Another Test series won; the ninth on the trot. The Indian juggernaut rolls on. Sri Lanka have tried twice to stem the tide in the matter of few months, but on both occasions, have ended up bruised and bloodied. England, Australia, New Zealand and West Indies have all been made to feel the force that Virat Kohli's team has been. But for all the dominance that India have shown, there is a sore point; a malaise that has almost turned chronic for the Indians, and unless it is addressed, Kohli's team can never reach the echelons of Steve Waugh or Ricky Ponting's Australia.
India's inability to finish off a game that was theirs for the taking on the last day of the Delhi Test stands out as a jarring note amidst all the tom-tomming about this being the most assertive side in country's cricket history. Sri Lanka ended Day 4 three wickets down for 31 runs. Chasing 410 would not have been at the top of their minds, but surviving the last day was. For that they needed their two most experienced players — Angelo Mathews and captain Dinesh Chandimal — to be their saviours. Nobody would have given Sri Lanka even an inkling of a chance. The prospect of facing two spinners in the shape of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who have been feasting on the opposition batsmen all through the home season, on a fifth day pitch would have made anybody's stomach churn.
On Day 5, Jadeja removed Mathews early, albeit fortuitously, reducing the Lankans to a precarious 35/4 and the writing seemed on the wall that India would run through the rest of the batting line-up and wrap up proceedings may be by tea. Chandimal added 112 runs with Dhananjaya de Silva, but when he fell to Ashwin for 36, the countdown looked to have begun. Indeed it was going according to script. The two men who could have salvaged the situation for the islanders were preyed upon by the spin-duo.
But then came the fightback, or was it India's poor finishing being shown up? De Silva partnered with debutant Roshen Silva and thwarted everything that the Indians threw at them. De Silva brought up his third Test century in the process, playing a knock that would be right up there among his best. He, however, had to retire hurt soon after, but Silva — who put together a bright 74 — and the mercurial wicketkeeper-batsman Niroshan Dickwella ensured that Chandimal's wicket was the last that the Indians were to have. Ashwin (1/126 in 35 overs) and Jadeja (3/81 in 38 overs) bowled 73 out of the 103 overs in the Lankan second innings and gave away as many as 207 runs.
It was a fantastic and gritty effort by the visitors, no doubt, but were the Indian bowlers as penetrative as they would have wanted? There were patches of rough on the wicket as is usual on the fifth day. Could Ashwin and Jadeja have utilised them a bit better? The hosts were done a major disservice by shoddy fielding. At least three distinct chances went abegging in the slips in the first innings, with captain Kohli being among the culprits.
And in the second innings, Wriddhiman Saha, who normally sets very high standards, missed an easy chance to get Dickwella stumped as the ball spun away off the rough. That was the 92nd over of the Lankan innings. A wicket there would have exposed the tail unless De Silva came back to bat, and who knows, considering that the match went on for 11 more overs, India could still have been able to force a result.
Earlier, Chandimal was bowled off a no ball by Jadeja. The Sri Lankan captain may not have added too many to the total after that, but he used up five crucial overs. Jadeja had overstepped while getting the wicket of Mathews too. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, the no ball escaped the umpire's eyes, but what it highlighted was the indiscipline of the Indian bowlers, who had paid the price of overstepping on crunch occasions before too, across formats. Surely, overstepping is a cardinal sin for a spinner, and here was Jadeja doing it twice.
Therefore, for all the complaints about the Feroz Shah Kotla pitch not having the "bare minimum help for spinners" on Day 5, and smog and fading light in Delhi limiting the scope of the use of pacers, it has to be said that the Indians could have done their job a lot better. And so, despite doing "things that a lot of other Indian teams and a lot of big names couldn’t do in their careers", as pointed out by coach Ravi Shastri during the tour of Sri Lanka a few months back, this team, it seems, has inherited a bad habit from its predecessors — that of not being able to kill off opponents even when they have them by the scruff of their necks.
