India’s new Fab Four… batting at 6, 7, 8, 9

For much of this century, Fab Four in world cricket referred to Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly, generational batting virtuosos that graced India’s middle order. For much of Indian cricket’s history, it would remain thus. But in the context of the series against Australia and England, though, Fab Four could well denote Rishabh Pant, Ravichandran Ashwin, Washington Sundar and Axar Patel. They stride out to bat at numbers 6, 7, 8, and 9 respectively. Batting is not their primary or sole occupation. Yet, both against England and Australia, their contributions have not just been valuable but of match-winning proportions. That they out-scored the specialist batsmen in the series against England drills home the story. The foursome—Pant, Ashwin, Sundar and Patel—collected 695 runs with five 50-plus scores and two hundreds. Between Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane, they could muster only 636 runs with five half-centuries. Rarely ever has India possessed such a utilitarian lower-order. One has to go back to the 1980s when the team boasted Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Madan Lal, Chetan Sharma, and Roger Binny. The shoe, historically, has been on the other foot. Usually, it’s the lower-order hands of teams like England (remember Sam Curran and Co in 2018 or Stuart Broad and friends in 2011) or Australia that would hurt the outcome of matches. But this time around, it was the turn of Pant and Co to turn the tables. Their game-changing knocks not only embed this team an aura, but also a sense of invincibility, reminiscent of the Australian teams of the 1990s and early aughts. It also goes a long way in asserting that the team is no longer over-reliant on their top-order for all the runs. Add Hardik Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja to the mix, Kohli has an arsenal of genuine match-winning all-rounders at his disposal. Some of the instances in the last two months wherein their batting has made all the difference.

Rishabh Pant: The 23-year-old endured a torrid time with the bat in the run-up to the Australia tour. But he forged the turnaround with a belligerent 97 in the second innings at SCG that gave India a sniff at an improbable victory. Pant followed it up with an epic unbeaten 89 on the final day at the Gabba that propelled a historic series win in Australia. He continued his rich vein of form against England, with a counterattacking 88-ball 91 in the first Test in Chennai. Yet again, he reserved his best in the final match of the series, when he produced another stunner — an 118-ball 101 — which was part of a crucial 113-run partnership with Sundar that pulled his team from a dire position to a match-winning one (India were 146/6 in response to England’s 205 before they stitched this stand). Not surprisingly, head coach Ravi Shastri termed the knock “the best counterattacking innings by an Indian batsman in India.”

READ | Ravi Shastri’s journey: From Champion of Champions to the coach of a champion team

R Ashwin: There’s little doubt that Ashwin, the off-spinner, is currently at the peak of his powers. However, Ashwin, the batsman, has underwhelmed in recent times. In the four-year period before the Australia series, he averaged an abysmal 16.76 without registering a Test fifty. Sure enough, his heroic efforts in Sydney proved to be the catalyst. But the signs of a resurgence were evident in the previous Test in Melbourne, even though a big score had eluded him. Against England in Chennai, in front of his home crowd, Ashwin provided a masterclass to bat on turners, by bringing up his fifth Test century. His 106 could not have come at a more opportune moment. Trailing 1-0 in the series, he came to bat in the second innings with his team in trouble at 106/6. A 96-run seventh-wicket stand with Kohli laid the platform. Even after his captain’s departure, Ashwin continued his merry ways, unfurling a series of sublime strokes that helped shift the momentum of the series in India’s favour.

Ravindra Jadeja: When he is not conning batsmen with his left-arm spin or effecting sensational run-outs, Jadeja is busy bailing his team out of trouble with the bat. Sample this. India are 1-0 down and just 22 runs adrift of Australia’s total in the second Test in Melbourne, when he joins Rahane at the crease. A 121-run partnership snuffed out fears of a tepid batting collapse, and Jadeja’s firefighting 57 would help India register 326, which was instrumental in their resounding 8-wicket win.

Hardik Pandya: Hampered by a back injury, which has restricted his seam-bowling, the Baroda all-rounder has not played a Test since September 2018. Nevertheless, he has given ample proof of his batting abilities. Like his unbeaten 50 in the second innings against England at Trent Bridge in 2018 that gave India a match-winning lead. In recent times, Pandya has been in sensational batting form in the IPL and limited-overs competition in Australia that made Shane Warne chime: “Pandya should be picked in the Test squad solely on his batting abilities.” If the 27-year-old, who is undergoing a lengthy rehab, returns to bowling at full tilt, it would give India a definitive edge, especially in the WTC final at Lord’s and the Test-series against England that follows.

Washington Sundar: Before his unprecedented Test debut at the Gabba, he was perceived as an off-spinner who could bat a bit in white-ball cricket. He immediately quashed such perceptions with poised 62, a knock bereft of T20 pyrotechnics, in his very first Test innings. In response to Australia’s first innings tally of 369, India were 186/6 when Sundar joined Shardul Thakur. Together, they stacked up 123 runs that restricted the lead to 33 runs. Sundar followed it up with scores of 85 not out in the first Test in Chennai and an unbeaten 96 in Ahmedabad, stitching vital partnerships with Pant and Patel. So impressive that Shastri said he would be considered for a spot up in the batting order.

Axar Patel: In his debut series, the left-arm spinner had cast a spell over Englishmen. Axar, however, also chipped in with an invaluable 43 in the first innings of the fourth Test in Ahmedabad. His 106-run 8th-wicket partnership with Sundar not only helped the lead swell to 160 runs, but also ensured that his team was not required to bat again. —

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