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Home / Opinion / Indian cricket team in South Africa (2018): Coming of age

Indian cricket team in South Africa (2018): Coming of age

The ideas expressed in this article were formulated after India, as world number one Test team, crumbled into a heap against super-fast bowling of six feet five rookie speedster named Lungi Ngidi on 17th January,2018 in the second Test at Centurion, BY Sushil Kumar, senior IAS officer.

He took six wickets, in the secondinnings,of his very maiden Test after ‘Stengun’ Steyn got injured in first Test. India’s successive loss (it lost first Test at Cape Town) aroused déjà vu images and experience of capitulating submissively on overseas fast and bouncy pitches. And familiar tag of Indian team being tigers at home and minnows abroad arose again (except Kohli and Pandya hardly anyone was able to face the fiery fast bowling). The ghosts of last overseas tours of England(2011) and Australia 2011-12, when India were white-washed 4-0, seemed to re –appear in everyone’s minds. Impending loss in third Test at Johannesburg and with that 3-0 whitewash by South Africa was taken as foregone conclusion by all. Going by what transpired in the first two Tests in South Africa, drafts of familiar postscripts, after the Third Test at Wanderers, for pasting the team as well on papers, were prepared.

One could fuzzily feel the familiar initiation ceremony, concluding career of captain courageous Kohli,commence in cricket columns and studio chat rooms where commenting, in the comforts of air conditioned glass houses, is far removed heat and dust of the cricket field. It was a surrealisticdejavu for someone breathing cricket virtually with each breath for over forty-fiveyears. If there was a metaphorical similarity, it was this: Indian team fared well at home and were toast of the town; Indian team fared poorly abroad and on return had to take cover to prevent from being torn to pieces, in media and sometimes even otherwise. Even Ajit Wadekar and Kapil Dev had to face the fickle mindedness of men despite, bringing unparalleled laurels for the country. Under them, Indian team had unexpectedly won overseas series against New Zealand (1968) and West Indies and England in 1971 and the World Cup in 1983.

Immediately, after the loss in the second Test, misgivings and murmurs about team’s well known vulnerability in playing overseas started surfacing. My memories similarly moved to how the beginning of an end began, for once invincible Dhoni, once he lost series 4-0 to England, along with status of world’s number one Test team. And hauling over hot coals ofcaptain Dhoni began and with further 4-0 whitewash in Australia, his status as captain cool started sliding. Though Dhoni recovered some of his tattered reputation by beating Australiateam 4-0 in India(2003series)andreturning the favour to Australia, questions about his ability as Test captain surfaced without ceasing.

Despite the first time record of beating any team 4-0 in any series when he beat Australia in India, doubting Thomases still persevered with persistent questioning that drove Dhoni into surrendering the Test captaincy in December,2014(after losing first two Tests in Australia). This loss was preceded by 3-1 loss during summer tour to England (2014). Celebrated world over for his spectacular stoical temperament and equanimity in trying tempests of a Test arena, one also witnessed the ultimate captain cool lost cool in a press interview. On being pestered with persistent questioning about his finalretirement from T20 and One Day tournaments, he quite un-characteristicallycalled thereporter by his side todiscuss his running and fitness levels. Dhoni ended up showing his human side and feet of clay when his iconic icy demeanour started showing signs of disintegration.

Sunil Gavaskar once said that handling Indian captaincy is one of the toughest job in the world, as a single individual carries the hopes and aspirations of over one billion people.The Indian fan’s support can be as fickle as the box office fate for Bollywood films where last film fixes the fame and fortune. Indian cricket fan following fluctuates wildly, matching famous maxim of cricket being a game of glorious uncertainties.

