“For me the most successful tour was that of Australia. I keep saying that. It will hit you guys later. Somewhere down the line, two years down the line, you’ll know where I am coming from.”
So said Ravi Shastri, back in September 2015, when he was in his first stint with the Indian team.
Perhaps the defining day of that tour came exactly three years ago on this day. It was the fifth day of the first Test, and on the deciding day of his first match in charge of the Test team, Virat Kohli made a statement, faced heartbreak, and set a template. Opinion is still divided on whether the Kohli-fuelled India charge was the right tactic on the fifth day, whether a more conservative approach might have resulted in saving the Test.
It might have. Equally, if history is any indicator, India haven’t been the world champions of batting to save a Test. The what ifs of that December 13 day can be argued for eternity. The solid facts are that there was a new leader in charge and he decided to set a template, and did it in his own ‘take no backward step’ image. Three years later, India are the undisputed No. 1 in Test cricket, with such a large cushion built up that they are likely to retain that top spot, if by a thread, even if they are swept 3-0 away against South Africa.
Every cricketing era has ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ teams. Do we devalue the achievements of Clive Lloyd’s West Indians or Steve Waugh’s Australians because the opposition they came up against were all significantly weaker than them for the most part?
There is of course, a more than decent chance that India will not go down 3-0. They have the personnel to give a good fight, and a bowling attack that inspires perhaps more confidence than any that has travelled to South Africa. Even so, with a home team attack comprising Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel, South Africa will be looked at as the favourites. And if they do win, then there will be the familiar debates about whether India’s No. 1 rank is justified or not.
Already, the rumblings began when India’s batting line-up was tested on green, seaming pitches recently. First during a Test match in Kolkata, and then during an ODI in Dharamsala. That India’s batting line-up didn’t do well in either instance – in the first innings at the Eden Gardens only – is a fact. If similarly verdant surfaces are rolled out in South Africa, it will be another struggle and that too against a vastly superior bowling attack.
Where the logical leap becomes too much of a leap is in running down India’s other results because they struggled in conditions that were tailor-made for seamers. Most batting line-ups in the world would have struggled, and even most might be an understatement. India’s own seamers would have likely troubled any line-up if they had been given first use of those conditions. But that is immaterial. Even if India wouldn’t have troubled oppositions as much as they were subjected to, it is irrelevant in the rankings system.
True, India’s rankings has come largely on the back of a successful home season. Although there have been ‘away’ wins against Sri Lanka and Windies too. But the stick that has been used to beat India with is the ‘opponents are too weak’ one, or that the likes of Kohli and R Ashwin have picked up runs and wickets against inferior opposition.
It’s an argument that doesn’t make cricketing sense to me. Every cricketing era has ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ teams. Do we devalue the achievements of Clive Lloyd’s West Indians or Steve Waugh’s Australians because the opposition they came up against were all significantly weaker than them for the most part? Of course, this is not to compare the current Indian team with those two teams – who are unquestionably the greatest two in the past few decades since they won everywhere, against all comers, in all conditions. And for years together. Even if this Indian team wins its next three away tours in South Africa, England and Australia, it won’t have reached that level, though it will have gone higher than anyone else has apart from those two teams in the past four decades.
But even if it loses all three, the top rank it has in Test cricket at the moment, and the deeds achieved by the players are not in any way ‘lesser’. Against India, Sri Lanka may have been made to look like inferior opponents, but this team beat Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, something several more pedigreed sides had failed to do. All of South Africa, New Zealand, England and Australia were outclassed – some by bigger margins than others – when they came to India, and particularly for the latter three, it was on far from ‘designer’ pitches.
In short, it is still easier to win at home than away in world cricket – as it has been forever – but it still takes sustained effort to win a Test match, any Test match. And there will always be some teams that are stronger than others – it just so happens that India are in that position now, particularly at home, which might take some mental adjusting to if you’ve grown up watching Indian teams be largely middling. But that doesn’t devalue the present team’s achievement.
Whether that Australia tour Shastri referred to really did alter the team fundamentally or not can still be open to debate. Certainly, in the two years that Shastri referred to – one of which was helmed by Anil Kumble – the Indian team has gone from strength to strength.
And on the cusp of an away cycle, there is a sense of quiet confidence about the team that hasn’t always been there when India were embarking on tough away assignments. But whether the confidence translates into results or not will be secondary. For the here and now, the Indian team, and its players, have indeed earned the right to be called the best in the world, without disclaimers.