An Indian Team cricketer’s response to a congratulatory message from this correspondent after the series win against Australia was a string of thumbs-up, trophy and smiley emojis. The cricketer is pretty low on emotion quotient, so the excitement was somewhat uncharacteristic. Then again, India’s success this season has been unprecedented. The BCCI, under its erstwhile dispensation, should be lauded for giving us a six-month-long home season during which India played 13 Tests. It was a happy overdose of the purest form of the game—the real thing. Virat Kohli’s team finished winning 10 of those Test matches, losing only one.
The season presented this young Indian team with the opportunity to evolve as a Test side, home conditions notwithstanding. Kohli’s Knights lapped it up. They fought their corner on many an occasion, especially against Australia, to eke out victories. They showed consistent and collective resolve in a format that separated the men from the boys. Stand up for the champions. The captain himself and Ravi Ashwin had been the jewels in the crown with 1,252 runs and 81 wickets, respectively. But India’s rise as a fast bowling unit, Ravindra Jadeja’s progress as a Test cricketer, Wriddhiman Saha’s improvement as a batsman and Cheteshwar Pujara’s rediscovery of his game had been even more heartening. KL Rahul gets an honourable mention for the way he grew into his role.
Jadeja finished the season with 71 wickets and 556 runs from 13 Tests. Pujara made 1,316 runs, including three hundreds and a double hundred. Saha has always been world-class behind the stumps, but his batting was under the scanner. The uncertainties have been done and dusted, thanks to some match-turning knocks under pressure. And spare a thought for Umesh Yadav, who spat venom even on the flattest of decks. A tally 30 scalps in 12 Tests is not eye-popping. But the Vidarbha fast bowler was more than just mere numbers. He swung the ball upfront. He reversed it when the ball became old. And all along, he rattled the opposition with his pace.
Umesh is gifted with speed, but inconsistency had been acting as a deterrent. In a way, MS Dhoni’s criticism about his inconsistency during a limited-overs series in Bangladesh two seasons ago proved to be the turning point. Transformation ensued, built on hurt. To his credit, Umesh took the criticism as a challenge. A lesser player could have wilted. The seamer’s problem was not technical. Just that he was trying too many things because of the fear of getting predictable. He needed a pat on the shoulder and some words of advice about sticking to his strength. Video sessions replayed his top spells. Umesh wanted to develop an inswinger and was trying a little too hard to have one, losing his line and length in the process. It was important to convince him about becoming world-class even without an inswinger. Once the mental aspect is sorted, net sessions did the rest.
Fast bowling is very hard work in India. But Umesh never looked fatigued. He has the body of an athlete, which helped. Mohammed Shami, another top-class operator from the Indian fast bowling stable, broke down mid-season. Shami’s action takes a toll on his knees. Also, according to some experts, the Bengal quick doesn’t have genetically strong knees, adding to the risk factors for recurrent injuries.
This season has laid the foundation for the team to be successful aboard. Ultimately, Kohli’s side would be judged on their performances overseas. But we will come to that later. The controversy that emanated from Steve Smith’s “brain fade” in Bengaluru and culminated in Kohli publicly unfriending Australian cricketers at Dharamsala takes precedence. From the infamous Gavaskar-Lillee incident at the MCG in 1980-81 to ‘Monkeygate’ at the SCG in 2007-08 and the friction on and off the field during the just concluded series, India-Australia cricket affairs have had a tendency to be acrimonious. This time, a section of the Indian media made the mistake of giving importance to what appeared in Australian press. Comparing Kohli with Donald Trump attested the Australian media’s (of course, just a handful) affinity to hyperbole. Why react to nonsense!
The Indian cricket board showed a lot of maturity during the whole episode, which Cricket Australia (CA) chief executive James Sutherland lacked. His dig at the India captain was unbecoming of a CA functionary. For Kohli, hopefully, the upcoming IPL will help rebuild bridges…
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The Test win on a green pitch at Eden Gardens against New Zealand and the victory on a Gabba-like surface at Dharamsala proved that Kohli’s India are not just spin-track bullies. They have all the bases covered. Some very good cricket pitches had been laid out throughout the season. Ironically, when the team management tried to make things a little too lopsided at Pune, India lost by 333 runs. Two years ago, they had crumbled on a rank turner at Galle as well. Maybe, there’s a lesson to learn from this—quality pitches suit a quality team better.
Kohli and Anil Kumble’s team talks post the series win at Dharamsala focused on the extolment of consistency and all-round contributions. But that came with a reminder about replicating the success outside Asia. “No need to get overexcited with whatever we have done. We are very happy with the number one ranking in the world, but our main challenge begins now. If we can conquer the overseas season, that’s when you will see a broader smile on my face when I sit down for the press conference,” Kohli said at the post-match presser. So roll on the next season, with India embarking on a tour of South Africa.
PS: Ajinkya Rahane was so impressive—especially his bowling changes—as a stand-in skipper at Dharamsala that never did it feel like he had been making his Test captaincy debut…