In December 2013, a young Indian team set out for the tour of South Africa under the cloud of Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement. It was the start of a new chapter in our nation’s rich cricket history. But for the team management it was only a process, one wherein the players of this young team needed to gain vital experience. It was the same in New Zealand, and then in England, and later in Australia.
You can count on your fingers the number of times this spunky team came close to victory – Johannesburg, Auckland, Wellington and Adelaide. They were able to cross the finish line only on one occasion – Lord’s. There was a growing sense of frustration, both within the team and outside, with this inability to make the advantageous position count.
To top it all, they lost steam and lost matches in situations that they shouldn’t have. Three of those – Durban, Auckland and Adelaide – were such losses. Thereafter, you can also add Southampton and Manchester to the list. If this process was about learning how to win, it was coming at a very steep cost.
At this juncture, it is important to underline those ten days between the 3rd and 4th Tests in Australia. From Melbourne to Sydney, from the grandeur of the MCG to the romance of the SCG, Indian Test captaincy changed hands. Permanently.
That last word – ‘permanently’ – is of utmost weight here, because Virat Kohli had led India in Adelaide and almost won the match on the weight of his bat alone. In Sydney, he learnt that doing so is not always easy. In that fourth Test, in the final session on day four, on a placid wicket, India’s bowlers gave away 200-plus runs in one session. Test matches are lost for a lot less!
Kohli learnt in his ‘first Test’ in-charge that he needed a good bowling attack, and nothing his batsmen did could earn him twenty wickets otherwise. Thus began the talk of aggression. But how do you define this word really, in the context of this young team?
No, aggression isn’t about antics on the match field and getting banned subsequently. Much has been said about Ishant Sharma in light of his one-Test ban for the South Africa series. Where was it coming from? The team management, yes, but it is too much to assume that they asked him to act in that manner.
Instead, they asked him to be attacking at all times, even rile up the batsmen on certain occasions. This is what Kohli – and team director Ravi Shastri – spoke about in media conferences as well. If Ishant got carried away, then that is on his personal account and suspension is the most apt way of reining in such behaviour. On the management’s part, they also need to make sure that the bowler (or others even) does not repeat such mistakes.
Even so, in light of this incident in which Lankan players were involved and punished as well, the underlying point must not be lost. The Indian team played good cricket, aimed at one purpose, winning. They batted and bowled keeping that single purpose in mind. They made mistakes, and they learnt, in a short time-span.
Time is of the essence, always, and this message shouldn’t be lost just because it is a three-match series. One of the most vital aspects of this Indian team is that they want to play with five bowlers at all times. But if a particular player isn’t doing the job properly, how soon should he be replaced? This is not to say that Harbhajan Singh is to blame for the defeat in Galle, even though twice India lost momentum in that match during his spells in both innings.
In contrast, Stuart Binny was a revelation in the remaining two Tests. He didn’t give away runs, held a tight line that got him wickets as well, and most of all he made the captain’s ploy of shorter spells work. The other spinners R Ashwin and Amit Mishra too adapted to this plan, but Bhajji is an old-timer, used to getting into rhythm over long spells. It just didn’t work with him, never mind his form, and the key was identifying this flaw and moving on.
The batsmen, in the meantime, rectified their mistakes too. In the next two Tests, they didn’t allow the Lankan spinners to get into an advantageous position, and always looked to score against them. Ajinkya Rahane, batting at number three, did a fine job in the second innings at P Sara Oval, milking singles and doubles when boundaries dried up. Alternately, Rohit Sharma hit the spinners out of the attack at the SSC, on a pitch not suited to them.
In summation then: this was a team willing to learn their lessons quickly. In the past, and this is no judgment on leadership styles, such mistakes have been rectified over a period of time. To see that effort in a short turnaround period was baffling in one sense, and then to produce results, was heartwarming indeed. The boldness in stepping out of their comfort zone was staggering on the part of this young Indian team.
Playing the devil’s advocate, though, it has to be said that this Lankan side was perhaps its weakest in the last two decades, and made the job a little easier for the visitors.
The crux of the matter isn’t in results at the moment, though. It is in ending a learning phase, and starting one where results will be a possibility. It is in the end of one process, and the start of a new, bold one.