A journey to the Himalayas is as much about looking ahead as it is about reflecting. While the mountains that lie ahead urge you on, the hills and valleys you left behind beseech you to take a moment and see how far you have come. So, here stands the Indian team, in Dharamsala, in the last leg of an epic journey that began six months, 12 Tests and nearly 9000 cumulative air miles ago in Kanpur. One tall peak looms, the tallest of the season, and it has emerged rather unexpectedly. Not many fans and observers would have wagered this last lap of the home season to be anything more than a victory parade for the rampant hosts.
So went the supposition, Virat Kohli & Co., having the job done, would merely have to show up at the pagoda-styled venue to beat the already deflated Australians. And yet, defying all presumptions, Steve Smith and his men have kept the series burning, consequently we are hurtling towards the final match feeling the tingling of nervous excitement in our guts.
For the first time in the last 26 weeks, it seems the Indian team appears to gain less from a win than they stand to lose from a defeat or a draw. The spectre of the stinging ‘ghar-mein-hi-nahi-jeet-paye-to-bahar-kaise-jeetenge’ jibe lurks. But such judgments, ironic and unfair, omit the larger picture, that is how far India have traversed during this period.
Kohli, the leader
Though the process started in Adelaide 2014 when he stepped in for MS Dhoni, and gathered pace when he became the full-time Test captain, it’s over the course of the last six months that Kohli has shaped the team into seemingly a reflection of his own. Before the start of the Kanpur Test against New Zealand, he had spoken about instilling self-belief into the team.
“We believe we certainly have what it takes to be the best team in the world,” he had said. “We definitely believe that. One area we have tapped into is belief. It’s something that a lot of young players can lack coming into international cricket.More often than not if you’re fearless, the results will fall your way because you’re willing to take that extra risk in the course of the game. I certainly feel that this team has what it takes to be the best.”
The team bought into his vision as they steamrolled over New Zealand, England and Bangladesh. And even more than those wins, it perhaps was the unexpected setback in Pune against Australia that reinforced their faith in Kohli’s philosophy. He demanded more aggression from his team, and they responded. Ishant Sharma’s facial contortions resembled a smudged portrait. Even the mild-mannered Cheteshwar Pujara was constantly whispering in David Warner’s ears. Egged on by their captain, India became a team of 11 Kohlis on the field, and cheer-led by many more Kohlis in the stands. The Australians wilted.
Kohli’s captaincy hasn’t only been about aggression. Strategy-wise, too, he has been spot on. Well, mostly. His field placements have frustrated batsmen while bowling changes have almost always yielded wickets. The only time he looked not entirely on the ball was when he underutilised Ravindra Jadeja in Bangalore and then, in Ranchi, didn’t deploy Ravichandran Ashwin early enough on day five.
It is important to point out that both these instances are from this series where the home team has been a bit under the pump. Dharamsala will show if there is indeed a pattern here. Otherwise, 26 Tests into his captaincy career, Kohli is already the third most successful Indian skipper of all time. Perhaps the biggest endorsement to his leadership came midway through the season when his predecessor MS Dhoni ceded the limited-overs reins too to Kohli. But Kohli has been one half of the story.
Kumble, the mentor
To harness Kohli’s fire, India needed Kumble’s ice as a counterbalance. While one may suggest that Ashwin-Jadeja’s 145-wicket aggregate over the last 12 Tests is, to an extent, Kumble’s handiwork, it’s actually in the batsman Cheteshwar Pujara’s mountain of crucial runs that the India coach’s importance shines through. After the Kanpur Test, Kohli had said that he had asked Pujara to increase his strike rate. “Pujara is someone who absorbs the pressure really well but after a certain stage in the innings there comes a time when the team needs runs… It was just about conveying that to him,” Kohli had said in a press conference. Two days later, equally publicly, Kumble dismissed this emphasis on batting strike rates and added that Pujara brought a different, important quality to the fold.
“I’m a bit old-fashioned,” Kumble had opined in Kolkata. “I know there is a lot of emphasis on strike rate in the last eight years after the advent of T20. As far as I was playing, in Test cricket strike rates were mostly talked about for bowlers and not for batsmen. That’s how I like to look at it. In a team you need different characters, different quality players. Players whose skill sets are suited to different challenges that happen in a Test match. Because we’ve seen that that’s what happens in a Test match.”
It happened in Bangalore and Ranchi. In the second Test against Australia, Pujara dug India out of a hole with a patient 92 in the second innings, and in the next match, he batted the opposition out with a 525-ball 202. Unencumbered, thanks to his coach’s encouragement, Pujara even forced Kohli to change his opinion.
“Sometimes I really feel bad for him,” Kohli would say of India’s No.3 after Ranchi. “People don’t understand his importance so much in this team and what a valuable player he is for us. He is the most composed player we have in the team, he is willing to grind for his runs, he doesn’t mind batting under pressure, he likes to take the challenge of batting. So someone like that is priceless to have in the team. When the pressure situation comes up, he is someone who will put his hand up and play long for the team and hold up one end, which I think is a great quality in him…I don’t know the number of runs he has scored but he has contributed throughout. He has not been spoken about much or has been in the focus too much but he deserves much more than that. People need to stand up and take notice of what he has done this season.”
Kumble has also been a great resource manager. Ahead of the lengthy season, he had underlined the importance of identifying a large pool of players that could be relied on in the event of injuries and loss of form. He also laid down the principle that anyone who got injured had to go back to domestic cricket and prove fitness and form in order to be reconsidered. It was akin to, in a manner of speaking, scrapping a lal-batti culture in Indian cricket.
There were no more entitlements. As the season progressed, life came a full circle for Shikhar Dhawan, who had burst onto the scene when Australia last visited India, as he faded away from the scene. Meanwhile, Rohit Sharma, post his injury during the New Zealand series, doesn’t — to use a selectorial cliche — pick himself anymore. While loss of form and injuries are personal misfortunes, it is progress that they haven’t been missed. In fact, no one has seemed indispensable as their replacements have stepped up to the plate. It’s a sign of evolution of Indian cricket.
Test cricket, the gainer
The reports of its slow death have been exaggerated, for on the evidence of these six months, it’s here to stay. Or, rather, it’s going places, quite literally. Dharamsala will the sixth venue this season to make its Test debut. Taking Test cricket to newer venues — and Kanpur’s case, to mofussil India — has expanded the fan base. It has also meant there was no cricket overkill at the traditional centres. So, bar Mohali, when Test cricket returned to Kolkata, Mumbai, Chennai or Bangalore, fewer stands than before were empty. On weekends, in fact, the crowds often rivalled those that are seen in ODIs and T20s. One of the reasons is the Virat Kohli brand of cricket: it has been riveting and has (re)introduced them to the wonders of the longest format. When there was a draw, like in Rajkot or Ranchi, it was hard-fought and arresting cricket. And they went home savouring the Indian team’s victory on nine out of 12 occasions.
13th Test, the finale
Now, we stand on the brink of the 13th. The result will be important, which adds to the excitement, but no matter which way it goes, once its immediacy subsides, it will blend and become one with what was a watershed season, where India raised expectations to stratospheric levels, and mostly achieved them.