Just for placing the matter into perspective, nearly all captains including Wadekar,Pataudi,Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar and Dhoni were placed on Mount Olympus by press and people alike when they achieved the impossible at one point or the other. And virtually all of them also faced wrath of Indian fan and critics when they lost some matches and their glories were given immediate burial in graveyard of past achievements. Nearly all of them faced ignominy of seeing their effigies being burnt, garlanding of their images by footwear, shouting, jeering and abuse at airports,brick batting at residences etc. (last being Dhoni’s house at Ranchi). On seeing such events, one is sure,they would have wondered whether they were witnessing a dream sequence, either earlier or now. Pakistan cricketers also share similar fate and are often seen being escorted back through back doors at airports when they lose badly specially against India.

Going by extreme sentimentalism seen in the press columns and commentary after the loss in South Africa, I fearedthat same fate may befall Kohli on return and it was too early for him to be confronted with such circumstances. And a beautiful bud and bundle of talent would be crushed even before its potential reaches full bloom. One recalled how Sachin Tendulkar had been affected badly, leading to his surrendering the mantle of captaincy for good. One felt obligated to inform the Indian fan that despite losing the first too Tests , there was much to celebrate and that there was much more to see than mere proverbial silver lining [1]. And that if observed closely, this Indian team had indeed come of age and their performance indeed represented a quantum jump in world cricket and subsequent results can only be spectacular.

Please consider why I consider that this Indian team had come of age despite losing the first two Tests:

· For very first time, though Indian team had lost first two Tests, it wasn’t anywhere near an abject surrender nor the performance symbolized an uneven fight between a David and Goliath. India, throughout ten days of play, didn’t flinch or blink in returning the stare, in an eyeball to eyeball contest at all. Just recall the series of 1996-97 in South Africa when Indian batsmen were battered by short pitch bowling and lost 2-0. Only resolute Rahul Dravid often remained as the last man standing despite both ‘bodyline’ ball bombardment and verbal assault by the ‘White Lightening’. For me, that series was a virtual replay of Test series against West Indies in 1976 when Indian team faced fearsome pacers (Holding, Roberts, Daniel) bowling furiously at frightened batsmen and breaking not only wicket but their will and spirit. Mohinder Amarnath’s resolute resistance during that tour was virtual preview of Rahul Dravid performance in South Africa in 1996-97 tour (one can also say vice versa).

· It was only during the first two Test matches, on this tour,that Indian team as a complete unit, not one or two individuals, managed to reflect its transformed mind -set of playing positively, not defensively – latter, a common character trait borne by all previous Indian teams during their overseas tour. Remember, basically it was Dhoni’s demonstration of defensive tactics during overseas tours of England and Australia (2014) that were determined disastrous, leading his downfall as Test captain. The defensive tactics and techniques have been dominant characteristics of Indian Test team touring overseas tours, in all the period post fifties even when India won against England 2-0 in 1986 under Kapil Dev and squared the series at 1-1 under Sourav Ganguly against Australia during 2003-4. Thus, for the first time, the mind set and body language of the team has been of an equal contender during an overseas tour- mirroring similar effort by Indian team against Australia during 2003-4 when India came pretty close to winning series on last day in the last Test (saved by Steve Waugh playing a captain’s innings).

· It is alsopossibly firsttime that the Indian team members weren’t intimidated by advance talk of opposition making Indian team face ‘chin music’ – much like Steve Waugh and Ponting would spur Glen McGrath or someone to do some bit of advanced sledging before arrival of the Indians. At times, even England team talked of Indian team’s vulnerability to seam and swing bowling in England. Of course, one must state that earlier South African captains like Kepler Wessels, Hansie Cronje, Graeme Smith and even Faf Du Plessis have been somewhat more respectful towards Indians.

· It was first time that the Indian team didn’t neither plan or depend on main arsenal of spin bowlers to bowl out the opposition; so much so, in the final Test, only four pacers were picked and the usual ubiquitous spinner was completely left out.This was a rarity for the Indian team.