Earlier this year in Ranchi, the Indian bowlers kept banging their heads against the wall for nearly 100 overs on Day 5, but could get only half of the eight Australian wickets they needed. They got the breakthrough they were looking for when Jadeja bowled first innings centurion Steve Smith, which reduced Australia to 63/4 in the final morning and the end seemed nigh. But then Shaun Marsh and Peter Handscomb got together and defied the Indians for 373 balls and nearly four hours. No wickets fell in 33 overs of the post-lunch session. India got the wickets of Marsh and Glenn Maxwell after they took the new ball, but it was too late by then.
"I think the hardness of the ball was a big factor," Kohli said, trying to make sense of the dearth of wickets on Day 5, especially the middle session. "When the ball was new last night, it spun well off the rough. Even this morning, it was spinning well. But in the middle session, the ball was not hard, so could not generate that kind of pace from the wicket.”
Rival captain Smith was not convinced, though. "I haven’t really thought about it. We both use the same ball, you just got to do what you can with it,” he said. Simply put, irrespective of the hardness of the ball, the Indians should have done their job better.
The memory then jogs back to Sydney in 2004, when India, after having done almost everything right for four days and having had that legendary Australian team firmly on the back foot, weren't incisive on the final day and squandered the opportunity of a lifetime to win a series Down Under. Anil Kumble had Adam Gilchrist stumped late in the day to gnaw into the tail, but by then the fate of the match was already sealed. India could get only six wickets in the day, and Australia ended not too far from the 443-run target either. It was a Test match to savour, with the added attraction of it being Steve Waugh's last, but it will always have the Indians kicking themselves, thinking of the chance that they let slip.
In Johannesburg in 2013, India allowed South Africa to nearly pull off a record chase on Day 5. With an improbable 458 needed for victory, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers, went into God mode, carting the Indian bowlers to all parts. Mahendra Singh Dhoni's bowlers were taken for 312 runs in 91 overs on the final day, having conceded 138 runs the day before, but could get only five of the eight wickets required. It was a pity, though, that the Proteas had to stop a whisker short of what would have been an epic victory, but from India's point of view, it was another story of fluffing their lines on the final day.
There are numerous other examples. During the nightmarish 1996-97 tour of South Africa, which would always be remembered for India being shot out for 66 and 100 in the Durban Test, Sachin Tendulkar's side had a fantastic chance to salvage some pride. And that chance came to them in the final Test of the series in Johannesburg. Set 356 to win, South Africa lost Andrew Hudson late on Day 4, and Gary Kirsten early on Day 5, fell to 95/7, but aided by a fighting century from Daryll Cullinan, a near-fifty from Lance Klusener, and indeed bad light and rain on the final day, scraped through with a draw. India stopped just two wickets short of what would have been a historic win, but a close analysis would reveal that India were badly handicapped by the absence of a quality third and even fourth pacer, who would keep the heat on the South Africans, when Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad needed a break or if they could not get them the wickets. However, all India had in that match were Dodda Ganesh and Sourav Ganguly as the second line of pace bowling!
Then in Wellington in 1998, India, having set a 213-run target, had reduced New Zealand to 67/4 on Day 4, but on the final day, could take only two more wickets as Chris Cairns and Craig McMillan rattled off the runs.
A year before the Wellington debacle, India let Sri Lanka escape with three wickets in their hands on a sharply-spinning final day pitch in Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, though rain and bad light prevented 12 overs from being bowled. And about a year-and-a-half back from today, India, having reduced a second string Windies to 48/4 by the end of Day 4 at Jamaica, let off steam on the final day. Roston Chase struck a hundred, and Jermaine Blackwood, Shane Dowrich and captain Jason Holder contributed crucial half-centuries as the Caribbean team eked out a draw.
That was then the tale of India's insipid finishing that has cost them many a Test win. It is a vestige of the past that Kohli and Co will desperately want to shed, as they get ready for arduous overseas tours next year. They have already failed twice — in Ranchi and Delhi — and that's not a good sign.