As soon as he lifted the trophy after India’s resounding triumph over England in Ahmedabad to clinch the series 3-1 and qualify for the world Test championship final, Virat Kohli rushed to hand it over to Axar Patel. It said much more than the obvious symbolism. It said that home or away, pink or red ball, Gabba or Motera, Kohli or Rahane as captain, Bumrah or Natarjan, Jadeja or Axar, spin or seam, it doesn’t really matter to this team, and that they will always find a way to claw back from any adversity.
“This hasn’t come overnight. To be at the top of the table, it’s two-and-half-years of work. For that, it took six years prior to that,” a delighted coach Ravi Shastri told the broadcast cameras. “They got 520 points and deserve to be top of that table and play in that (Test championship) final.”
It must feel sweet that they have beaten Australia and England in successive series to enter the final. In some ways, it signals a change in control of the sport from the old guard, not just in the boardrooms but in the field of play.
When they lost the first Test in Australia last December, it felt like the beginning of a recurring nightmare. But a dream comeback ensued.
Again, the defeat to England in the first Test came as a shock. But an imperious revival unfolded and the aura was restored. That they have nearly played out two different teams in the eight Tests, home and away, and still came out triumph says much about the character and bench-strength.
India needed to win the series against England 2-1 to qualify for the WTC final, to be played against New Zealand at Lord’s in June. For three Tests on the spin, they gave England a complete workover instead and finished the WTC cycle with 520 absolute points and 72.2 percentage points (PCT).
In terms of absolute points, India have been topping the WTC table right from the start of the competition two years ago. But in November last year, the ICC’s Cricket decided to make the Covid-forced cancelled matches null and void and determine the WTC league standings only from the matches played. It made the PCT earned from matches played all-important. It made India’s job difficult. They suddenly slipped down the WTC table, with a Test series in Australia looming.
India bounced back after being bowled out for 36 in Adelaide. With a severely depleted squad, they conquered Down Under. Against England, after losing the first Test, the hosts’ backlash blew their opponents away. The second Test was won in four days, the third Test lasted less than two full days and the fourth Test was over inside three days.
Pitches for the second Test in Chennai and the day-night Test in Ahmedabad were put under the scanner. A near-perfect cricket surface was laid out for the final Test, with India’s qualification in the WTC final still not guaranteed. On a pitch, where Washington Sundar at No. 8 scored 96 not out before running out of partners and Axar Patel at No. 9 neared a half-century, the tourists could manage only two individual fifty-plus scores across two innings.
Indian cricket has been revelling in a talent upsurge. When Mohammed Shami fractured his forearm in Australia, Mohammed Siraj emerged and took 13 wickets from three Tests. When injury sidelined Ravindra Jadeja, Washington stood up to be counted in Australia. When Jasprit Bumrah got injured in Brisbane, Shardul Thakur came and made match-winning contributions with bat and ball.
Ahead of the England series, the biggest question was who would be the team’s second spinner, with Jadeja still unavailable. Axar Patel was thrown into the mix, as a near like-for-like replacement. The left-arm spinner took 27 wickets in three Tests, including four five-fors and an average of 10.59. He spin-spooked the visitors to such an extent that after a point England batsmen started to see the apparition of the ball turning square even when they were fired straight. Ravichandran Ashwin, the leader of the spin pack, finished the series with 32 wickets, and a century.
Over the seven matches against Australia and England, India also got a new match-winner, Rishabh Pant, whose Adam Gilchrist-esque 101 in the fourth Test flattened England when they had the game’s control. It would be a futile attempt to capture Pant’s impact on the basis of his 270 runs in this series and his much-improved wicketkeeping. When his cricket became a cocktail of talent and discipline, Pant rose like a champion, as India found MS Dhoni’s worthy successor more than six years after the latter’s Test retirement
“We were hard on him (Pant). Nothing comes easy and he was told in no uncertain terms that he has to respect the game a little more. He has to lose a bit of weight, he has to work hard on his ‘keeping… And he has responded,” Shastri said.
In Australia, Kohli took paternity leave after the first Test. Against England, Cheteshwar Pujara struck a lean patch, Ajinkya Rahane remained peripheral and Shubman Gill struggled. But when the going got tough, Rohit Sharma got going. His 161 at Chepauk brought India back into the series. His 66 in the pink-ball Test, where every other batsman struggled, was world-class.
Shastri summed up the team’s achievements: “This side refuses to give up. We were irrepressible in Australia and we are the same here too.”
Shamik Chakrabarty … read more