Sport can be cruel. The winner takes all and the loser is left with ifs and buts like it is with India after losing the five-Test series 1-4.Strangely, a realistic assessment shows the winners have as many problems as the losers before they embark on their next major assignment. Both sides come out of the series without their top-order batsmen, barring Virat Kohli, making significant contributions. Yet England won because their lower-order all-rounders showed more gumption in standing up to one of the best combination of Indian pacers whereas the Indians showed no such rearguard grit.
Ifs and buts had been analysed threadbare even before the final Test at the Oval. Five Tests in six weeks hardly give much scope for realization or rectification of things gone wrong. One thing is clear, the series scoreline is lopsided. It could have been England, if not India, 3-2.
For the second successive overseas series, the Indian batsmen messed up and lost it after the bowlers did a marvellous job. It was absolutely top-class bowling by Ishant Sharma (18 wickets), Mohammed Shami (16), Jasprit Bumrah (14) and Hardik Pandya (10). They can justifiably ask what else is expected of them if they are to win a series away from home. The only thing the batsmen might argue is that the target should have been kept down to less than 150 both at Birmingham and at Southampton.
Kohli stood out as a batsman and on the last day of the series, KL Rahul, at last, proved why he is rated so highly by everyone. Another talented youngster, Rishabh Pant, has shown that he is good enough to be in the eleven as a middle-order batsman even when Wriddhiman Saha returns to keep wickets.
As a wicket-keeper, Pant still has some way to go, not because he has conceded 70 byes in the three Tests he played, but because he has to iron out a few rough edges. There could be a toss up between him and Hardik. Both can be exciting to watch batting in tandem in limited-overs. Hanuma Vihari did enough to stay in contention for a spot in the squad for the Australia tour.
To his ill-luck, Kohli lost all five tosses, calling heads, and some commentators thought it was a blessing in disguise as any decision by him would have been taken to the cleaners if the decision had backfired. Kohli joked that he could have won the toss if the coin had heads both sides.
For captains, counter-questioning is the easy way out of a tight spot.
When a reporter asked Kohli whether he, too, believes like his coach Ravi Shastri, that his team is the best Indian team in the last 15 years, the captain shot back what the questioner thought. These brave statements are neither here not there so long as the team doesn’t win matches on a regular basis. Beating the current Sri Lanka and West Indies teams doesn’t count for much and both Shastri and Kohli are aware of that.The defeat will trigger another debate: whether India are truly the World No 1 side. In this cycle of home and away, India will always be at the top whenever they play at home.
Kohli’s captaincy and his selection of the playing XI have also come under closer scrutiny in the last two series, but he has not yet reached a stage, like Sachin Tendulkar did, when the team needed him more as a batsman than as captain. Relinquishing captaincy helped Tendulkar to bat freely and contribute more to the side.
The team selection can always be tricky. The management wanted an extra batsman and sent back Kuldeep Yadav to get the in-form Vihari. Looking at England playing two spinners, it was felt that Kuldeep would have been useful at Southampton and even at the Oval. But then you had benched your second spinner Ravindra Jadeja for four Tests.The arguments will always end in heads I win and tails you lose!
(The writer is a veteran commentator and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)