“History boys, history.”
That’s what Virat Kohli told his team, a little before 2.30 pm on an otherwise unremarkable Monday (August 14) afternoon. R Ashwin had just made a mess of Lahiru Kumara’s off-stump, the tenth wicket of the Sri Lankan second innings had been plucked out at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium, and India had completed an unprecedented 3-0 sweep overseas.
Even the most die-hard Sri Lankan optimist wouldn’t have foreseen any other result some three weeks back. So yes, Australia arrived here as the No. 1 Test team 12 months ago, and were hammered 3-0 by the host nation. So yes, there was a plethora of exciting batting talent, a little immature and wet behind the ears but capable of taking attacks apart. So yes, there was Rangana Herath, the ageless and most glittering jewel in the Sri Lankan crown. But still.
India weren’t really playing overseas, if you like. And that’s not just because the conditions here are so similar to those back home.
The philosophy within the group revolves around taking each Test match in isolation, taking the venue, the surface, the conditions and the opposition out of the equation. That isn’t so much an insular line of thinking as an inward focus, something Kohli referred to at the end of the game, the challenges simulated and imaginary once it became apparent that Sri Lanka weren’t going to stretch them one bit.
No one, not least the management group, is getting carried away with this result. As historic as it might be, anything less than a 3-0 scoreline – unless the weather intervened, of course – would have been seen as a blip for a team that won 10 of its 13 home Tests last season, against more seasoned and battle-hardened outfits on good cricketing surfaces. Man for man, India were the better unit, skills-wise; Sri Lanka could at best have matched them in desperation and desire, but even those qualities seemed to ooze out of the hosts once they were laid low by a plethora of illness and injury hassles that must have convinced them that the whole world was conspiring against them.
As is generally the case when a series ends in such singularly lop-sided fashion, there were plenty of gains and positives for the victor, plenty of soul-searching and introspection for the vanquished. Sri Lanka’s problems are their own, and many of them are of their own making, too. India riches are, likewise, also of their own making.
The secret to India’s stirring run in the last two years resides in the integration of newcomers, the warmth with which they are received and immediately made to feel that they belong. It helps that those that are coming in are no strangers; they have rubbed shoulders with the Kohlis and the Rahanes and the Ashwins and the Jadejas in the Indian Premier League, and therefore the feeling of awe and diffidence that might otherwise have characterised their entry into the Indian dressing-room no longer exists. Furthermore, while there might be legends in the making, there is no legend yet in the change room that was in the past populated by acknowledged giants such as Tendulkar and Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman, Kumble and Zaheer and Harbhajan.
Especially over the last year and a bit, special emphasis has been placed on knocking down barriers and demolishing the invisible walls that might have encouraged the compartmentalisation of the dressing-room. There is no senior and rookie. There is no erudite and rustic. There is no judging and nit-picking. Everyone is viewed through the same prism of positive light. The man whose name should not be uttered in the dressing-room has surely had a part to play in this, because this can’t have been an overnight process.
The induction of a host of fresh talent marked the successful home run last season. Those such as Jayant Yadav, Karun Nair and Kuldeep Yadav in Test cricket, and a host of others in the limited-overs versions, immediately took to the global stage, performing without inhibitions and unafraid to express their skills. Independent of whatever issues Kohli/the team – as we have been told– might have had with Anil Kumble, the captain and the head coach worked together to create an atmosphere of warmth and caring that immediately put the newcomers or the returning veterans – Gautam Gambhir, Parthiv Patel – at ease.
Great to be a part of this team, massive team effort for winning this series. Some really special performances, onto the ODIs now. ????✌️ pic.twitter.com/hvgQS7hzUi
— Virat Kohli (@imVkohli) August 14, 2017
Kohli has spoken on numerous occasions with justifiable pride about the culture of togetherness and team before self that percolates through the ranks. The performances of Kuldeep and Hardik Pandya have further vindicated the dressing-room stance of all-for-one and one-for-all. “Culture can only be built when everyone buys into it,” Kohli pointed out. “And the way that can happen is when you don’t have any judgements; people coming in and if you don’t look at them with a critical eye, watching everything they are doing and trying to pick on small things, I think that is something that we have gotten rid of totally.”
The skipper sometimes assumes a statesmanlike status at press conferences, and that quality was on view as he spoke of the impact Pandya has made on the Test stage in just three games. “People might have problems with the kind of demeanour he has or the belief he carries with himself, but we certainly in the team have no doubts on that,” he emphasised. “We let him be who he is, we let him express himself. All doubts aside from the outside, inside the team we absolutely have 120% faith in him.”
It is this faith, and the affirmation of the faith both in private and public, that has encouraged even a debutant to carry the mindset of a seasoned campaigner to the middle. It helps too, like Kohli pointed out, that the players are actually friends, even if occasionally, they are in the race for the same spot in the team.
“In this team, we are more like a bunch of friends playing together rather than a senior or a junior,” the captain iterated. “We don’t even think of the number of games an X has played or a Y has played within the change room. It is all about who you see every day. You can joke around with anyone inside the group and that is something that makes me feel proud of this particular unit. The way we have embraced each other and accepted each other with our different personalities and individuality, that is the reason why people coming in feel like they don’t have to do anything different from what they know already. It gives them an opportunity to go out there and believe in themselves and you never know. If you keep the environment like that, then people will take lesser time to go out there and become mature cricketers because they don’t feel any pressure from the group itself. That is something we all are proud of because we have been able to create that together.”
The emphatic and unparalleled 3-0 sweep against Sri Lanka must have been celebrated together – as it should be, of course – with the rider that the result only means that much. With due respect to floundering Sri Lanka, far tougher challenges lie ahead in the next 18 months or so. It is more than possible that a few results will then start going against Kohli’s band of brothers. That’s when the bonds of faith will be truly tested