In the immediacy of India’s disastrous Test tour of England — a 4-1 scoreline seldom doesn’t tell the true tale — Ravi Shastri proclaimed that the current side had embraced more success overseas in a three-year period than any other Indian team in a similar time frame in the last two decades.
“If you look at the last three years, we have won nine matches overseas and three series,” the head coach said, not long after the 60-run defeat in the fourth Test in Southampton. “I can’t see any other Indian team in the last 15-20 years that has had the same run in such a short time, and you have had some great players playing in those series.”
The numbers back up Shastri’s assertion. The series wins came in Sri Lanka in 2015 (2-1, with Shastri as the director), in the Caribbean the following year (2-0, with Anil Kumble in charge) and in Sri Lanka again last year, 3-0, in Shastri’s first assignment as head coach. The other away Test victories were eked out in the dead rubber in Johannesburg in January and in Nottingham in August this year. And yet, the former Indian captain’s remarks catalysed a hue and cry from the former-player-turned-expert, the connoisseur and the layman alike, possibly because of their timing. And, most likely, also because India went to South Africa and England fighting on an even keel for the first time in the last two decades owing to depth and versatility in their fast bowling arsenal, and yet ended up losing six of eight Tests. A little humility goes a long way.
The 12-month period between January 2018 and January 2019 was expected to be the defining phase of Indian Test cricket. Having enjoyed the rare luxury of playing 13 Tests on the bounce at home between August 2016 and March 2017 against New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia, India had cemented their hold on the No. 1 Test ranking. It was now time to explode the not-unjustified “tigers at home, lambs abroad” millstone.
Things, however, haven’t panned out as per plan. India have had triumphs overseas in white-ball cricket, including a comprehensive 5-1 drubbing of South Africa at the start of the year, but their Test travails continue. Against the wobbly Proteas, the batting let them down, with the notable exception of Virat Kohli. A similar tale was to unfold in England; the bowling was incisive until it ran into a Tartar in the free-scoring Sam Curran in the lower middle order, while the batting only fired in fits in starts even as the skipper towered head and shoulders above the rest.
No other side in the top half of the International Cricket Council’s Test rankings has lost as many Tests at home (nine of 28) in the three years Shastri is referring to as the English. Yet, all India could take away was being “competitive.” For a team sitting at the top of the charts, and which began the series as marginal favourites even among unyielding English critics, it was as chastening a comedown as the 0-4 and 1-4 drubbings under Mahendra Singh Dhoni in 2011 and 2014, respectively.
The third leg of the overseas challenge is now imminent. A long tour of the Antipodes awaits Kohli’s band of brothers, determined to conquer untamed territory and possessing the skills to do so, yet falling well short when push comes to shove. The tour will kick off with three Twenty20 Internationals, largely irrelevant beyond a commercial standpoint, followed by four Tests and three One-Day Internationals, and will culminate in an eight-match white-ball face-off in New Zealand in February, by which time the focus will clearly have shifted to next summer’s 50-over World Cup in England and Wales. The three-month adventure will be a searing examination of skill and stamina, of physical reserve and mental resolve, of temperament and character.
Despite protestations to the contrary from the think tank, there is no disputing that India were undercooked going into Test series in South Africa and England. In the former instance, they brazenly cancelled a proposed two-day warm-up game, insisting that centre-pitch “open nets” was a more meaningful exercise than a casual, relaxed, inconsequential workout against less-than-accomplished opposition. Over in England, they compressed a four-day match against Essex to three, interestingly citing the sweltering UK weather. The consequences were obvious when the Test series got underway. Johannesburg was surrendered by 72 runs, Birmingham by 31. Surely a little less rust would have helped?
That the Board of Control for Cricket in India is seeking to wrangle a four-day game in Australia — at the insistence of the team management — ahead of the first Test in Adelaide that begins on December 6 is a tacit admission that preparations for the previous two overseas series were less than ideal. Eight of the jumbo-sized 18-man Test squad will feature in the preceding T20Is. Six others will travel with the India A squad for the first of three four-day ‘Tests’ in New Zealand, even if the wisdom of playing on surfaces unlikely to mirror those further north is open to debate.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India is seeking to wrangle a four-day game in Australia — at the insistence of the team management — ahead of the first Test in Adelaide that begins on December 6.
What all of this means is that the Indians will have had ample time to acclimatise to conditions — pitch, food, the harsh and unforgiving sun — by the time of the first Test, against an opposition in a shambles in the extended aftermath of the ball-tampering fiasco in Cape Town in March.
The hosts will be without their two most experienced and dangerous batsmen, both of whom have repeatedly displayed a remarkable liking for Indian bowling. Minus the explosive David Warner and the infuriatingly unorthodox but extraordinarily prolific Steve Smith, Australia aren’t just two wonderful batsmen short, but also shorn of huge leadership experience. The repercussions of the Cape Town scandal are still being felt. Cameron Bancroft might have been collateral damage, the sacrificial lamb; coach Darren Lehmann, possibly Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland and definitely CA chairman David Peever have all stepped down or been forced out as a result of sandpaper-gate. Australia are in the middle of a disastrous run across formats. If ever a team is ripe for the picking, it is the affable but constrained Tim Paine’s outfit.
There is, however, no such thing as a weak Australian side. The Aussies see the India series as a great opportunity to win back the trust, confidence and support of their disillusioned and disgruntled fans, and while they might not have the batting riches they once commanded, their bowling stock is still in formidable hands. When all of them are fit, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins form easily the most exciting and potent pace trio in world cricket. Nathan Lyon is a crafty off-spinner with an excellent track record against the Indians. Like in South Africa and England, the onus will be on the batsmen to complement the likes of Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma, all of whom are more than comfortable with the red Kookaburra.
As jaw-dropping as Kohli’s extended form has been, the skipper can’t do it all on his own. Murali Vijay, back in the mix but hardly a certain starter, K. L. Rahul, Ajinkya Rahane, Cheteshwar Pujara and the recalled Rohit Sharma have been on at least one Test tour of Australia previously. They are no longer in the “young and promising” category, whose latest occupants are the exciting pair of Prithvi Shaw and Rishabh Pant. This dynamic duo will play with the fearlessness that comes naturally and which is a refreshing trait of the young. The older, wiser heads must rally around them and their indefatigable captain, by translating ability and potential to decisive overseas Test runs.
It is unlikely that another “competitive” outing alone will go down well either with the occasionally proactive Committee of Administrators or the consistently invested Indian fan. While teams don’t play to meet external expectations, it won’t be lost on Shastri and Kohli that walking the talk is non-negotiable. Preparation, prudence and patience will be key, as will be personnel-picking. Left-field decisions like a Test debut for Karn Sharma four years back while R. Ashwin cooled his heels on an Adelaide Oval surface on which his counterpart Lyon picked up 12 wickets must be based around more solid logic than “he bowled really well at the nets.” Managing workloads, and keeping especially the faster bowlers fresh and hungry, will be crucial. Bumrah, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar figure in the T20I and Test squads; minimising the potential for breakdown has to be high on the priority list.
Come the second week of January, the focus will shift to the white ball. India have a far better away record in the shorter formats than in Test matches, but the primary exercise will be to get the players World Cup-ready. That will mean working out combinations, addressing balance, infusing a couple of additional part-time bowling options and reducing the over-reliance on the top three. That’s in the future. For now, a maiden Test series conquest in Australia beckons. India can’t afford to take any prisoners.
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