Can this colossus become even bigger?

In the last two years, India has been on a hot streak, playing 27 Tests, winning 20 and losing just two. But a sobering fact is that India’s rise in Tests has coincided with the enfeeblement of most rivals. Only England, Australia and South Africa seem to have outfits that can withstand the rigours of cricket across five days. Hence it is also imperative that against these three and in their own corner, India does the giant-killing act.

Head coach Ravi Shastri congratulates captain Virat Kohli and the Indian team after the whitewash of Sri Lanka in the Test series in Pallekele. This team is bound to do even better, says the head coach who enjoys an excellent rapport with the captain.   -  AP

India stepped on to Sri Lankan soil, with the swagger of the number one Test team. And, after three weeks when Virat Kohli’s men gave their whites for a final round at the laundry, the three-match series was already in their pockets. Such was the visitor’s dominance, a surge that was in contrast to the host’s free-fall.

The Tests at Galle, Colombo and Pallekele were comprehensively won. If the three games were cumulatively expected to last 15 days, India needed just 11 days to humble Dinesh Chandimal’s men. The first two Tests lasted four days each and the final one concluded at tea on the third day!

READ: Team India's Report Card

“This team can do what other Indian teams have not done before,” boomed head coach Ravi Shastri in the prelude to the second game at the Sinhalese Sports Club. Ever the optimist, Shastri’s words may have been high-octane but his words are not without merit. Kohli and his troops have been on the ascendant for a long time and if they can extend their form and retain their fitness, perhaps new benchmarks will be set.

Pitted against a squad ranked seventh, India reiterated its hierarchical dominance. It was an outcome that seamlessly blended into a superb run over the last two years, a phase that actually commenced during the 2015 tour of Sri Lanka. Including that series which was wrested 2-1, India played 27 Tests, won 20 and lost just two.

The back-story though wasn’t all about roses and champagne. The months leading up to the flight to Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport was fraught with insinuations. First up, the BCCI sought fresh applications for the head coach’s position when the then incumbent Anil Kumble had done a remarkable job going by the results garnered on the field.

Soon whispers emerged from the dressing room alleging a frosty equation between Kohli and Kumble. The former was asked about it during the ICC Champions Trophy in England and he denied the speculation. But when the Men in Blue landed in the West Indies for a limited overs’ series, Kumble was not with them. He stayed back in London and tweeted a thank-you note in which he tendered his resignation besides clarifying that he got to know from the BCCI officials that the skipper had reservations about him.

The former Indian captain cited the ‘untenable’ equation and moved on with dignity. Asked about Kumble’s exit, Kohli said what happened in the dressing room should remain there. The stage was then cleared for Shastri’s entry. The former team director stepped in as the head coach and it wasn’t the easiest of times, at least off the turf.

Shastri consistently said he was not carrying any baggage from the past and later, in the middle of the tour, he raised his voice and said: “I just had to walk in.” It wasn’t exactly about waving the magic wand but it does help that Shastri and Kohli share a warm rapport. As generations go, Shastri is twice removed from the one to which Kohli belongs. In fact, Kumble, a member of the previous generation that did glorious service to Indian cricket, has even played with Kohli during their early years together for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL.

The emergence of Hardik Pandya as an all-rounder of promise is highly heartening for India.   -  AP

Yet, in terms of personal attributes Shastri and Kohli are similar. They are both fierce competitors, a trait that Kumble has in ample measure. Beyond that, the present head coach and current skipper are extroverts at large and seem to share a friendly vibe. Unless there is another bizarre twist in Indian cricket, the two will helm the side till the 2019 World Cup and Kohli the leader could go even beyond that since he has age on his side. And it begs the question about whether the duo can further add value to the progress made in the previous decades when blue-chip cricketers like Kumble, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, V. V. S. Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh flourished.

Undoubtedly, India has had a red-hot streak thus far but it has to be tempered with an acceptance that a large part was scripted in its backyard. Kohli’s men did vanquish stronger units like Australia and England, but those exploits came under the sub-continental sun. And while being overseas, the triumphs came against weak opposition, be it the West Indies or Sri Lanka.

Looking ahead, there is a glut of home ODIs, followed by the tour to South Africa. A trip to Old Blighty is lined up for June, next year. These are tough assignments across the seas and the temperament and ability of Shastri’s wards will be scrutinised. Having made its peace with transition and found new men of mettle, India has a strong core with Kohli, R. Ashwin, Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay, busy shaping a comeback from injury, belonging to the 50-plus Test-club. Add to it Hardik Pandya, who seems to be hitting the right notes as an emerging all-rounder, Ajinkya Rahane, K. L. Rahul, Shikhar Dhawan, Ravindra Jadeja, Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav and you do get an efficient nucleus.

Shastri and Kohli could well follow in the footsteps of earlier successful coach-captain combines like Ajit Wadekar and Mohammed Azharudddin; John Wright and Sourav Ganguly; or Gary Kirsten and M. S. Dhoni. They have talented personnel, who are far more fit and perhaps being a part of the post-liberalisation generation, have the self-belief that they can compete with the best in the world.

The winning start in Sri Lanka is heartening, but more challenging tasks lie ahead. It isn’t that India has found a utopian balance with its playing XI in Tests. The opening slots, however, have been a round of musical chairs due to the vagaries of form and the spectre of injuries. The quartet of Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan (Man of the Series in the Tests against Sri Lanka), Rahul and Abhinav Mukund have been in and out. Ideally, Vijay and Rahul should get first preference.

Another worry is close-in catching and it is directly related to the top-order flux. Since the above mentioned four are part of the inner cordon, a change in personnel affects continuity in fielding positions. Except for Rahane at first slip and Pujara at short-leg, the other slots are a work in progress and even Kohli, brilliant in the outfield, has come a cropper in the slips, often premeditating his moves and finding himself in a spot of bother.

There is also the need for anger-management. Jadeja after doing the hard yards, suffered from white-line fever and flung the ball close to Sri Lankan opener Dimuth Karunaratne’s head during the Colombo Test. Also taking into account his last year’s transgression against New Zealand, the ICC suspended him from the final contest at Pallekele. It is another matter that chinaman spinner Kuldeep Yadav stepped in and excelled, but Jadeja could have avoided the censure if only he had put a lid on his simmering emotions.

Another sobering fact needs to be accepted, too. India’s rise in Tests coincided with the enfeeblement of most rivals. Only England, Australia and South Africa seem to have outfits that can withstand the rigours of cricket across five days. Hence it is also imperative that against these three and in their own corner, India does the giant-killing act. Kohli said that his men no longer treat Tests as ‘home’ and ‘away.’ For them, every game has to be won, session by session. It is a rousing template and it is time to implement it outside the sub-continent.