Virat Kohli has been an inspirational skipper whose unique motivational rants are astonishingly alien to Indian cricket culture. Kohli’s in-your-face passion, drive, extraordinary faith in his key players, coupled with a fierce pride in his own performance have paid dividends far beyond expectations on the current tour of South Africa.
The southern region of the African continent remained a blot on India’s cricketing history. In six tours since 1992 India had not won a single Test or ODI series. The closest they came to outsmarting the Proteas was in 2010-11 when the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led team lost the ODI series 2-3.
Much was expected of Kohli’s team in the lead up to the tour. The team had an excellent pace attack and this prompted some of the more belligerent voices to boast of fighting fire with fire. Of course there were issues with fielding and batting. But the overall opinion was that Kohli’s team would stretch the South Africans considerably, if not win the series.
However, poor catching and AB de Villiers’ brilliance tipped the fiercely contested Tests in the home team’s favour.
But the win in the third Test provided a massive morale booster for Kohli's boys. By the time the ODIs came along, the core of the team had spent more than five weeks in South Africa and hence was wholly acclimatised to the conditions.
The same could have been said of Indian teams of the past. But they lacked either the bowling power or the relentless aggressive push for excellence which Kohli brought to the table.
The skipper's passion, energy and belief that this South African team could be beaten slowly percolated to the rest of the team. Even if some were stragglers, the key players came good to make this seventh trip to South African one of the most productive ones.
The ODI series win was an endorsement of the team's astonishing bowling firepower. No Indian team has had such a brilliant bowling attack. The unit had everything; pace, seam, swing and spin.
While the catching and fielding left a lot to be desired, Dhoni's wicket-keeping lent outstanding support to the bowlers. He was not only brilliant with his stumping and catching, he also provided tremendous guidance and feedback to the bowlers, the two wrist spinners, in particular.
The two, Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav, were a class apart. A wet ball and changed equation owing to the lightning and rain-enforced Duckworth-Lewis method might have dented their aura somewhat in the fourth ODI. But they took that brutal assault on the chin and came roaring back to business on the dry Port Elizabeth ground (six wickets for 100 runs) to engineer the 73-run victory.
Chahal and Kuldeep’s impact can be gauged by the fact that they have captured 30 of the 43 wickets in the five ODIs at an average of just 13.63. This is a monumental success compared to the disastrous 2013-14 tour when spinners Ravichandran Ashwin (0-58, 1-48, 0-63) and Ravindra Jadeja (0-58, 1-49, 0-32) bagged just two wickets between them.
The impressive aspect of wrist spinners Chahal and Kuldeep’s bowling is not just the massive haul of wickets but the sheer panic they’ve spread among the opposition. The batsmen have been unable to pick out subtle variations and seem bewildered by their repertoire of tricks. With greater discipline and catching support, the duo could have easily been far more devastating.
While Chahal and Kuldeep hogged the limelight, the terrific support from new ball bowlers Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah must not be forgotten. They bowled brilliantly in the powerplay overs at the start and later in the death to keep the batsmen bottled up. Even Hardik Pandya, the weakest link in the attack – he probably thought he could frighten batsmen by changing his hair colour each time – came to the party on Tuesday.
Before the fifth ODI, he had figures of 1-37, 0-35, 0-34 and 0-41. But at Port Elizabeth, he provided the impetus by dismissing the dangerous de Villiers and JP Duminy for single digit scores.
The bowlers’ undoubted excellence apart, one recurring theme of the ODIs was the sterling contribution by the top three batsmen in the line-up. Kohli, in particular, was magnificent. His scores of 112, 46, 160 not out, 75 and 36 reveal what a humongous impact he has had on the opposition.
His Delhi teammate, opener Shikhar Dhawan (35, 51 not out, 76, 109, 34) has also been impressive. Rohit Sharma, the other opener was a major flop (5, 0, 15, 20) till he came good on Tuesday. His knock of 115, which earned him the man of the match award, was a tremendous vindication of the skipper’s faith in his ability.
Pandya (0. 9, 14, DNB, 3 not out) and Ajinkya Rahane (8, 8, 11, DNB, 79) have been big disappointments and it was surprising that the more accomplished Dhoni was not sent ahead.
India have one more ODI to play, but the fact that they have already wrapped up the series is truly historic. India’s success rate overseas, especially outside Asia, Zimbabwe, West Indies is very poor. In fact the last major overseas ODI series win was in 2014, a 3-1 verdict against England in England. Prior to that, India defeated New Zealand 3-1 in New Zealand in 2008.
That’s one reason why this win in South Africa is special. Indian cricket could do with more of the same!