INDIAN CRICKET ON THE CUSP OF GREATNESS
One of the more peculiar traits of human beings is to judge a performer by what they did not do, rather than what they did. Roger Federer upped the standards of tennis and brought a consistency not seen since the days of Ivan Lendl. Peyton Manning set new benchmarks, albeit aided by favourable passing rules, in American football that many signal-callers of today struggle to match even though passing has become progressively easier by the year. Anil Kumble is one of only 3 bowlers to take more than 600 (in addition to 300+ wickets in ODIs) in test matches.
Despite such magnificent achievements, they are occasionally criticized for their shortcomings. Federer for his inability to beat Nadal on clay. Manning's struggles come January are immortalized as Manning Face. Jumbo's failure, as the premier bowler of the side, to step up in 50-50 matches (Wellington 98, Wanderers 97, Sydney 04, Newlands 2007 among others) that India could've/should've/would've won and his struggles away from India are as bizarro-legendary as his legendary record in India.
GOOD....VERY GOOD....VERY VERY GOOD BUT NOT GREAT
The mid-to-late 1980s Pakistan were an fine side. Rob Smyth makes a fine case for them being one of the great test teams. Imran Khan's regal 10/77 in Headingley gave them their first ever series win in England. All of Gavaskar's craftiness and virtuosity, in his two hundred and fourteenth and final test innings, was evinced on a snake pit of a pitch in Bangalore but it wasn't enough to prevent Pakistan from winning their first test in India after 35 years and with it their first ever series in the den of the ol' enemy. They were the only team to win a test match in the Caribbean seas in the entirety of the 1980s. They carried the form through to win the first ever white ball World Cup giving their greatest cricketer the greatest farewell.
The 90s South Africa were another terrific side. Blessed with gifted bowling and solid batting, they hardly missed a beat when they returned to test cricket after 22 years. They drew back to back series against an exceptionally strong and extremely underrated early-to-mid 90s Australian side. They were one of only 3 teams, West Indies in 1994 and Pakistan in 1999 were the others, to win a "live test" (non-dead rubber test) in India in the 1990s. The Proteas also defeated Pakistan in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka. They were competing as equals or better on the subcontinent where even Australia struggled to resist the famed dust bowl grind.
Both teams could be called very very good but not great. Pakistan failed to beat Australia in Australia or New Zealand in New Zealand. Their 1993 tour of West Indies was the unofficial World championship; Pace vs Pace. After a first day that saw 17 wickets fall, West Indies annihilated Pakistan 2-0 with Desmond Haynes turning back the clock scoring two wonderful 100s against the twin Ws. Similarly, South Africa formed a mental block against Australia and lost two winnable series against their arch-rivals. They were the best side in both the 1996 and 1999 World cups and somehow contrived to lose to a Brian Lara Nelson (arrogantly dropping Allan Donald for the QF) and a Jana Novotnaesque (RIP) choke in Edgbaston.
Pakistan had all the ingredients to leave the West Indies, who weren't as good as they are thought to be, behind as did South Africa when Australia were in a Taylor/Waugh quasi-transition period. Neither side took their opportunities to write themselves in history as great sides like Lloyd's West Indies or Waugh's Australia. Virat Kohli's India have the golden opportunity to separate themselves from Imran's Pakistan or Cronje's South Africa and propel themselves into the discussion of the great test sides in test history. If not Lloyd's West Indies or Waugh's Australia, at least mid-70s Chappell's Australia or mid-60s Sobers' West Indies*.
After the 2015 World cup, India have played 30 tests, won 21, drawn 7 and lost just 2 tests. They are currently in the process of winning their 15th test of the last 19. That is world class domination by any stretch of imagination. As ever there are caveats. India have played all but 4 tests in the subcontinent and even those 4 were against a poor West Indies side in permanent decline. The moment Kohli's men faced a world class attack (Australia), they had to work overtime and needed every sinew to eke out a series victory. The flip side of this argument would be that the Australia series came at the end of a long home season and fatigue played a role in the rare lapse.
STATE OF FLUX
India tour South Africa in January, England in the summer and Australia next winter. All of the three sides have huge question marks of their preferred first XI.
South Africa are feeling the after effects of losing the core of their best side since readmission (Kallis, Smith, Boucher, Steyn, Amla, AB de Villiers) either to retirements or injuries/form. Hashim Amla is not in good nick. He averages just 37.77 against the top test teams since South Africa's tour of India in 2015. AB de Villiers has not played a test match for nearly two years. Bavuma is a gritty cricketer but averages just 32.83. De Kock had a terrible time in England but is fine otherwise.
Steyn has played just 3 tests in the last 2 years and there are question marks about his fitness. Philander is another fine bowler with doubts of full fitness. Rabada, clearly very talented, is still learning the tricks of the trade. Morkel has never been a strike bowler like the rest, always playing the Statham to Steyn's/Philander's Trueman. Keshav Maharaj bowled really well in Australia and England but he might just find the Indian batsmen a whole new kettle of fish.
