Another home series win, another clean sweep, there is an air of invincibility about this Indian team at home. As Virat Kohli's men thrashed South Africa 3-0 to amass another 120 points in the World Test Championship, they extended their winning run to 11 series wins at home. They surpassed the mighty Australian team's record of 10 series wins at home which they achieved twice and showed why they are so difficult to beat at home. When South Africa toured four years ago, all the talk was centered around the 22-yard surface. There's always focus on the pitches when Tests are played in India. The Nagpur track was deemed poor by the ICC. This time though, the difference wasn't the 22 yards, there were not rank turners or minefields, the difference was the gulf in quality and class between the two teams.
Reincarnation of Rohit Sharma
From warming the benches to being the highest run-getter in the series (529 runs at 132.25) and Man of the Series, the start-stop career of Rohit Sharma was resuscitated when he was moved up the order to open the batting. The team management and the selectors thought that Rohit was too good a player not to be playing all formats of cricket. Rohit vindicated their decision and that too in style. A century in each innings in his maiden Test as an opener and then a double century in Ranchi had brought about the reincarnation of Rohit.
Rohit's biggest challenge was the mental adjustment having moved from the middle-order to open the batting. Bringing in that experience of opening the batting in limited-overs and employing the white-ball template helped him overcome that challenge.
He answered the questions about his shot selection and temperament that have always hovered around in Tests by combining patience and aggression. There were two aspects to Rohit's batting. The way he left the ball in the early part of the innings and the acceleration that followed.
There is a reason why the team management sees him in the Virender Sehwag mould. The third innings of the Vizag Test was a perfect example. On a tricky slow and low pitch, when there was need for quick runs and with Cheteshwar Pujara taking time to find his groove, Rohit kept the scoreboard ticking and pushed Pujara as well to score at a strike-rate of 85.23 to help set up a daunting target and give enough time to the bowlers to bundle the Proteas out.
Ahead of the Test, Kohli said that when Rohit is in his zone he can do great things for the team. He already has started doing great things in his new avatar. Yes, everyone will be looking at how he fares overseas. However, his innings in Ranchi where he waded through an impressive spell from especially from Kagiso Rabada early on, elicited positive signs. The Mumbai batsman seemed to have a clear picture of his role. The team management and selectors needed to be lauded equally for their vision. Rohit shattered a slew of records. He surpassed Don Bradman to possess the best average at home (for batsmen to have played 10-plus innings). His home average now stands at 99.84. He hit 19 sixes, the most by any batsman in a series. While this was also the series where he faced the most number of balls - 683.
The move to open the batting could prove to be a seminal one in Indian cricket as well as Rohit's career.
Pacers the biggest success story
The first question that a visiting team faces while touring India is how to tackle the venomous Indian spin attack? And then the questions keep multiplying around the spin factor. So, when the South African team landed on the Indian shores, the biggest question was whether they can tackle the Indian spin attack something which even the experience side consisting of Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and others couldn't on the 2015 tour?
Little did they knew that they were in for a double bombardment. While it was a just-a-normal-day-in-office series for spinners, it was the pace battery, that impressed the most. This Indian pace attack has transformed into one of the best in the world and even in absence of the No 1 Jasprit Bumrah and significant help from the pitches, they displayed the guile, skills and aggression to run through the South African batting line-up consistently.
Normally, you would expect the South African pace attack to outbowl the Indian battery but it was the other way round. Umesh Yadav stepped up and delivered in absence of Bumrah which gave a glimpse of the bench strength of this Indian pace arsenal, something which reminded Brian Lara of the West Indian fiery pace battery of 80s and 90s.
Shami's fourth innings bowling in Vizag was a lesson for the Proteas' pacers on the lines and lengths to bowl on the final day pitch. He consistently bowled on stumps and generated significant movement in the air and off the pitch.
