Jadeja-Ashwin axis, Kohli's tactical flexibility, sharp catching: Takeaways for India from the Test series

South Africa’s marathon tour of India (72 day-long, in case you had not heard it before) came to an end in Delhi, fittingly with a marathon effort from the South African batsmen and Indian bowlers. Virat Kohli tasted back-to-back series wins as captain, as India completed a 3-0 win against the numero uno Test side who were hitherto unshakable away from home – going undefeated for nine years and 15 Test series abroad.

The biggest takeaway from the series for India is, of course, the fact that they are still tigers at home. That the 2012 series defeat against England was an one-off. But that is merely reestablishing a well-known fact. As far as Kohli and his team are concerned, there are a few other things that stood out.

India’s catching is reaching lofty standards

It is difficult to imagine that before the series in a series between India and South Africa, India would emerge as the better fielding side. But that’s exactly what happened. Led by Ajinkya Rahane’s exemplary catching in the slips, Indian fielders put in a near-flawless performance. The troubles in England where Indian fielders, especially the slip cordon, seemed to have butter smeared all over their fingers, seems to be a thing of the past. One of the problems then was the constant changing of the slip cordon. The initial signs during the Sri Lanka series were not great either.

 Jadeja-Ashwin axis, Kohlis tactical flexibility, sharp catching: Takeaways for India from the Test series

Ajinkya Rahane was again solid with his catching. AFP

Then, Rahane happened. Ravichandran Ashwin, bowling with a slip cordon like the one we had pre-Rahane and post-Rahul Dravid would not be setting the pace this year in terms of wicket-taking.

"Let's make no bones about it, [Rahane] works really hard at it. He takes hundreds of catches and he is very specific about where he wants them, what he wants to do, at what height he wants them, what he's likely to get in the match,” fielding coach R Sridhar said during the Bengaluru Test. “He has got excellent understanding of the angles, the pace, depth (dipping) of the ball, which is likely to come (at him). We spoke of perception earlier, that is something he is developing standing in the slips.”

What started with Rahane’s record-breaking effort in Galle, is now a feature of this Indian team. Rahane carried on from where he left off in Sri Lanka, even as Hashim Amla put down sitters at the slips. While Wriddhiman Saha was exemplary with the big gloves – handling treacherous turning tracks skillfully - Dane Vilas conceded byes after byes. Saha's catch to dismiss a well-set AB de Villiers in Bengaluru was remarkable. Cheteshwar Pujara at short leg was sharp. Stuart Binny and Ishant Sharma each caught a blinder – an indication that there is hardly dead-weight in this team in terms of fielding abilities.

After all, catches win matches and all that.

Ravindra Jadeja’s resurgence

Taking 24 wickets in four innings for Saurashtra on dust bowls at the start of the Ranji Trophy season is one thing, but carrying the form into a Test series is quite another. Jadeja, apart from being the perfect foil to Ashwin, ended up as the second highest wicket taker in this series with 23 wickets at an average of 10.82 and a strike rate of 36.7.

Ravindra Jadeja celebrates. File image: AFP

Ravindra Jadeja celebrates. File image: AFP

All said and done, Jadeja did get conditions that favour him but he showcased skills that South African bowlers didn’t – remarkable accuracy. With Jadeja, Kohli knew he had a bowler who can bowl ultra-long spells without conceding too many runs – Jadeja’s economy rate was 2.32 even excluding the blockathon in Delhi where he bowled 17 maiden overs on the trot. For a captain, that is a handy quality to have when he is defending low scores. Contrast that to Hashim Amla’s reluctance to give Imran Tahir the ball, because he was worried about leaking runs.

Jadeja also chipped in with very useful runs lower down the order – another feature of India’s series win. The familiar top-order collapses were nullified by one special innings (Pujara and Murali Vijay in Mohali; Rahane and Kohli in Delhi) and some crucial knocks lower down by Jadeja. Ashwin chipped in with runs in Delhi too. The two spinners are not crucial to Kohli just for their bowling skills – his play-to-win mindset demands good all-rounders in the side.

Ravichandran Ashwin is world-class

That’s now five man of the series awards in 32 Tests for Ravichandran Ashwin, making him the joint-highest in the list for India all-time with Virender Sehwag (103 Tests) and Sachin Tendulkar (200 Tests).

Let that sink in for a minute.

What that stat does tell us is that, with Ashwin you get consistency over the duration of a series. It’s not just a five-wicket haul here and a four-wicket haul there that wins you a match. He is the kind of bowler who gives you 29 wickets in four Tests (against Australia in 2012), 21 wickets in three Tests (against Sri Lanka this year) and 31 wickets in four Tests against South Africa in this series. When Ashwin gets into a good rhythm, he is making it count.

It would be a misdeed to brush aside Ashwin’s improvement as a bowler and put it down to merely turning pitches. Like Firstpost, wrote after the win in Nagpur, Ashwin’s ball to dismiss de Villiers in the second innings was about much more than the 22 yards between him and the batsman.

Kohli called him ‘probably the best in the world right now’ and it is very hard to disagree with that. There will be question marks over his status as a great of the game till he improves his admittedly awful overseas record, but Ashwin has the time, a brain that goes into overdrive when he analyses his bowling and his captain’s faith on his side to correct that.

Virat Kohli’s horses-for-courses policy with the bowling attack

Writing for Firstpost, Tariq Engineer argued that the series win feels less special than it should because it did not challenge the Indian squad enough. While there is a good argument to be made for that, India did what they had to do in a brilliantly ruthless manner, never taking the foot off the pedal – and in every session of the series, their intent was to go for the win.

India Test captain Virat Kohli and R Ashwin. AFP

India Test captain Virat Kohli and R Ashwin. AFP

The drive to maximise their chances of winning a match was also clear in Kohli’s team selection of the series. Not all of his decisions succeeded – like Rohit Sharma’s inclusion over Amit Mishra in the final Test – but by picking an 11 based on the conditions he was given, Kohli showed impressive tactical flexibility. Under cloudy skies in Bengaluru, it was Binny and Varun Aaron. On a dry Nagpur track, he dropped his five-bowler plan for the first time to increase the batting strength. And the decision to give Umesh Yadav a go under reversing conditions at Kotla, clinched the final match.

The batting order is beginning to offer a settled look, 10 Tests into his reign as India’s Test captain. Rohit Sharma’s experiment at number three should now be a thing of the past. The core is fixed around Vijay, Pujara, Rahane and Kohli himself – which bodes well for India as the best batting lineups are the settled ones. Even in the bowling attack, Ashwin and Ishant are certainties, irrespective of the conditions. Along with Saha, that’s seven spots that are nailed down in the Test side.

True to his word, what Kohli has shown in this series is that he will pick the rest of the 11 based on which combination gives the best chance to get 20 wickets in a match. With 130 wickets picked up in the last 13 innings – a perfect bowling record that started in Sri Lanka - it is hard not to agree that Kohli has got his priorities right.

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2015 07:34:55 IST