After 1971 overseas series successes in West Indies and England, reliance on spin bowling has been the main strategy to win the Tests by India. For decades, medium pacers like Abid Ali, Karsan Ghavri, Eknath Solkar were given one or two opening overs, more to take off the shine somewhat than to take wickets. Even when Kapil Dev and later Srinath were in the team, Indian team basically relied on a couple of spinners to win. Must remember that even Sri Lanka hit big time relying only on the spinning wizardy of master Muralitharan. It was only Pakistan that had produced quality pacers that the cricketing world noticed and were responsible for some surprise victories against the strongest world teams. Once Waqar Younis was rated as the fastest pacers and in-swinging toe crushing yorkers were considered unplayable.

· For long, reliance on spin and absence of quality pacers defined the Indian team. I remember how haughtily Imran Khan declared during 1987 tour of India that India didn’t have the bowling attack to bowl out better teams twice in Testsand thenbeat India in India 1-0. This remained true for long and for protracted periods as Indian teams dominated domestically on home pitches suited for spin. Of course, players like Kapil Dev and Sunny Gavaskar periodically asked for preparing sporty pitches for Tests to bring back the spectators that had begun to discard Tests for one day internationals. But whenever pitches with some green top (like in 2004 at Nagpur against Aussies in a decider with allegations by Hayden of Ganguly and Harbhajan deliberately dropping out ; against Sri Lanka in 2017 at Eden Gardens where Indian batsmen collapsed in first innings though recovered in second ) led to prompt familiar folding of Indian batsmen, ex-players including Gavaskar argued that India must prepare pitches suited for its strength of spin , much like bouncy, pacy pitches are prepared by Australia, England and NZ . West Indies was not mentioned as its pitches had somewhat slowed over the years and is perhaps the main reason for not producing pace battery of the yore (depicted in the film titled Fire in Babylon- a film recommended for all to see).

· Please don’t miss the major detail of the first two Tests: it is true that India despite its famed batting line up couldn’t couldn’t rise up to the challenge of overhauling gettable goals in both Tests this time, yet they passionately competed till the final day and were in genuine hunt to win till collapse of middle order- bringing up ghosts of similar deeds in the past (like failing to get even 120 at Barbados against the West Indies in 1997 that would have won them first Test since 1976). One thought that India, touted as best batting line, would pullthrough and win both the Tests but the batting only clicked in patches. And also note that even South Africa had struggled to put runs on the board in their first two Tests.

· Please also remember that it may be the only time in all overseas tours so far, that India lost the matches only on the final day and in both Tests India was always in play and mostly lost the game in final sessions. Indians weren’t outplayed in first four days as they were in most Tests lost in overseas tours of the past.

· It was the first time that the opposition didn’t consider Indian as a weak team that could be steamrolled into submission – a tag that it had to live with ever since they started playing Test cricket. In fact, before their surprise overseas victories in 1971(even earlier one against New Zealand in 1968 with 3-1), Indian team was rated in the same way as Sri Lanka team was rated till Ranatunga came along and Bangladesh has been treated up to a year or two before.

· And for the first time in Tests that India pacers primarily accounted for taking major proportion of forty wickets[2] ( except 7 by Ashwin). Hope, the world, and specially Imran Khan, has taken note that for the first time Indian bowlers bowled out the opposite team in both innings of all two Tests(later three Tests). – a feat that India came close to but was not able to close for victory few times (like against Australia in 2003-4).

· It was also the first time that India took to the Test arena backed primarily by pacers and even had the unfamiliar luxury of being backed by a bench strength that enabled it to bench even Bhuvneshwar Kumar in the second Test. Not only that,Muhammand Sami, Pandya, Bhuvneshwarand Jasprit Bumrah regularly bowled at speeds exceeding 140km/h- a feat not seen by South African spectators. It was a rarity to see India see the pacers hunt in pairs (much like successful Test teams like West Indies, Aussies and Pakistani did). It seemed like that fundamental change in Indian think tank’s strategic planning had occurred in planning and resorting to giving back the taste of same medicine ( pace) to the opposition[3].

· For the first time too,perhaps it was the bowling alone that brought India back into the game from the losing position to a position of contention in all the Tests – even when its famed batting flopped.

