Captain Virat Kohli had led his men admirably till last week’s Pune test, where a 333-run rout by Australia ended India’s 19-match unbeaten streak.
History may judge the 28-year-old harshly for a spectacular meltdown that saw Kohli and his men collapsing like cardboard cutouts used for target practice.
The world’s top test team, quite inexplicably, looked paralysed with fear and offered no resistance. Kohli and his men turned up in earnest but appeared to have left character behind in the dressing room. India was bowled out twice for 105 and 107 in merely 74 overs -- for its lowest aggregate of 212 in a home series.
In the post-match interview, Kohli did not blame the crumbling pitch. But did he fail to inspire? Strategies employed in the first innings suggest he didn’t attack enough against a notoriously combative Australian side.
The first ball of the match, an impressive outside off line from Ishant Sharma that lured Matt Renshaw to play at it, saw the ball take the outside edge and race past the vacant third slip to the fence. A seasoned medium pacer like Ishant, who’s been bowling a good line of late, was bowling to a rookie. And yet, the third slip was missing. A boundary on the first ball must have settled Renshaw’s nerves.
In the second over, Kohli made the tactical error of exposing his main weapon -- off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin -- too soon. It was a move the Aussies were perhaps anticipating and were adequately prepared for.
Umesh Yadav, who is seriously fast with both new and old ball, could have been a better option. With his pace, Yadav could have tested both the left-handed openers -- David Warner and Renshaw -- with his incoming ball and bouncer.
As it turned out, Yadav struck with his second ball and got India the much-needed breakthrough by removing Warner (38), who was threatening to score big. India had to wait till the 28th over for the first wicket and by then Australia had made an impressive start with 82 on board. Yadav could have been pressed into action earlier and an early dismissal would have put the opposition under pressure.
Umesh Yadav picked up four wickets in the first innings and yet he bowled only 12 overs, one less than off spinner Jayant Yadav, who was struggling for consistency. Umesh was clearly under-bowled and wasn’t given an opportunity to pick up his first five-for.
Perhaps the biggest mistake was not attacking tailender Mitchell Starc (61) enough. With the field spread out wide, he clobbered Indian bowlers and steered Australia from a shaky 205 for nine to a fighting total of 260 on a pitch that was dry and deteriorating. India allowed the Aussies to escape and paid for it dearly.
Two back-to-back meltdowns for India’s batting on home turf defy logic. Evidently, batsmen showed little heart to dig in and put up a fight. But then meltdowns are hard to explain.
Going by batting performance, Kohli needs to let Jayant Yadav go and pencil in Karun Nair to reinforce the middle-order. Moreover, medium pacers should be given at least 15 overs a day to make a dent.
Kohli also needs to plug leaking singles and dropped catches as it allows batsmen like Steve Smith to settle down and launch a counter-attack.
The second test in Bengaluru beginning March 4 will be a new battle for Kohli, a chance to regroup and prove that the Pune defeat was just an aberration for his team of world-beaters.