Every time an Indian cricket team goes on an overseas tour, the expectations are high. And, why won’t they be? For a long time, men in blue were humiliated in alien conditions, often struggling to take the Test match into the final day, let alone making a competition out of it. It is impossible to forget the surrender at Kingston in 1976 when West Indies captain Clive Lloyd invited team India to bat first on a virgin pitch and ordered a bloodbath. Anshuman Gaekwad was hit on the left ear (spent two nights in hospital), Gundappa Vishwanath injured his finger which was dislocated and Brijesh Patel had stitches after being hit in the mouth.
The continuous threat forced Bishan Singh Bedi to declare both the innings, fearing for the safety of his players. India became the first team in the history to lose a Test match without getting bowled out in any of the innings! West Indies’ tactics were criticised but the humiliation was high. Things didn’t change in the coming years as the Indian cricket team failed to win a single Test overseas (outside Asia) out of 33 it played during the 1990s. Remember, this was the time when Sachin Tendulkar was at the peak of his game and players like Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid were emerging from the ranks.
However, all of that changed with the arrival of the millennium. The Indian team won 11 Tests overseas between 2000 and 2010, including wins in tough countries like Australia, England and New Zealand. One territory where the team continued to struggle was: South Africa. Men in Blue have managed to win just two Tests in South Africa, with batsmen finding it exceedingly difficult to score runs.
— BCCI (@BCCI) January 7, 2018
So, once again when a young and extremely balanced team led by Virat Kohli, left for the same country, the expectations went up. The team was a perfect combination of experience and youth. There were natural stroke players on the side like Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan, there were batsmen who can drop anchor like Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, there were good all-rounders in Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya and above all, probably for the first time, team India had a fast-bowling unit that had the ability to trouble opponents in alien conditions, which they actually did in Newlands.
The first Test was to be played in Cape Town, the closest you will get to Asian conditions in South Africa. The hosts were having their selection dilemma and were also facing some fitness issues. Everything seemed perfectly in place for Virat Kohli’s men to rewrite history and extend their dominance as the best team in the world.
As it turned out, chasing a target of 208 runs, India lost the match by 72 runs, a defeat that might make this two-and-a-half month long tour look like a long one.
Who is to blame? Tough to say, but the fingers have already been raised at Virat Kohli’s team selection. The Indian skipper has been criticised for leaving out Ajinkya Rahane and going in with just 5 specialist batsmen.
But, the choice was never between Rahane and Pandya. The latter adds a lot of balance to the side and it was for his knock in the first innings that India was able to make a contest out of what looked like yet another surrender. With Wriddhiman Saha at 7 and Ravichandran Ashwin at 8 (who played the entire last season at 6), India batted deep. As Virat said, Rohit was picked above Rahane based on the current form, which actually makes a lot of sense.
Grateful for all your wishes and support throughout the first test. Disappointed that we fell short the way we did. We will come back harder and stronger in Pretoria! #SAvIND pic.twitter.com/LUCJtTcx73
— hardik pandya (@hardikpandya7) January 9, 2018
What has to be understood is that when you are trying to win and stay aggressive, you end up opening spaces for the opponents to strike a blow. In other words, if you are looking to win every single game and not draw it, defeats will come.
The Indian team didn’t reach the number 1 spot in the ICC rankings by sitting back and ensuring matches end in a draw. It reached there, by being aggressive and playing attacking cricket.
Yes, never has an Indian team gone into the first match of an overseas tour with just 5 specialist batsmen but this was more of a brave move than a reckless one. The message was clear: ‘We are here to win’.
That’s what makes Virat Kohli different from his predecessors, both as a batsman and as a captain. He likes to take on the opponents, embrace their aggression and replies in the same manner. This was evident when Bumrah got rid of AB de Villiers as last South African wicket in the second innings. The Indian skipper was so pumped up as if the team had already won the match. There was a belief that yes, we can defeat the king in his own palace.
However, the next match will be played in Centurion, a venue where a lot more will be needed from the Indian batters. Will Kohli continue to be a brave captain? It certainly will be interesting to see which way he turns.