Here’s a question: Which is the greatest ever Indian ODI team?
Is it the one that started it all, winning the 1983 World Cup in astounding fashion?
Is it the one that replicated the feat on home soil in 2011?
Is it the one from the golden era, that fell millimetres short of ultimate glory in 2003?
Or, do you have an alternate ‘best ever’ version of the Men in Blue in mind, sifting through their umpteen reincarnations in the 1990s?
If an answer was demanded at gunpoint, mine would be the 1985 team that triumphed Down Under in the Benson and Hedges Cup. It was an Indian team that was still building on the unexpected win in England two years prior, and once again in alien Australian conditions, showcased that 1983 was no flash in the pan. Then again, it is but one of myriad personal choices in this opinion-rich country.
The answer is not an easy one, you will agree. While Tests have held primacy for a long time in this sport, and T20s will shape its future, it is the middle-child — ODIs — that presents its truest face — a challenge of surviving time, and re-creating itself to survive in the changing definitions of this modern world, again and again, and then again. The Indian ODI team has changed its face through all those varying eras, and it is impossible to find one singular answer to that aforementioned question.
One thing, however, is certain. None of the billion answers will mention Virat Kohli’s current ODI team as one of the ‘greatest’ or ‘best ever’ to come through the Indian ranks. Not yet, anyway.
If anyone does commit to this answer, at best, it should be classified as hyperbole. This puts into perspective the raging debate as on the back of a 4-1 series win against Australia, superlatives have been pouring in, needlessly.
That scoreline is a strong argument herein, no doubt. In the past decade, Australia have won two bilateral series on Indian soil — in 2007 and 2009. And the last time, in 2013, they lost a close contest 2-3. Beating Australia — irrespective of conditions — is no small feat, surely. Even so, it ought to be remembered that this Australian team hasn’t won on foreign soil for quite some time. Considering their win in Bengaluru, their recent record stands at one win in the last 15 games away from home.
This is where the past is best left behind, and the present comes into sharp focus. India went into this series as the in-form team: Check. They duly won 4-1: Check. Every time India were put under pressure, they responded and pushed Australia onto the back foot: Check (barring one game). They followed up on the dominance displayed in Sri Lanka: Check. Maybe, they built on the process that began in West Indies after the loss to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final: Check.
Combining their last two ODI series, India have won nine out of 10 ODIs. Stretch it to the West Indies, and this figure becomes 12 out of 15 ODIs. This is staggering consistency. Additionally, when you open up the squads, you find that 11 players from that West Indies’ tour played in Sri Lanka, and 13 players from the Sri Lankan tour played against Australia. The stunning aspect is that despite this continuity in selection, the team management has been able to experiment with different players and combinations, in both batting and bowling, expanding the bench strength.
The result of this successful experimentation is seen in the repetitive manner of their victories against all three oppositions. In the West Indies, leg spin was introduced as the variable after Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja failed in the Champions Trophy. Since then, spin has evolved as a stand-out factor in the form of Kuldeep Yadav, Axar Patel and Yuzvendra Chahal. So much so that Ashwin and Jadeja might struggle to get back into ODI reckoning in the near future.
Once done with spin, the management looked at the pace element. Here, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah have come into their own, aided by the confounding progression of Hardik Pandya. From a bit-part player, to a contributive all-rounder, and now to a force with both bat and ball, his graph has soared exponentially this season.
Together, these two elements have set a blueprint that the Indian skipper has been able to repeat without thinking twice. Perhaps the middle order is the only weakness remaining, but bolstered by set elements in other areas, they are now vigorously experimenting with the No 4 spot and can achieve a breakthrough soon (if they haven’t already — read: Pandya). All in all, India’s rise to the No 1 ODI ranking is based on a formula that works well, albeit with the rider of favourable conditions whether in the Caribbean, Sri Lanka or in their backyard.
“We are playing at home right now. If we can replicate this form in conditions that are alien to us, after that we can sit down and be happy with what we have done so far,” said Virat Kohli, when asked about this ‘greatest Indian ODI team’ moniker.
Away from all the debates on television news, and in drawing rooms across the country, or even on social media, the skipper’s comment reflects the true mind set in the dressing room. Seen exclusively, each of these recent series’ wins represent a new, dominant side to the Men in Blue, akin to what we have seen in Test cricket. They want to force the opposition into submission, they want to climb atop the rankings chart and stay there. And they want to play like a champion team, or at least learn to play like one.
The rest is just noise, for this journey has just begun and the first real test will come forth only in January — in South Africa.