· One could see that this team, and Indian fan, has finally buried the ghosts and fearof facing not only short pitched bowling /bouncers but it also fully answered the questions about susceptibility of facing balls rising beyond thigh high. In fact, Indians not only faced such balls but negotiated balls rising even up to the shoulder height. And when they fell to ‘Surra’ or sudden rising balls, their plight was similar to the opposition and performancesof both Teams will show of similar percentages of susceptibility.

· Indian’s ground fielding is now beginning to approximate high world class standards, though its fielders still have a way to catch up with catches as they missed many. It’s no consolation that even SA showed sloppy fielding in the third Test.

· The fitness levels of most Indian players are also approximating high international standards. The beginnings of this aspect were made during Dhoni’s reign but benchmark set by Kohli that has made the difference; and difference shows in all round visibility of low body fat on visages and bodies of all players including Ashwin, Umesh Yadav, Kuldeep Yadav et al.

· This series has raised the stature of captain Kohli and now he ranks amongst the greats that have graced this game. In fact, the challenge of captaincy has made him a better player and has shown improved capacity to handle pressures of the captaincy. Please remember that the nature of such a high pressure job had led to both Sachin and Rahul Dravid give up captaincy to concentrate on their batting. And for that reason Kohli is proving to be character from different league, as he is shaping in Steve Waugh category for bringing out the best for country; his record has tremendously improved after becoming thecaptain and is rated no less a batsman than Sachin now and Gavaskar is already talking of his matching 100 centuries of centuries.

· The running by Indians between wickets in Tests was vastly superior to previous performances and the team was following the benchmark set by players like Dhoni and Kohli in the one day internationals. This has been a remarkable change even though slow runners like Pujara are still making improvements. What matters is that benchmark is constantly being boosted up. Please note that slow runners like Rohit Sharma are subject of ridicule – much like Inzamam-ul-Haq was famed for running out nearly all partners in the Pakistan team of the yore.

· Though Indian team stands accused of showing consistent vulnerability against fast bowling blasted of bouncy and pacy pitches but just consider this: India’s last overseas tour to South Africa was in 2014 (i.e. after over 1000 days). And for a team that plays 365 days a year on continental pitches(derisively called dustbowl by detractors), expecting itto compete at an equal level is a bit too much to ask. It’s virtually the same if one expects Australian, English and New Zealand teams to master spin and ‘doosras’ on the dusty pitches of the sub-continent. Remember Australia got favour of 4-0 loss in Australia returned by Dhoni in India and that India had remained as ‘last frontier’ for decades till Aussies won the series in 2004-5.

· So, to contend competitively against South Africa this time, despite not having practice matches, is a phenomenal performance despite losing the series. The team showed tremendous character and plenty of guts and gumption to get some glory. And this was duly acknowledged by captain Faf Plessis stating the India played like a world number one Test team and gave the team a run for their money in competing.

· Possibly it was the first time that the famed long Indian tail actually wagged and contributed. For long years, most Indian fans wondered as to why after six wickets were lost, India’s lower order could not contribute in the manner of Aussies, English and others.

· The bonding visible amongst Indian players is reminiscent of bonding shown by the Australian players when they reached the pinnacle of Test and One-day glory under Steve Waugh and Ponting. Like them, all Indian players play out the familiar soundbites by stating that all players enjoyeach other’s success in making Indian team great and every players wants to stand up and be counted whenever chips are down.

· Kohli’s captaincy is about confidence personified, sometimes bordering oncockiness usually associated with Aussies and English teams. His aggressiveness and playing to win is rubbing on all the team mates; gone are the defensive Karpovian style of play and come the Kasparovian style of risk taking and playing to win. As stated, Dhoni was squarely criticized for his defensive/ reactive and not proactive style of play against the Aussies and English. Perhaps Kohli was listening to those comments and we have captain in the mould of Imran Khan, Steve Waugh, Ponting and VivRichards(of post independent era).

