A team bats ‘x’ number of overs after opting to take first strike, and posts a large total. Then, the team takes barely a handful of overs more than that ‘x’ figure to bowl out the opposition – not once, but twice, in the space of the next two days.
You could put any tangible or intangible variable to this equation – conditions, gulf of quality between opponents, lack of experience for one party, partisan audience – and it would still count as a commanding win.
When the difference in terms of rankings between the two teams in question is two spots, and it comes on a surface that wasn’t an outlier by even a fraction, you call the victory crushing, and the victors champions.
That India are the number one-ranked Test team in the world is fact; that they are near-invincible at home is now undisputed.
The latest of their triumphs, a ruthless dismantling of a quite toothless South Africa by an innings and 137 runs at Pune, delivered an 11th consecutive Test series win on home soil – a feat not accomplished even by those great Australian teams of the previous two decades, who saw two different streaks end at 10.
India batted 156.3 overs, losing just the five wickets while racking up a mammoth 601 runs, before declaring an hour before close of play on the second day. Proceedings had been wrapped well over an hour before close of play on day four, with South Africa’s two innings, put together, lasting 173 overs, and bringing with it only 464 runs.
It came on a Pune track which had looked friendly enough for Faf du Plessis to say on the opening day that he “was more disappointed in losing the toss for the previous game” – and that is the best descriptor of how and where this Indian unit, now 50 games into the Virat Kohli reign, has become scarily superb.
There was only one difference to the team from the one that had taken the field at Visakhapatnam for the series opener: Umesh Yadav coming in for Hanuma Vihari. It wasn’t so much about the personnel as it was about the tactics – and weren’t India bang on the money.
The ‘five-bowler theory’ made its maiden appearance in the Kohli era pretty much at the start of it, when it was tested in Sri Lanka in 2015; it yielded India’s first Test series win in the Emerald Isle since 1993. Since then, it has been used sparingly overall, but fairly regularly in home games – 13 times in 25 Tests, to be precise, since Kohli became full-time captain. (Note that this only considers matches where India fielded five out-and-out bowlers; games where Stuart Binny or Hardik Pandya took the number seven slot haven’t been counted)
Of those 13 Tests, only one has ended in defeat (which, incidentally, happens to be India’s only home defeat since 2013), while two have been drawn. The margins of victory in the remaining 10 games read: 108 runs, 246 runs, 8 wickets (chasing 103), innings and 36 runs, innings and 75 runs, 208 runs, 8 wickets (chasing 106), innings and 272 runs, 10 wickets (chasing 72) and now innings and 137 runs.
So, really, this was always coming. Because there’s so much more that becomes of an already-arduous-to-face Indian attack in home conditions when they operate five-fold – it takes the step up from dangerous to deadly. Here’s how.
First, and most obviously, comes the sheer variety. It could be a mix of three spinners with two pacers – which was the combination that delivered the 4-0 defeat of England in 2016, as well as the decider of the fractious Border-Gavaskar Trophy in 2017 – or three fast bowlers to operate along with spin twins Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, as we saw in this Pune Test. Whichever route India do go with, it just provides so much in terms of options for Kohli.
In this game, Kohli got through his five-pack with three fast bowlers, all of whom are almost equally capable of sharing the new ball. Two of them (Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav) also come with the major bonus of their reverse-swing capabilities. And then you have those two spinners. Such luxury!
What it also does — and this isn’t highlighted as often as it perhaps should be – is that it aids workload management in the middle of a game: Giving the spinners a break no longer needs a huge amount of head-scratching, and the pacers too have greater scope for those shorter bursts they seem to thrive on.
Consider the solitary challenging phase the Indians had to encounter in this game, when Vernon Philander and Keshav Maharaj battled away to a 43-over long ninth-wicket partnership.
The Philander-Maharaj association came in the middle of the third afternoon, with the first 22 overs played facing the old. It was possibly the most frustrating period of play there could have been; a softening ball, having lost a majority of its bite, on a pitch with no demons in it, with the weather at its worst.
But India didn’t have to sweat as much as you’d imagine – literally and figuratively. Ashwin and Jadeja were only required to share 28 of those overs – across three different spells each – because the Shami-Ishant-Umesh pace trio was also able to deliver 15 overs at differing bursts and during varying passages of play.
That’s the thing with the five-bowler theory, especially when implemented with five out-and-out bowlers. Everything is shared and balanced, both the workload and the frustration. In this case, even the wickets were split pretty much down to the T, with the spinners and pacers neatly dividing 10 wickets each in their respective tallies.
What it also did, perhaps with greater bearing on the end outcome, was allow Kohli and the Indian think-tank to take that second crack on the Proteas batsmen without having to pause. Yes, India benefitted with the timing of South Africa’s eventual first innings dismissal, as it coincided with close of play on the third day – but Kohli knew he anyway didn’t have too jaded a bowling lineup to call upon.
Ishant, Umesh and Shami had bowled 10, 13 and 17 overs respectively in the first essay, and Jadeja and Ashwin are anyway accustomed to a high workload in home Tests.
As a result, India were able to become the first team to enforce a follow-on upon South Africa in Tests since England in 2008, before going on to become the first team to beat the Proteas by an innings since February 2010.
This is what the five-bowler theory is providing to Team India.
The juggernaut has already been virtually unstoppable, not just under this Kohli regime but through the length of this decade. Unless Bangladesh cause the mother of all upsets next month, India will have ended the 2010s having tasted a series defeat at home only once – and having won all but two series they contested on home soil over these 10 years.
There are, of course, many factors behind it, but if India are nearing the ‘invincible’ status the way they are, and if touring India is becoming the ‘mission impossible’ that it is, the five-bowler theory – and its practical execution – has a lot to do with it.
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