India’s journey to World Test Championship final: A new chapter for the team

It has been an extraordinary act of defiance from an Indian side that’s refreshingly kindred in spirit and fundamentally different in belief.

Members of the Indian team and support staff after the side wrapped up the series against England 3-1 to qualify for the World Test Championship final, where it will face New Zealand.   -  Getty Images

Finally. Having endured the ignominy of Adelaide, a drubbing in Chennai and an interminable list of injuries, India qualified for the inaugural World Test Championship (WTC) final in England, where it will face Kane Williamson’s New Zealand at the Hampshire Bowl in Southampton from June 18.

The Indian Test team has been living in biosecure bubble since late last year. At a time like no other, there was no option but to mix and match to manage the players’ workload. But a consequence of that is a talent pool currently available to head coach Ravi Shastri and captain Virat Kohli that is close to overflowing in certain positions.

For Axar Patel and Washington Sundar at home against England and Shubman Gill, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur and T. Natarajan earlier in Australia, the opportunities arose because of a freakish injury crisis that became bleaker with each passing Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.

That brings us to the selectorial wheel of fortune. India largely stuck with the same core group of players in the last two Test series and emerged victorious. But at the centre has been a young engine room — in particular, Sundar and Rishabh Pant, the latter’s ability to punch and counterpunch providing a microcosm of India’s journey to the WTC final.

Youthful exuberance

Shastri was full of praise for how the younger players had performed a day after India won the fourth Test in Ahmedabad to seal a 3-1 series victory against England.

“He [Pant] came with a lot of baggage. It showed in his size. And he had to lose that baggage, which he did. He worked his backside off to lose it. And I tell you, he has trained harder than anyone in the last two months. And the results are not just for him to see, they’re for the world to see,” Shastri had said about Pant, who has scored 544 runs in his last seven Tests. But more on him later.

As for Sundar, who hadn’t played a first-class game for Tamil Nadu for three years before his debut in Brisbane, Shastri feels the 21-year-old off-spinning all-rounder has shown “unbelievable composure and temperament.” “I mean, for someone who — yes, at under-19, he was an opening batsman — to see that kind of body language, unfazed by the best bowlers in the world in the toughest situations as in Brisbane, [the first Test against England in] Chennai, here [in Ahmedabad] was unreal.”

India’s backing of Rishabh Pant may have been bewildering given the constant criticism over his shot selection — until recently. The last two months perfectly encapsulate his talent and destructive ability that have catalysed an attacking side.   -  Getty Images

 

So when Pant, unbeaten on 89, reverse-swept James Anderson over slip at Motera, or Sundar hooked Pat Cummins for a six in a tense chase at the Gabba, it became evident that Indian cricket is developing some of the world’s most exciting players across all formats.

Also heartening has been the sight of India hurtling towards a pace revolution. This has not only elevated the quality of its fast bowling, but also produced comforting quantities. In the fourth and deciding Test in Brisbane, despite losing three front-line seamers to injuries, India was able to cobble up a pace attack — undoubtedly its second or third choice — good enough to take 20 Australian wickets.

Siraj, who bagged his maiden five-wicket haul on day four at the Gabba, has been a glittering example of the fast-bowling talent India has at its disposal. He is just five Tests old, but backed by his experience at the first-class level — where he has a staggering strike rate of 46 — over the last five years, Siraj had the wherewithal to make a seamless transition to the international setup.

The maverick

India’s backing of Pant may have been bewildering given the constant criticism over his shot selection — until recently. The last two months perfectly encapsulate his talent and destructive ability that have catalysed an attacking side.

Ashwin - WTC qualification a result of the work we've done over last 10 years

“When you have a naturally brilliant match winner of Pant’s ability playing to potential, there’s no greater sight in cricket,” Shastri had said. “I think in the last two months, what he’s done to win matches for India, there’ll be players who won’t do it in a lifetime and would have never done it in a lifetime. At the age of 21 to pull off magic like he has done, after working as hard as he has...it is outstanding.”

India realised quickly it had a maverick game changer in Pant. The selectors did look elsewhere in limited overs — trying out Sanju Samson and even K. L. Rahul — but held out for its first-choice wicketkeeper in Tests. In many respects, except for Pant and Rohit Sharma, India is a Test side of slow burners, Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane among them.

(From left) Virat Kohli, Washington Sundar, Axar Patel, Mohammed Siraj and Rishabh Pant. For Axar and Washington at home against England and Siraj earlier in Australia, the opportunities arose because of a freakish injury crisis that became bleaker with each passing Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.   -  Getty Images

 

But Pant is fearless. That blistering 97 in Sydney, the 89 not out at the Gabba, his breathtaking mauling of Jack Leach in Chennai and the thunderous hundred in Ahmedabad posed a constant series of questions to the opposition. Will he hold back at all? Do they spread the field from the get-go, offering easy runs? And can they lure him into a poor shot?

What’s worked for Pant is that he has been wise to pick his battles. When a single or a dot is a decent result in a testing session, against a probing opponent, he hasn’t searched for the big hits. Just the realisation that time spent at the crease is a valuable currency in Tests has resulted in a mature cricketing brain.

Another attribute that has eased the pressure on Pant is the support of his teammates and the selectors, who kept him in the squad, ignoring outside influences for a quick fix. Rohit’s line delivered after Pant’s maiden Test hundred at home summed up the dynamic between the charismatic keeper and the players: “I don't want anyone to get upset when Pant gets out playing shots. People like Pant, you need to back their ability and the management is willing to take chances with him.” Pant’s appreciation for defensive tactics in Tests has been one of the significant gains for India in this WTC cycle.

Road ahead

In these unprecedented times, India will leave for English shores for the WTC final. If everyone is fit and ready, the playing XI should pick themselves. Mohammed Shami and Ravindra Jadeja should return to the fold, and Hardik Pandya, if the seam-bowling all-rounder is ready to assume a full workload, could be the fifth bowling option. Siraj and Sundar are the clear frontrunners in case India needs last-minute injury replacements.

As for who will keep wickets, with Pant starting to smooth the rough edges, there’s probably no room in the side for Wriddhiman Saha. There was a lot of spin bowling to negotiate when Pant kept against England at home. His skills standing up to the stumps on pitches aiding prodigious turn were commendable. But that is a discussion for another day.

Today is about how India, without a full-strength side, overcame bubble fatigue to put up 520 points on the WTC board and reach the final. As Shastri said: “If you look at this Indian side over the last eight Test matches, they’ve been in every situation. They’ve been on top, they’ve driven home the advantage.

They’ve been in the dumps, they’ve responded after that. They’ve been in a corner and they fought from there. Not just in Australia, even here. That, for me, makes it special. This side refuses to give up. We were the irrepressibles in Australia. We are irrepressibles here, too.”

India’s journey in the WTC so far has offered a new chapter of what the future holds for the team. It has been an extraordinary act of defiance from a side that’s refreshingly kindred in spirit and fundamentally different in belief. It’s how Siraj, Thakur, Natarajan, Pant and Sundar shared the limelight in a team where one man inevitably gets all the attention. And Indian cricket is better for it.