Before the long Test season of 2016-17 began, commentators and observers were largely in agreement on a few basic points:
- India would win with relative ease, though the degree of ease would vary and be difficult to predict
- Virat Kohli would continue his march to greatness and carry the team almost single-handedly to triumph, with R Ashwin playing his due part with the ball
- The pitches would be doctored to cater to our strengths, and play a large part in tilting the balance
Well, 13 Tests later, most of them utterly riveting, I’m inclined to amend all of them:
- India beat New Zealand and Bangladesh quite easily without ever looking in danger of defeat, but England gave them a run for their money at times and Australia proved to be in every respect their equal till the penultimate day
- Kohli lived up to his billing in the earlier part of the season but fell away towards the end; amazingly, other players filled the breach and when injury took him out of the final Test, he was not missed at all
- Pitch-doctoring did not happen as much as in the past (remember the minefields we gave the South Africans last season?) and the most doctored pitch of all, in Pune, caused our only Test defeat all season
Ravindra Jadeja Proved to Be a Revelation
So much for conventional wisdom. The man of the series, Ravindra Jadeja, proved to be a revelation: he has improved his bowling dramatically, but his batting has acquired new dimensions altogether of control and responsibility.
On this evidence, he fully deserves his ranking as the best bowler in the world, and it should not be long before he can twirl his bat like a sword on the completion of a century. The combination of Ashwin, Saha and Jadeja (in whichever order) at 6, 7 and 8 is unrivalled at those positions by any Test team in the world.
And yet there was genuine competition for the man of the series: Steve Smith could of course have won it for his three centuries, and he probably would have, if India hadn’t triumphed in the series despite his heroics. Equally important, KL Rahul, with six fifties at the top of the order, and that run-machine Cheteshwar Pujara were also seriously in contention and their performances justified it.
Neither Kohli nor Ashwin came close, which means the Indian side is not dependent on one or two star performers; pretty much everyone pulled their weight in difficult situations, some (like Vijay) only once, some (like Umesh Yadav, a revelation) almost every time.
There’s a Rahane for Every Kohli
Kohli showed us he’s mortal, and this may be a necessary step in the making of an all-time great. He seemed to have put his horror run in England in 2014 decisively behind him, as his performances since then have shown, but against Australia he actually managed to do even worse.
In the Australia series, he managed just 46 runs in three Tests, and all that Virat can be said to have contributed otherwise was his aggression on the field and his belligerent captaincy.
But Rahane, his polar opposite as a personality, did just as well as captain in his quiet and unobtrusive way.
It’s a reminder that every truly great team has reserves out there, in case the giants stumble. Repeatedly when Kohli failed at the crease, the team came together and found something in the tank to make up for it. We can breathe easier in future when Kohli fails, knowing there’s usually someone else (or a combination of someone elses) available to step up in his place.
Greatest Indian Test Team?
In requesting me for this piece, the editor asked: “How much more do they need to achieve before staking claim to be India’s best-ever Test team?”
Plenty more, I’m afraid. That distinction is undoubtedly held by the team of just over a decade ago that featured, all at the same time, undoubted greats like Tendulkar, Dravid, Sehwag, Laxman, and Kumble, along with near-greats like Dhoni, Ganguly, Zaheer and Gambhir.
Kohli’s team isn’t there yet; in fact, it’s not even close, because the excellence of those forerunners was sustained over many years of outstanding performances in a variety of conditions.
Several of Kohli’s players show signs of earning comparable accolades before long – but we must give them a lot more time to deserve the sobriquet of “greatest”.
At the same time, there are real grounds for not getting carried away in this moment of victorious celebration. India has had a great home season, but India has always been known to be difficult to beat at home.
The true test will only come later this year, when we travel in whites to less familiar conditions and sterner opposition. Green, pacy pitches have exposed the weak links in many a strong Indian side. If we can win abroad against Australia or South Africa in conditions not designed to favour us, we can truly begin to talk of cricketing greatness.
And one final thought: Let’s stop the unpleasantness on and off the field that is blighting the sport.
Many Indians are grateful for Virat’s aggression, but Rahane showed that you can be calm and win too. The Australians invented sledging, but the rest have all learned from them, and justify foul-mouthed profanity as reflecting their “intensity” or excuse it as psychological warfare, “getting under the opponent’s skin”.
Civility And Politeness Should Never End
This kind of gamesmanship should have no place in sport. I will not resort to cliches about the “gentleman’s game”, because that era is long gone, but civility and politeness should have no expiry date. Prasanna was no lesser a bowler because he applauded when a skilled batsman hit him for four.
A fielding captain congratulating his opposite number on a well-made century used to be a regular feature of the game. It was wholly absent from this team's greatest Test series win.
I am revolted when I see a batsman greet a fifty, or a bowler a wicket, with a scowl and a profanity, instead of quietly relishing the moment while accepting hugs from his teammates. Why should a happy moment be an occasion for a cuss word? Whose culture has taught these players that?
I understand the ICC is coming up with a system of demerit points that could lead to red cards and players being sent off for bad behaviour. As far as I’m concerned, the unnecessary unpleasantness that marred an otherwise magnificent series confirms that such a system cannot come too soon.
One final thought: Indian team, you played wonderfully well. But I have no idea why every single one of you, barring Kuldeep, chose to sport these repellent beards like a uniform. For God’s sake, go get a shave…
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