Takeaways from the India-South Africa Test series

For some reason, there is still a reluctance in some quarters to accept that India is currently the best Test team in the world.

Rohit Sharma, promoted to the opener’s slot, was merciless when he got through the one or two spells that were testing. His partner Mayank Agarwal was remarkably composed for someone who had played only four Tests before.   -  PTI

By the third afternoon in Ranchi, it had become a sorry procession, the dreary end of a series South Africa couldn’t wait to finish. In Visakhapatnam, Faf du Plessis and his men had competed for three days; in Pune and Ranchi, one session is all they managed before giving up.

“As you can see, a tour like this reveals that there’s a lot of mental scars that can happen and then obviously it’s difficult to come out of that hole,” du Plessis said later. “We played our best in the first match and the consistent pressure that was on us made us weaker every Test match that we played. That therefore tells me that we’re not mentally strong enough as a team and that some work is required in that department.”

Weak as South Africa was, there is something to be said for India’s relentlessness and its consistent pressure on the opponent. South Africa simply had no breathing room. Rohit Sharma was merciless when he got through the one or two spells that were testing. Mayank Agarwal was remarkably composed for someone who had played only four Tests before. Virat Kohli clinically ground South Africa’s bowlers into the dust in Pune while Ajinkya Rahane, who had endured a difficult two years, showed what he was capable of. India perhaps enjoyed the best of the batting conditions in all three Tests, but its batsmen still had to perform. And they enjoyed themselves, burying South Africa under a mountain of runs. But how much to read into this destruction of a hapless, deflated side? How good is this Indian team in actual fact?

India has now won 11 straight Test series at home, and has lost only one Test on its own soil in almost seven years. Since the start of 2013, India has won 26 out of 32 Tests at home. That is a win percentage of 81.25. The next best figure on that list is Australia’s — a win percentage of 69.69. There is no arguing with these numbers. India is near-invincible at home.

But over the same period (since the start of 2013), India also has the best away record of any Test side (14 of 38 won) and, consequently, the best overall record. It is not by some miracle that India has risen to No. 1 in the International Cricket Council rankings; there is no clerical error, no mathematical quirk, no bug in the software.

Mohammed Shami celebrates the dismissal of South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis in the first innings of the final Test. With Shami bowling beautifully, the absence of star bowler Jasprit Bumrah, who missed this series with a back injury, was not even felt.   -  AP

But there is still a reluctance in some quarters to accept that India is currently the best Test team in the world. Reasons are sought to explain away this string of performances. India’s overwhelming home record, where honest visitors are seemingly cheated out of wins on dustbowls (as if spin bowling was some underhanded, forbidden, dark art) ought to be discounted, is the view.

It is a misguided notion. Yes, India lost in South Africa and England last year, but those series were competitive and a lot closer than the scorelines may suggest. Besides, despite those failures, India still has a better away record since the start of 2013 (as previously stated) than any other Test side. Over this period, India has twice toured South Africa, Australia and England, and once visited New Zealand. Nobody finds it easy to win away; India has competed better than the rest.

If nothing else, this South Africa series at home proved one thing: that India didn’t need spin-friendly pitches to win. Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami blew South Africa away, finishing with 11 and 13 wickets, respectively, outperforming the opposition’s pacers time after time on the same surfaces. The absence of Jasprit Bumrah, who missed this series with a back injury, was not even felt. As South Africa, England and Australia found out on recent Indian visits to their shores, this Indian pace-bowling attack is not to be taken lightly. With R. Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, two of the best spinners in the world, also in the mix, this is now a bowling group capable of taking 20 wickets in any conditions in the world. As Ravi Shastri put it, “Bhaad me gaya pitch. Bees wicket nikaalna hain (We don’t care about the pitch; our job is simply to take 20 wickets).”

But Shastri and Kohli have spoken of leaving a legacy. They are not merely content being competitive away and winning the odd series or two. To be regarded as one of the best Test teams of all time, like the great Australian sides under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, India needs to win away from home routinely. India has the bowlers to do it. But the irony is that it is India’s batting that is the concern. New Zealand, where India will travel early next year, will prove an acid test in this regard. How will the opening pair of Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal, who flayed South Africa in sun-baked Visakhapatnam, fare against the likes of Trent Boult, Matt Henry, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Lockie Ferguson in Wellington and Christchurch? Will Virat Kohli receive the support he so desperately sought in England? How many runs can Hanuma Vihari and Ravindra Jadeja contribute?

These are questions that will be answered in a few months’ time, but for now one thing is clear: India is currently the best Test team in the world.