· For the first time, Indian fan would have felt elated in giving teams like South Africa a taste of their own medicine and to see their batsmen duck, dodge and take body/ head blows against some Indian Expresses coming their ways. Though Kapil, Srinath and others pitched occasional bouncers, this time the aggressive attack from Indians was surprisingly persistent. Seems like finallythe Dennis Lillee Pace Academy is showing results as not only India had resorted to four pacers in a Test but were spoilt for choice in selection – a facility usually available to Aussies, English and West Indies.

· Universally, in sports, people like to see a contest; they don’t like one-way whitewash,like they did in post-colonial era Test series and one day tournaments including the World Cup. It is well known that if the contest is evenly matched and adorned by colourful characters, public involvement, interest and profits are far greater. No wonder series involving rivalries between Aussie-NZ, Australia- England, Indo-Pak are followed by passionate fans. Though India may have lost this series in South Africa, one loved the way Indian team contested, competed and contended and didn’t capitulate without a fight. This was a great takeaway.[4]

· Indian sports story is not spectacular as it struggles to get medals in Olympics (only one individual gold in shooting though several have been won in hockey). After persistent efforts lasting decades,it is only in cricket that it counts amongst the best and can give a run for money to the top teams. Its only recently that Indian badminton has started coming of age. In tennis, it has only broken through to win doubles and mixed doubles in Grand Slam. But in these sports, the fan following is still limited to urban areas. Only cricket is followed all across India and by all social segments. It is famously stated that all Indians are obsessed with cricket and films.

· The Test series turned out to be a great advertisement for Test matches and confirmed once again that this genre will live on forever. The series had all the ingredients of this genre: glorious turns and twists with each and every match swinging from one side to another; colourful and flamboyant characters of Pandya, Kohli, Rabada, De Villiers, display of grit and character as well as technique, character, temperament shown by players like Elgar, Plessis, Kohli, Pujara, Rabada, Bumrah etc.

· As stated,only Australia has won test series in South Africa and latter enjoys a reputation similar to India- of being almost impossible to beat on home soil. We can judge how poorly sub-continent teams fare on pacy and bouncy South Africa pitches as they were white washed 3-0 by South African team in 2016-17(all three Tests were lost by huge margins). Even Bangladesh lost 2-0 Test series in 2017.

· For the first time too, the Indians didn’t pass any comment about the quality of the pitches or reliance on short pitched bowling on tail lenders like Bumrah and Ishant[5] and faced the opposition without blaming the food, climate, match practice etc.

· Perhaps for the first time, no team complained about crossing the line while playing (though Kohli was fined for exaggerated celebration in second Test) This has much to do with sharing of rooms and bonding and comraderies fostered by players playing and sharing while playing in the IPL.

After discussing the above, one must state that, the above observations are derived from what happened in South Africa during the Test series. The bigger challenge is awaiting them in their next tour of Australia in coming months. If the team continues to consolidate on the positives posted above, one can safely say that Aussies have some challenge coming their way and Indians are expected to do better than England did in recent Ashes series where they lost 4-0. Am sure Steve Smith is seeing and has his job cut out in not only matching the performance with the Indian team only but with the Indian captain. Cut to Australia next. Good luck to Indian team.

[1]And that one should await the outcome of the final Test. This proved prophetic as India did win the third Test and lost series 2-1 and not 3-0 as was predicted after the second Test and earned all round praise for their performance showing plenty of grit and character.

[2]First time in overseas series victory India bowled out the opposition in all Tests played and that too primarily with pace attack (India took all sixty wickets in three Tests)

[3]For ages, the face and sight of D. Elgar throwing the bat after being banged with bouncer on the final day of final Test would remained etched in Indians’ memory.

[4]Though India lost the series, the rivalry between South Africa and India has a potential to become a regular feature- much like Gavaskar – Border trophy series have become after India started giving tough competition to Australia.

[5]It was fantastic to see Indian team not behaving like weak hearted and sissy when it faced full onslaught of pace bowling on pitch considered unsuitable for playing by commentators like Mike Holding. In fact, it was the host team which didn’t want to play on fearing the hidden dangers lurking in the pitch. One had not experienced this sort of reaction from the Indian team.

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