The 20-wicket mantra!

In the Virat Kohli era, the Indian cricket team has passed its first test in Sri Lanka. That of the sophomore — the toughest of the lot — is due against South Africa at home starting next month, writes N. Sudarshan.

Back in 2010, when India reached the summit of world cricket rankings, there was this minor quibble about the side not being dominant enough. They weren’t quite like the famed West Indians or the fiery Australians, it was said. It seemed to closely mimic the prevalent argument in tennis then: a World No. 1 without a Grand Slam title isn’t good enough.

But cricket rankings, like in tennis, are one of immediacy. It crowns the current best team and doesn’t go way back in time to pick out the most dominant one. India then was a side comprising great batsmen, and with a more than efficient bowling attack had climbed to the top.

However, the path towards dominance had to be laid out by its bowlers. Look at any of India’s most famous wins overseas in the first decade of the millennia — Headingley 2002, Kingston 2006 & 2011, Johannesburg 2006, Nottingham 2007, Perth 2008 and Durban 2010 — the bowlers’ imprint is unmistakable. The fabulous batsmen did their usual bit, but the bowlers were the ones who carried the team past the finish line.

Just when it seemed that India would slowly morph into a dominant side, it all fell apart. It was no coincidence that once Zaheer Khan was injured in the first Test against England in 2011, the meticulously built edifice came crashing down.

So when Indian skipper Virat Kohli, prior to the Sri Lanka series, kept repeating, “the idea is to take 20 wickets,” it was not without precedence. He saw this as the first step towards achieving greatness. “That’s the only way you can win a game,” he said. During the three-Test series which it won 2-1, India basically walked the talk.

“I’m more pleased when the bowlers take 20 wickets than when guys get hundreds,” Kohli said after winning the second Test at the P. Sara Oval. “That’s usually been the case for a very long time — to have someone getting the runs. In the past two years, it was easily our best bowling effort as a group.”

The most heartening of things was how the unit resembled a hunting pack — a prerequisite for any successful bowling line-up. “In England, Australia and New Zealand, the spinners’ success follows that of a good pace attack,” R. Ashwin had said. “But sometimes we need to chip in. It’s a question of working together.”

In the first two Tests, the spinners grabbed 30 of the 40 wickets to fall. In the third, the pacemen accounted for 13 of the 20. Even within the spin combination, Ashwin with 21 wickets wasn’t the only wrecker. Amit Mishra with 15 was more than an ideal foil. The way in which the two — Ashwin buzzing throughout the series, his landing and balance close to perfection and patience personified when it came to his stock ball and Mishra with the guile and the drift of an old-fashioned leggie — bowled in tandem in the lead-up to tea on the final evening of the series, choked the flow of runs and earned the crucial breakthrough which hastened Sri Lanka’s fall being the case in point.

As to the ways in which each bowler complemented the other can be seen thus: like how on the final morning at the Oval, Ishant Sharma, bowled a spell 4-2-9-1 while Ashwin wreaked havoc from the other; like how Umesh Yadav, also at the Oval, got Dimuth Karunaratne off the first ball he bowled in the first innings and Angelo Mathews off the first delivery on the final day; like how the spinners cleaned up the tail in both innings of the final Test at SSC after Ishant had broken the opponents’ batting spine. For long India’s bowlers were at their sporadic best. A formidable attack is lent a cutting edge only through consistency. Like on day three of the second Test when Ishant bowled 22 balls out of his four-over spell to Lahiru Thirimanne for only three runs and then came back the same afternoon to prise out both Thirimanne and Dinesh Chandimal in a six-over spell.

Coming as it does, right at the start of the Kohli era as captain, the performance can be an important starting point. But it is imperative for India to avoid the kind of cyclical downturn that has occurred all too often. In the past India has produced several bowlers of sufficient skill and craft. But results have never been commensurate with ability.

Back then, when India was on the ascendancy, Ishant was a youngster who needed nurturing and Mishra a weapon which needed sharpening. The two should have been finished products by now. But the fact that the Lanka series is being seen as a second lease of life for both bowlers is nothing short of an indictment of the system.

If anything it provides yet another opportunity for a systemic change. Two things that have happened this year will tell one why it’s a worthwhile effort — much of India’s success at the World Cup was because in the first seven matches it picked up all the 70 wickets; much of the success in the island nation was because it took all 60 wickets on offer. That the country has a captain who firmly believes in empowering his bowlers and realises that for any side to be dominant, it needs to invest in them is a necessary add-on.

“There is great potential in this fast bowling unit,” India’s bowling coach Bharat Arun said. “We have a couple of guys who can clock 145-plus on a consistent basis (Umesh and Varun Aaron) and also the fact that we have Ishant who is pretty experienced, can extract extra bounce and of late, has been extremely consistent.

“Bhuvneshwar (Kumar) is moving the ball pretty well both ways. So we do have the variety — somebody who can move the ball and seam the ball and someone who can extract that extra bounce, and a couple of bowlers who can clock 145-plus. That gives us enough variety to battle any conditions.”

The first test has been passed. That of the sophomore — the toughest of the lot — is due against South Africa at home starting next month.