The English batting is in transition almost since the last Ashes. Other than Cook and Root their top 5 is the most unsettled. Cook averages 51 in England since the summer of 2015 but just 35.17 against the two best bowling sides: South Africa and Australia, with no 100s. Root scores the prettiest 50s and has a massive 50 to 100 conversion problem. They have been repeatedly bailed out by their lower order of Stokes, Bairstow and Moeen. The trio have been outstanding for England given the fact that they are repeatedly put under heavy pressure by their brittle top-order.
Their bowling is led by old warhorses Broad and Anderson supported by a 3rd seamer (Woakes, Finn, Roland-Jones etc) and Ben Stokes. Moeen Ali has had exactly two successful bowling series since his debut: India in 2014 and South Africa earlier this year. He depends on the pressure put by the rest of the attack to pick up his wickets. Under English conditions, this is probably the best attack but Anderson will be 36 in the summer and Broad 32. The fall in the 30s is almost always sudden for a sportsman. Nearly 38 year old SRT looked at least 10 years younger at the 2011 World cup but his loss of form post-World cup was precipitous. Anderson is fit as any 35-36 year old can be but the strain of 134 tests cannot be ignored.
Australia will be the toughest assignment of the three tours as they are the most solid of the trio. Having said that, there are chinks in the Aussie batting armour that can be exploited. Their top 5 is only slightly less unsettled than England's. Only David Warner and Steve Smith are sureties. The rest of the positions are as about as assured as a pimple-faced horny teenager's decisions. Keep Warner and Skipper Steve quiet and the series can be played on India's terms. Easier said than done though.
The Aussie bowling is the best in the world. In Hazlewood, Starc and Cummins, they have a terrific bowling of pace, swing, seam and control. Nathan Lyon plays the role of the support spinner with aplomb, always keeping things tight and sneaking the occasional snorter in. They have a couple of decent options in Pattinson and Bird. Although excellent, neither Starc nor Cummins is the iron man that McGrath was. They have rarely played a full series and we know not what the teams could be come the Aussie summer of 2017-18.
India's core is experienced and settled. They are between the ages of 27-32 which are typically golden years of a cricketer. Vijay is a technically sound opener. Pujara had a bit of a rough time in England and Australia but scored a fine 153 against Steyn & Co in Jo'burg. Rahane has struggled in the home stretch but has scored runs all over the world, often under heavy strife. The lower order of Saha, Ashwin and Jadeja has made steady contributions from time to time.
Kohli is in the form of his life and will be aching to fix his record in England. He is the mala leche (literally bad milk), a term Spanish futbol lovers use to describe the player who would do anything, legal or otherwise, to win. Has there been any Indian cricketer who has wanted to win as badly as Kohli? He is the most ruthless captain India have ever had. A past Indian side would have taken it easy against New Zealand, Sri Lanka or England after the series was won but Kohli refused to take the foot off the gas.
The fast bowling quartet (Ishant, Shami, Bhuvi, Umesh) is probably the deepest India have had since the early 00s. As a long-suffering Indian cricket fan from the Nightmare 90s, it was a sight to behold when Umesh & Bhuvi had David Warner, who averages nearly 58 against Steyn & Co in bouncy South Africa & Australia, in sixes & sevens at Dharamsala. Ashwin and Jadeja have been terrifying in the favourable home conditions and they will be itching to fix their away records. Ashwin especially would want to put away the disappointment of the Wanderers test of 2013.
From the evidence laid out above, it is clear that India have the right combination to fix their long standing away woes. We may have had better batting or bowling or both earlier at different points in our history but never have we been in this current position of strength. A position where we are the most solid and settled side and the other teams have many structural problems and issues of their own.
A pessimist would say a lot can go wrong over a year. England after a fine 2004, when they were undefeated and won 11 of 13 tests, upended Australia the following summer. A 2-0 drubbing by Pakistan ensued and England slumped, culminating in the first ever Ashes whitewash for nearly 86 years. Something similar could happen to India. India also have a history of letting badly out of form players come into form. The long winded (& completely useless) IPL can be mentally tiring just before a long 5 test series in England. Players can lose form, be injured etc.
That is all true. It is hard for the Indian cricket fan to believe that their team is going succeed away from home when the facts are against them for nearly the entirety of India's cricket history. When the Big Five of Sachin, Viru, Rahul, Dada & VVS couldn't sustain it what chance do Vijay, Pujara, Kohli & Rahane have? But as Andy told Red, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." We must hope. Hope that our batting comes good in tough bowling conditions. Hope our potentially great pace attack adjusts its lengths to get the best out of juicy wickets. Hope our current spin twins do not suffer from the away yips like the previous spin twins (Jumbo & Bhajji) did. It is time we shed our negativity and pessimism that has existed throughout our cricketing history and start thinking positively. This is, after all, a New India.
KEEP CALM & CHUM JETZE!!!! 💪💪💪
* - This is not to say Kohli's India will defeat Chappell's Australia or Sobers' West Indies in a hypothetical contest. It is purely going by numbers. Nothing less, nothing more.