Ravi Shastri was right, after all.
India head coach’s declaration that this Indian team has travelled the best and played Test cricket in all conditions better than its predecessors came across as vain boast and came in for much criticism. But since Virat Kohli was handed the reins of the side, it has accounted for nearly a third of India’s 37 overseas Test wins since the year 2000, Shastri’s claim has begun to ring true.
Look at the recent results.
A Test win in South Africa, another in England and a series win in Australia. Not many Indian sides have secured that. Shastri may have come across as brash in making that claim in September 2018 when India was 1-3 down in England with the final Test yet to be played. It is also possible he was saying this in public to instill confidence within the dressing room and diverting attention away from the players. Yet, it may make sense to revisit Shastri’s comment after this team has added a series win Down Under to the two secured in Sri Lanka and one in the West Indies. Kohli’s side went into the Sydney Test with a 11-8 overseas record in 23 Tests after the previous tour of Australia in 2014-15. It has compiled such statistics on the back of a superb bowling attack.
The Indian bowlers have taken 20 wickets in as many as 19 of the 24 Tests they have played overseas after the series in Australia in 2014-15. Of the remaining five, bad weather did not afford the attack the chance to achieve that feat in two matches. And only on three occasions have the opposing batsmen denied India the pleasure of claiming all 20 wickets in a Test.
Curiously, two of these came last year in different grounds in London. England did not have to bat a second time at Lord’s despite declaring its first innings at 396 for seven with a lead of 289 runs. In what must be seen as a rare failure for the Indian attack, the home batsmen ground the bowlers to dust at the Oval in the final Test, declaring at 423 for eight after gaining a mere 40-run lead.
If India were unable to secure series wins in South Africa and England, it was primarily because the batsmen were found wanting. The highest totals of 307 in six ventures in South Africa and of 352/7 (declared) in the 10 starts in England were not an adequate reflection of the potential that the side had to claim that this was the best side to have left Indian shores.
Now that the batting has performed to its known abilities, passing the 400-mark twice with a highest of 622 /7 (declared) in Sydney, Shastri may have been finally proved right, after all. Of course, it does not mean that there is no room for improvement. A side which believes that it cannot evolve any more will only hurt itself with a steep fall.
It is this aspect that came through tellingly on this tour. Mayank Aggarwal’s positive presence in the last two Tests, Cheteshwar Pujara’s conquest of doubt, demons and the Australian attack, the adequate bench strength helped the team deal with different situations – except perhaps in finding a second opening batsman who would bat long enough to see off the new ball.
After all, besides possessing talented players who are humble, smart and hungry to contribute to the team’s success, a great side exudes confidence, be cohesive, adapt efficiently, make the best decisions possible under the circumstances and demonstrate a high degree of resilience. Of course, the aura of superstars in the side also took a backseat to its collective strength.
There can be no doubt that this Indian team had all of this. Of course, the team leaders will have to challenge some unconscious bias that may have crept in to their decision-making when it comes to picking players for tours and for specific Tests. They have worked to ensure that each member of the party has retained his hunger and passion for Test cricket.
Not surprisingly, the team has retained a winning mentality – something that was seeded by many predecessors, not the least being teams led by Sourav Ganguly – even through difficult times. The 1-4 loss in England would hurt the fiercely competitive players as much as it did the expectant and, therefore, frustrated audiences back home.
To rediscover the winning mojo, and quite effortlessly at that, is a huge victory. Except for the twin batting failures in Perth and a collapse in the second innings when way ahead in Melbourne, the squad has admirably seized the opportunities presented by a less than competitive Australian team that is reeling from the loss of key batsmen to Sandpapergate.
It is in papering the cracks and delivering results that the strength of a team’s character is revealed. And, in doing that in Australia, India have shown that when the sum of the stars is larger than the stars themselves, it is possible to secure positive results and earn plaudits rather than leave fans and connoisseurs befuddled at the inability of the team to realise its potential.
The competitive instinct, which the team has embraced so comfortably, and the result of the just-concluded series shows that it may not be such a tall claim as it seemed when the head coach first declared that this was the best travelling team in the past 15-20 years. Indeed, by winning its fourth overseas series, the team has proved right Ravi Shastri, after all.