Why has the quality of Test batsmanship deteriorated?

Sanjay Manjrekar4 Minute Read

This article is not about me criticising India's batsmen, and not about suggesting technical tweaks that could ease their discomfort when batting in English conditions. This article is about seeing the larger picture, taking a holistic view of batting failures globally and in Test cricket in general.

First, the acknowledgment. Yes, India have failed miserably with the bat. But if we are shocked by it, we haven't been following Indian cricket closely enough.

When India embark on an overseas tour, we must look at their last overseas tour to gauge their potential upcoming performance. The signs were all there in South Africa, where there were clear indications that, barring Virat Kohli, every batsman had deteriorated in the previous three years, as far as their overseas game was concerned. Their failure in England so far should not come as a surprise - though maybe the severity of it should. The only exception to this forewarning was KL Rahul, who had not shown definitive symptoms of frailty in overseas conditions, and for this reason he has been a disappointment and surprise to me personally.

Now here's the larger picture: the weakness of the Indian team that is being exposed is one that every top team shares today when they are outside their comfort zone. When away from home, they all come tumbling down - South Africa being the latest example, in Sri Lanka, along with India in England.

In fact, England are the only top team who manage to lose even at home, and I was banking on that helping India to, despite their batting weakness, pull off a win somewhere along the line. It might still happen, for England are not a strong team, even at home. Why, Pakistan, inadequately prepared (they hardly get much overseas cricket), have managed to beat England in three Tests on their two last tours.

The fact is that we do not have a great Test team anymore and it has been like this for a while now. We have no team that's a champion team in all conditions. Why is that?

Here's an important reality that all Test cricket lovers must confront: with the popularity of the format diminishing, it's inevitable that its quality will diminish too. We may have seen the best of Test cricket.

India batsmen averages on their 2017-18 tours of South Africa and EnglandESPNcricinfo Ltd

When Test cricket was popular, it occupied the mindspace of all of us up-and-coming cricketers who wanted to play Test cricket for their countries. Can you blame today's generation that the long format game doesn't occupy their mindspace quite as much?

We as young batsmen would leave balls outside the off stump every time we practised in the nets throughout the year, and the coach would shriek in delight. "Well left," he would say. Our chests would pump up.

How many balls do you think Rishabh Pant is leaving outside off in his net sessions? How many times does a Shikhar Dhawan defend a ball with a still bat in a year?

With T20 and 50-overs cricket getting more viewership, it's natural that cricketers will vie to play those forms and develop the skills required for them. What's more, these formats are lucrative too - well, T20s certainly is. How can any performer not be more attracted to a stage where there are more people watching, and which also pays him a lot?

Fame, recognition, and yes, wealth, that's what we all wanted, even in our times, and that's what we worked towards every day, chasing the dream. Today's players are doing exactly the same, just that their dream is different from ours back then. And that's because the landscape has changed. We are all products of our environment, as they say.

The struggle for today's Test cricketers is adjusting to different conditions. It's easier for bowlers to adapt to changing conditions than it is for batsmen - a fact accepted by most bowlers I have talked to.

Because of the general deterioration of Test match batsmanship, only the rare few can now make this adjustment. The big difference between my time and today is that we had more batsmen in teams back then who could make the adjustment - at least, enough to put up decent scores. These were what I call world-class players, a few notches below great players. These were players who stood up pretty well to challenges of all kind.

This breed has almost disappeared now. You have the greats, like Virat Kohli, Steven Smith and Kane Williamson, and then others who are like fish out of water when in unfamiliar territory. This is not just unique to one country, and so we have the batting struggles of all top teams away from home.

Talking of the quality of Test batsmanship, here's something interesting for you. England have played three batsmen in this series who have first-class averages of 31, 33 and 37. These are pure batsmen in a Test team! I finished my career averaging 37 in Tests, and it's something I was embarrassed about.