The Proteas pacers, on the other hand, didn't get their lengths right throughout the series. In fact, the Pune track, on the first day, was tailor-made for their pacers but they didn't hit the right areas. Either they were too full or short of good length. The Indian pacers, on the other hand, generated more movement off the surface and even bounced out the South African openers in the first innings of the Ranchi Test, something which has been a rarity in the past. Helmets were pinged, stumps were sent cartwheeling as the pacers scalped 26 wickets at an average of 17.50 and strike rate of 35.2. In comparison, the spinners averaged 27.18 and struck every 59.9 deliveries which says a lot about the performance of the Indian fast bowlers.
In fact, approximately over the last three years, pacers have done better than spinners on the home soil. Since Jan 2017, Indian pacers average 23.63 and possess a strike-rate of 46.1 while spinners average 24.04 and strike every 54 deliveries.
This was their best bowling average and strike rate this century at home in a three or more match series. In contrast, South African pacers averaged 70.20 in the series, their worst on Indian soil, in fact, their second-worst overall and worst this century.
"The mindset coming here, especially after 2015, was to be prepared for the spin attack," Faf du Plessis was quoted as saying by Cricbuzz in the post-match presentation. "But the pitches were fantastic. India's seamers were outstanding through the series. Our seamers were good for 30-40 minutes but their's were able to do that throughout the day. I think it's the nature of the skill of the bowler. If you look at those who succeeded this series, it's their skiddy nature that's key but they're also in the right areas most of the time. They hit the stumps all the time. In SA, the natural length is shorter and you need to make that adjustment here. That's what you need to do in international cricket. We have young guys coming through and in the coming 3-4 years, they will get experienced."
Rahane back to his fluent best
Ajinkya Rahane in full flow is a sight to behold in Test cricket. And here he was, unfurling his silken flicks and crisp drives in the series against South Africa and bailing India out of the tough situations. He played two crucial and contrasting innings in the series. In the Pune Test, he played second fiddle to Kohli. He walked out when the platform was already there, yet, the work was only half done. He played a patient knock of 59 off 168 balls and stitched a partnership of 178 with Kohli who went on to make a double century. However, his best came in Ranchi where he strode out at 39/3 and hit a typical counterattacking century to bail India out of trouble along with Rohit.
That partnership was the turning point for India. After lunch on Day 1, Rahane hit 21 off 10 balls, hitting five fours off Rabada, who had bowled with great rhythm, to provide India the momentum, release the pressure and set the tone.
Rohit was all praise for Rahane after the century.
"Once we got out in the middle after lunch, it was Ajinkya who started taking that momentum, and it was he who actually got us the momentum," Rohit was quoted as saying in the post-match conference on Day 1. "If I'm not wrong, he was batting on 40 off 43 balls just around the first drinks after lunch, which means we capitalised on the loose balls, we got those singles as well, so the rotation of strike was happening every now and then, which is always good for a batsman.
"When you keep changing strike, it doesn't allow the bowler to keep bowling there, because different batsmen, different style of play, the bowlers have to adjust their length as well, so I think we did that pretty well, particularly Ajinkya. He came out and started playing his shots, and from there he never looked back. The partnership after that kept growing."
Rahane had divided opinions of late. His struggles against spin, technical issues coupled with lack of three-figure scores had come under scrutiny. However, he managed to silence his critics by finally breaking the two-year century duck in the West Indies. It was a spark that he desperately needed and that spark created the ignition in the South Africa series. He did get out to left-arm spin in all three innings. However, the way he attacked the spinners in Ranchi, especially by using his feet would have been a massive confidence booster. Overall, he scored 104 runs off 204 balls off the spinners, averaged 34.67 at a strike rate of 50.98.
"We've seen Ajinkya for so many years, the way his Test career has progressed, and whenever the team has been in a difficult situation, he's come and rescued us," Rohit said after the first day's play. "And this isn't something he's done just once or twice, he's done it in many innings. This shows how strong he is, mentally, and how much hunger he has, to be able to steer the team out of bad situations.
