that Rahul had fallen to a soft dismissal again. Just like that India had conceded first blood in the fourth innings of a Test again. Just like that they'd made a hash of a run-chase right at the start again.
The sense of deja vu was much more familiar around half-hour later when Virat Kohli and Murali Vijay were removed by Nathan Lyon, leaving India in the dumps at 55/4 and the target of 287 already looking out of reach and out of mind . Like it was now just a case of when the rest would succumb and get done with it as India succumbed to another defeat. It was after all exactly how they stuttered in each of their failed run-chases earlier this year away from home. In Cape Town they were 39/3 Chasing 208, Centurion 26/3 Chasing 287, 46/3 Chasing 194 in Edgbaston, and 22/3 Chasing 245 in Southampton, 2/3 Chasing 464 at The Oval. The premise was the same. Their response was the same.
These were Tests played in different conditions – even if most had more than something in them for the bowlers – and with the series at different stages of interest. But the sameness in many of the factors leading up to their predicament and eventual defeat is tough to miss. Maybe the toss, which Virat Kohli has lost on all these occasions, could be put down to chance. But where India has messed up is with factors that have been in their control, starting with a selection which also accounts for a questionable reading of the pitch and conditions.
At Cape Town, they went to Rohit Sharma in place of Ajinkya Rahane. At Centurion, they dropped their most incisive bowler and second-best batsman from the Cape Town Test, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar. At Edgbaston, they left out their most reliable batsman Cheteshwar Pujara to play all three openers on tour. At Southampton, they picked up a half-fit R Ashwin who failed to make the most of the rough patches that Moeen Ali feasted on. And as already highlighted over the last few days, Umesh Yadav has reinforced the wrong turnaround of the team management by picking him over Bhuvneshwar repeatedly over the duration of the match – as he did by leaking runs whenever his colleagues had put the Aussies under the cosh in the second innings.
Why these selection gaffes keep repeating themselves though remains a Mystery. You have a Captain who talks about wanting to win and plays his Cricket in the same way. You have a Head Coach who has seen and experienced the Cricket from all corners on the paper and should be the one Guiding Kohli in making the right calls, once he's done helping his Captain get a grip on the conditions. Even while the conspiracy theories are abounding over favouritism being one of the unexplored causes for the strange selections, none of them make real sense beyond the obvious. So either there is just a case of poor reading of conditions on the part of both Captain and Coach, or maybe they've gone too often with their gut and not Logic. There is no other reason for Umesh to be playing at Perth.
It's a mystery that selection gaffes keep repeating © Getty
Bhuvneshwar, or for that matter even a Ravindra Jadeja, would have contributed 20-25 runs at least with the bat and more importantly kept Australia to 20-25 runs less in both innings, and looking more threatening while at it. It's not surprising that though shyly but without Persuasion, India's Bowling Hero in the second innings, Mohammed Shami, admitted that he felt the team could have done with a specialist spinner – not a bad call considering the damage that Lyon has caused.
There are other comparisons too that can be drawn from each of the other failed runs-chases and the lead-up to them in 2018, starting with the bowlers' inability to clean up the tail. It happened in South Africa, where likes of Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada helped double the score for the last five wickets. And in England, India kept coming up against their baby-faced obstacle, Sam Curran, over and over again. In Perth, after having collapsed rather tamely in the first innings, the Australian tail wagged on Monday and extended the final total closer to 300 than 250 that looked like the case after Shami had produced his spell of elite hostility that only blew away the Aussie middle- but maybe even instilled a lot of apprehension in his own batsmen. Unfortunately, India's last four have fallen far too easily and they have certainly not helped their case in Perth by picking four bowlers, each of which seems like a slot too high, right from No. 8 to No. 11.
What must annoy India most is that they have had a sniff in each of these lost Tests, as they have in Perth. Despite losing the toss, despite the iffy selections, despite the inability to eventually chase down totals – which not many teams do away from home anyway – they've shown enough quality and attitude to actually be in the running for decent parts of the match. Their bowlers have only Occasionally not made the most of any favors they've received from the pitches they have had to bowl first on. Bumrah, Shami and Ishant have bowled their hearts out and put India in positions from where they can dominate, if they only got the Casting right to secure the perfect ending.
It should be said though that chasing totals over 200 on challenging pitches is not a proposition that most teams feel comfortable with. The margins of defeat though narrow in some cases are not always a true reflection of the actual difference between the sides overall in the particular match. Although Australia got within 32 runs of winning in Adelaide, not many really believed they could have pulled off the run-chase.
But by repeatedly speaking about how their journey away in 2018 has been a case of so-near-yet-so-far, the Indians have perhaps denied themselves the chance to introspect with greater scrutiny upon some of their decisions both in terms of approach and Tactics. Maybe it will be in their own good, if they actually started to look at these defeats less as missed chances and more as systemic failures. There are just too many variables in all of them that have been repetitive for them not to be considered a trend rather than a coincidence. And if any Indian team can afford to endure a hard-look without losing their resolve, it's this Kohli-led unit. For, like they showed in the first Test and for Major Parts during this one, they are the No. 1 team in the world for a reason, and they have most boxes ticked to hold on to that ranking even away from home.