With India solving the opening conundrum, a new crack has developed in the batting lineup. Since the beginning of 2020, India's famed middle order - No.3 to 5 - comprising Cheteshwar Pujara, captain Virat Kohli, and his deputy Ajinkya Rahane averages only 27.44 in 13 Tests, which is only better than West Indies (26.95). They only have one century to their name, the joint least during the period along with South Africa, and between themselves, the trio has only three half-century partnerships.
In the opening Test at Trent Bridge, India had gotten off to an impressive start with the openers putting up a 97-run stand, but in a space of 29 deliveries, the team slipped from 97/1 to 112/4. The famed three added only nine runs between themselves. James Anderson was on a hat-trick after successive dismissals of Pujara and Kohli, while Rahane recklessly ran himself out for just 5. At the iconic Lord's, India were once again in a comfortable position after the openers pulled off a 126-run stand before Kohli and centurion KL Rahul added another 117-run partnership to drive the visitors to 267 for three. With Rahane waiting in the dugout a strong middle order display could have helped India to post a 400-plus first-innings total. However, at the close of the opening day, Kohli was sent packing in a similar manner, this time falling to Ollie Robinson while the other two fell victims chasing Anderson's outside-the-off teaser. India lost both Rahul and Rahane in a space of six deliveries on the second morning with the vice-captain adding just 1 off 23.
Of the three, Kohli's return has been the worst, epitomised by his fall in Test ranking during the same period, scoring only 387 runs in 16 Test innings at 24.18, comprising just three half-centuries. Kohli was the top-ranked batsman at the start of 2020 with a rating of 928, but now stands fifth in the list with a rating of 791, his lowest since November 2016. What has troubled Kohli during the period has been his vulnerability to the deliveries outside off, the one he had mastered after the disastrous 2014 tour of England. Kohli had returned to England in 2018 as an improved batsman, scoring 593 runs in 10 innings with two centuries and three fifties. But New Zealand's Kyle Jamieson left him vulnerable again, after dismissing him in a similar manner in the World Test Championship earlier in June. Anderson dished out the same in Nottingham that sent Kohli back for a golden duck.
Pujara's form has been equally worrisome, scoring 163 runs in 8 innings in 2020 at 20.37 and 389 runs in 15 innings in 2021 at 27.78. The No.3 has also gone 10 innings in a row without even getting past 25. While Rahane's form has been quite baffling. In the toughest of situations, the one back in Melbourne last December, Rahane scored a heroic 112, his first century in almost a year. But has since managed only 296 runs in 15 innings with just one half-century score.
Heading into the game, Kohli had defended his two senior batters saying, "Our basic focus is not to think individually where people are but collectively how much strength they bring into the team is our focus." But this doesn't guarantee the two 33-year-olds a long rope. Following the loss in WTC Final, Kohli had said, "We will certainly take those decisions and have those conversations in the near future. It's not something that we will wait for a year or so because as I said, you have to plan ahead."
"If you see our white-ball team now, as well, we've got great depth and guys are ready and guys are confident about their skills. So I think the same thing has to be done with Test cricket, as well. You have to reassess and plan and understand what dynamics work for the team and how we can be fearless and bring in the right people who have the right mindset to perform."
Despite the low, India were still in a winning position in Nottingham, and India continue to hold the upper edge at Lord's. But with Kohli wanting to stick to his template, focussing more on picking 20 wickets rather than trying to "plug in another guy", the middle order needs to deliver in what arguably stands India's best chance to win a series in England.