India completed their first ever three-Test series whitewash on foreign soil after outclassing Sri Lanka in an innings victory inside three days in the third Test at Pallekele on Monday. It was India's second straight innings win over the Lankans in the series and Virat Kohli's men have now defeated them in their last five Test outings.
India have not lost their last nine Test series going back to the 2015 tour of Bangladesh, where rains enforced a draw in the sole Test. Having been adjudged the world's number one Test side in October last year, Kohli seems to have taken a liking to the Test mace and tightens his hold on it.
His dream run as captain continues as he surpassed Steve Waugh's record of seven consecutive series wins. He would now certainly have another Australian legend in his sights: a certain Ricky Ponting, who had led the Aussies in nine straight series wins.
In India’s triumphant Sri Lanka campaign, Cheteshwar Pujara continued to plunder runs and broke into the top four of the ICC Test batsmen's rankings. Kohli, opener KL Rahul and India's overseas talisman, Ajinkya Rahane are fifth, ninth and tenth respectively on said list. Ravindra Jadeja whizzed ahead of spin twin Ravichandran Ashwin, topping the Test bowlers' rankings and is also the world number two Test all-rounder.
So yes, the optimistic Indian fan would be buoyant as ever with things starting to look really bright for Kohli and Co in the Test arena.
But despite India's recent dominance, the fastidious fan — taking each victory with a grain of salt — remains unconvinced, accusing the optimist to be seeing through rose-tinted glasses. The cynic broods over what happened the last time India enjoyed a long stay at the top of the Test rankings.
Do you remember?
It began with the 2008-09 Border-Gavaskar Trophy series against Australia and ended with the 2012-13 edition of it.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni had taken over the Test captaincy from Anil Kumble in November 2008 after injury forced the leg-spinner into retirement. No, there were no 'untenable' differences that time around.
Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh — all our beloved stalwarts were still in the Indian ranks. So as expected, the Indian team saw a lot of success. They beat Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka, among other teams.
By November 2009, Dhoni’s men had dethroned South Africa from the top of the Test rankings and they stayed there for 21 months.
In those 21 months at the top, India played six series in the subcontinent and only two outside it (South Africa and West Indies).
They were unbeaten for 11 straight Test series from the 2008 home series against Australia to the tour to West Indies in 2011.
Then came the infamous tour of England in 2011 where India suffered an embarrassing four-Test whitewash. Dhoni’s men were heavily reliant on their star players, who were clearly past their prime, and Dravid ended up as the lone warrior while the rest of the team failed collectively.
After routing the West Indies 2-0 at home, they were clean-swept in a four-Test series again in Australia, unable to subdue Michael Clarke, seemingly possessed by the spirit of Don Bradman.
And India’s frailties outside the subcontinent were further exposed in subsequent tours in 2013 and 2014. Under Dhoni, India triumphed a mere six times in 30 away Tests and three of those came against the relatively weaker West Indies and Bangladesh.
India’s journey to being the world number one Test team under Kohli bears an uncanny similarity to the team's run in the longest format under Dhoni after he took over in late 2008. Both have enjoyed an extended honeymoon phase in their captaincy careers primarily due to victories in Asia (and the Caribbean).
Kohli’s men fortified their position at the top during a 13-Test-long home season in which they lost just once (to Australia). They have now overwhelmed a feeble Sri Lankan outfit 3-0, taking their away win-count to seven (five against Sri Lanka and two against West Indies).
The BCCI has reportedly lined up a home Test series against the Islanders in November, which may give Kohli and boys to get a few more Test wins in the kitty.
But the real Test of Kohli's captaincy credentials would begin when India tour South Africa in January 2018.
After all, India’s perennial overseas woes have forever taken the shine off their home performances.
While being optimistic of India’s chances is hardly criminal, let’s be modest here. Historically, India have been fair-to-middling adversaries overseas. The only place where India has been notching up easy away wins is West Indies, a team that is way past its heydays.
Otherwise, Asian teams crumble in non-Asian conditions and non-Asian teams crumble in Asian conditions. This has been Test cricket’s adage, for a while now, but it is of course partly fuelled by xenophobic conditions heavily loaded in favour of the home side.
If India’s stature has to rise in Test cricket, they must beat stronger teams like South Africa, England, Australia and New Zealand outside the comfort of their backyard. Kohli’s men must look to better Australia’s fabled exploits under Waugh and Ponting.
Ashwin and Pujara have taken a step in the right direction with county cricket stints. The Tamil Nadu off-spinner is set to join Worcestershire and the Saurashtra batsman will return to Nottinghamshire in their efforts to look less hopelessly incompetent in next year’s Test series in England than the last time in 2014.
India are getting their ingredients in place for success overseas. Kohli’s captaincy may seem impatient and temperamental at times, but he gauges the game well and never lets the opposition settle. He's very much like Ponting in that manner, and even Michael Hussey sees the similarities, noting their "will to win, that competitiveness".
Kohli has a battery of potent pacemen (Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav and Bhuvneshwar Kumar), two world-class spinners (Ashwin and Jadeja) and an ever-so-rare Chinaman in Kuldeep Yadav who could flummox the world’s best batsmen. With the assertive Rahul, the ever-dependable Murali Vijay and linchpin Pujara at number three, it makes for a solid top order. Kohli and Rahane are a daunting duo to have in the middle order. And if Pandya can continue to mature into the Ben Stokes that the Indian skipper wants, India could pose a serious challenge.
Unlike the last time, when Dhoni’s men relied on waning star power, this time around a revamped Indian team led by a zealous skipper, will eagerly hope to rewrite the record books.
No wonder the optimist is upbeat!
Meanwhile, the cynic will be glad to be proven wrong.
Can Kohli do what his predecessor couldn’t, or will history repeat itself?
Well, over to you now, Kohli and Co!