Smog and pollution have temporarily taken the backseat. For now, it is all about swagger and domination, with the country’s capital offering the platform for Virat Kohli and his currently all-conquering band to draw abreast of Australia for the most successive Test series wins on the trot.
India are currently sitting on an eight-series streak, dating back to September 2015 when they conquered Sri Lanka in their own backyard. A draw will suffice for them – India will, however, hardly be thinking ‘draw’ – to gobble up this series too and make it nine in a row, like the Aussies had done between 2005 and 2008. It is difficult to imagine that the well-informed captain and his mates will be unaware of this statistic, though that is not to say that it will serve as any deep, compelling motivation beyond the normal.
On the evidence of the fare they have dished out on tour thus far – apart from when India batted first in Kolkata in extreme conditions – Sri Lanka will have to up their game several notches if they are to find the Kotla salubrious enough for them to rub shoulders with the home side on equal terms. This Sri Lankan outfit has been as much of a disappointment as was the team that was swatted aside 3-0 by the Indians in July-August in the teardrop island. It bears no resemblance to the spirited, inspired side that slayed Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates in early October. Negative mindset? Meekness? A resigned acceptance that India is a bridge too far? Take your pick.
One of the many strengths of a champion is to remain unaffected by what is happening on the other side of the court, in the other dressing-room, in the opposition ranks. Those driven enough to first want to get to the top and then to remain there focus inwards. The difference between the good and the great is that the former occasionally play to the level of their opponents, dragged down from time to time by the mediocrity of the opposition. The greats are ruthless and unforgiving and intimidating, forever striving to improve their skills, their composure, their attitude, their approach.
The numbers would suggest that this Indian side is on the cusp of greatness. An astonishing 21 wins and just two defeats in their last 29 Tests (taking the series win in Sri Lanka in 2015 as the starting point of this streak) is as stirring a testament as any. Some of these wins have come after being pushed to a corner, others have been attained with as much ease as international sport can afford. More often than not, India have found means and men to grab key moments. They have possessed the wherewithal to absorb pressure, to roll with the punches, and then to fight back, savagely and without holding back.
History, however, is a very strict and unforgiving judge. Mahendra Singh Dhoni once famously remarked that in India, every compliment is followed by a ‘but’. It isn’t just India, Indian cricket fans or the Indian cricket media that does so, of course. As human beings, we are very grudging in our appreciation of others. In saying that, it must be acknowledged that us Indians are more generous in our praise of our own people after the rest of the world has acclaimed and applauded them.
It has been driven into our consciousness that, as a cricket team, we are only worth our salt if we perform outside the subcontinent, in the tricky terrains of England and Australia, in the seaming cauldrons of South Africa and New Zealand (the Caribbean is no longer the challenge it was – both the playing standards and the pace of the pitches have dropped alarmingly). Consequently, whether Kohli and Co. like it or not, they will be judged by what they do over the next year and a quarter, in South Africa first, then England, finally Australia.
Surprising, however, that the same yardstick isn’t applied to teams that travel to the subcontinent. When Australia or England or South Africa are brought to their knees in India, victories are dismissed as having been strung together on designer dustbowls. Not a word on the lack of technique of the visiting batsmen, the lack of skills of the touring bowlers. Kumble and Ashwin and Harbhajan are held up as examples of having modest overseas records, but the Andersons aren’t held to like scrutiny. As Cameron Bancroft would say, ‘weird’.
Which does bring us to a reasonably unique and extremely interesting conundrum involving Ajinkya Rahane. Post the Kotla game against Sri Lanka, India won’t play a Test at home for at least another 10 months, so it might appear moot to discuss this now. And India’s Test vice-captain must be thankful for that.
Rahane is one of those rare batsmen in world cricket who has performed far, far better overseas. He has obviously been brought up on Indian pitches and therefore should be more comfortable on the slower surfaces than the more spicy, more demanding decks away, yet he averages significantly less (35.64) in India compared to on foreign shores (53.44). An almost 18-point difference is staggering, and it isn’t as if the database is unremarkable. Rahane has played 24 Tests overseas for 1817 runs, with centuries in New Zealand, England, Australia, the Caribbean and Sri Lanka (two). In India, 18 Tests have yielded 998 runs with only three centuries. Since his 188 against New Zealand in Indore nearly 14 months back, he has just two half-centuries in his last 18 innings at home. Clearly, Rahane and home comforts are mutually exclusive.
It is debatable if any other batsman in this set-up would have been spared scrutiny (unimaginable, given his run, that Kohli will ever face this situation) had he stacked up a similar record. Yet, if Rahane has emerged largely unscathed, it is because he brings greater value than just runs; he is a wonderful catcher at slip to the spinners and at gully to the faster bowlers, he brings a calmness to decision-making when it is crunch DRS time, and his reading of the game is excellent. Especially with Dhoni lost to Test cricket forever, he is the one Kohli turns to for counsel and guidance, and when you are winning as much as India are, it is perhaps perfectly acceptable to have one under-achieving batsman even if often, you are only playing five specialist batsmen.
Whether there is a case in future, should Rahane’s home record continue to remain middling, to merely consider him for overseas Tests is a topic for spirited debate. India have used/continue to use that yardstick for bowlers, especially spinners, in away contests. Is it cricket’s reputation as a batsman’s game that prevents the willow-wielders from being viewed through the same prism?