The sting in the tail hurts most, especially psychologically.
For years, Indian teams have been trying to get their tailenders to contribute with the bat, but with little success. During his playing days, Sunil Gavaskar used to say that he would settle for a mere 20 runs from the tailenders. Even that was not forthcoming.
Later, skippers like Sourav Ganguly et al would pack the team with batsmen and have just four bowlers in the hope that the team could bat deep and not get too flustered if the tail did not wag. This strategy left the team a bowler short and consequently showed in the team’s performance.
But Virat Kohli, as skipper, bit the bullet and insisted that he would play with five bowlers. This not only put the onus right back on the six batsmen but also prodded the bowlers to give it their all at the batting crease. Of course, it could be said that he was aided by the fact that at least two of his bowlers — Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja — are handy with the bat. But whether they were coaxed to lift their game or it just happened, is a matter of conjecture.
However, there is no denying that the current Indian team’s late-order and tailend batsmen are batting with far more purpose than their predecessors.
On Thursday, debutant Hardik Pandya coming in at number eight, not only struck some lusty blows en route his 49-ball knock of 50, but in the company of Jadeja (15), Mohammed Shami (30) and Umesh Yadav (11 not out) posted crucial runs to take the team to a total of 600.
Importantly, the late surge had its impact on the players’ confidence when it was their turn to bowl. It must have also deflated the opposition somewhat.
In fact one of the major reasons why tailenders must hang around, either scoring bagfuls of runs or blunting the bowlers for lengthy periods of time is the demoralising effect this could have on the opposition.
Often, frustration creeps in to the point that it even affects the batting reply. Indian teams of the past are well aware of this weary state of mind. They would struggle to polish off an innings and this sapped them mentally and broke their spirit.
Even under Kohi, in the Pune Test against Australia in particular, when India slipped from 95 for 5 to 105 all out and later in the second innings from 89 for 5 to 107 all out, the collapse had a devastating effect on the team.
However, with lower-order batsmen Jadeja and Wriddhiman Saha getting runs in later Tests and the others chipping in, India turned the tables on Australia.
On Thursday at Galle, Sri Lanka too would have been demoralised by the manner in which the Indian tailenders went after their bowlers and succeeded. This told when their turn came to bat.
Almost immediately they lost one opener. A little later, a pepped up Shami, who probably was in a euphoric state of mind following his impressive knock of 30, scalped two wickets to leave the innings in disarray. The damage was done and from here on, Sri Lanka will need to play out of their skin to salvage this Test.
While India’s rearguard action in recent times is certainly praiseworthy, the real challenge will come when the team tours South Africa later this year. By then, South Africa’s ace fast bowler Dale Steyn will have recovered from his injury and will be keen to make up for lost time and opportunities. The other pacemen too can be a handful, especially on their home pitches. It is then that India’s tailenders would have to show the stuff they are made of.
It is probably with this in mind that Pandya has been given his Test debut so early. He was chosen on potential rather than his performance in first class cricket and the team would be hoping that he slips into the role of an all-rounder very quickly.
Pandya has done very well in limited overs matches, but longer duration matches are a different challenge altogether. He is yet to score a first class century. As a bowler, he has a mere 24 wickets from 17 matches. Thus there is a lot of expectation that he will ramp up quickly and be the fast bowling all-rounder Indian Test cricket badly requires.
The Test 50 is a step in the right direction and if he can build on that, India’s tail, with Ashwin, Jadeja and others too shaping up, will be a handful.