"We've seen it outside India, we've seen it in India as well, so Ajinkya's Test graph, it's climbing one step at a time, and there can't be anything better for the team, because if your middle order is strong, whatever situation comes, you're confident that one guy will always put his hand up and take the team forward."
Jadeja emerges as the No 1 all-rounder at home
The cricketing world is getting to see that iconic bat-twirling sword celebration from Ravindra Jadeja more often. There have been two of them in the last two Tests itself. The fact that Jadeja's batting has been on a constant upward spiral has made him the No 1 all-rounder of this Indian team. He's added the graft to his stroke-play and that balance has made him a dangerous batsman.
Jadeja scored 312 runs from four innings at an average of 70.66 and SR of 70.43. In his innings of 91 in Pune, he started off patiently scoring 9 off 44 balls before upping the ante and scoring 82 off the next 60 balls as India looked for quick runs with one eye on the declaration. In Ranchi, he strode out at 306/4 and scored 51 off 119 balls to further add solidity. The two dimensions that he brings to his game has earned him a promotion in the batting order, at No 6. He's looked assured in his defense and authoritative in his attack.
In Vizag, the Saurashtra all-rounder became the second-fastest Indian bowler to 200 wickets. He finished as the joint second-highest wicket-taker in the series with 13 wickets at 30.69. However, right through the series, it was his batting that took the center stage.
There was a time when Jadeja used to bat at No 8, even below Ashwin. Things have changed now and he's batting even ahead of the wicket-keeper Wriddhiman Saha. In the last three years (Since 9 Aug 2016), Jadeja has scored 1299 runs and averaged 44.79 with 12 fifties and a hundred. Possessing those different gears has made him an almost inseparable part of this Indian side, especially at home. When Hardik Pandya gets fully fit, he might become the first-choice all-rounder overseas, especially SENA countries but at home, Jadeja has sealed that spot.
Wriddhiman Saha impresses on return but there's a long road ahead
Ahead of the South Africa series, there were two selection decisions that raised eyebrows and sparked debates, the first one was Rohit Sharma the opener and the second one was Saha as the first-choice wicketkeeper ahead of Rishabh Pant who had done well in the Test arena in the past. The team management wanted to bring in a specialist keeper in the challenging Indian conditions against the spinners. There would have been pressure on Saha, especially coming back after a long lay-off plus the pressure to vindicate the selectors. He did start off nervously in Vizag but then slowly found his feet and kept brilliantly in the next two Tests. On Day 3 of the Pune Test, he took a diving one-handed catch to his right to send back Theinus de Bruyn and next day, he took a couple of blinders down the leg side to dismiss De Bruyn and Vernon Philander, all off Umesh Yadav. And not to forget that brilliant low catch of De Bruyn off Shahbaz Nadeem on the final day.
"I think I should treat him for those wickets down leg-side and that first catch, and I think those two wickets are Wriddhi bhai's wickets," Umesh said after the match.
"When you put the ball outside leg stump you think it'll be a boundary, but if there is a little bit chance to convert a catch, we know he will take it," Umesh said of Saha.
Saha was sharp and seemed at ease behind the wickets. However, there is still a long road ahead. He will need to look after his fitness constantly as well as keep contributing with the bat. Pant has got centuries in England and Australia and with batting taking precedence over keeping overseas it will be interesting to see if the team management goes with horses for courses policy and select Pant ahead of Saha. Saha got just one innings to bat in the South Africa series and scored 24. The pressure will be on him to consistently perform with the bat as well in order to seal that keeper's slot completely because Pant is not totally out of contention. Pant, on the other hand, would be looking at his exclusion from the South Africa series as a trigger to improve his keeping. Either way, healthy competition is always beneficial for the team.
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Shastri said his team's pace unit was the best in the world, despite being likely to be without the injured Ishant Sharma who is receiving treatment India for a muscle tear.
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