On their tours to South Africa and England, India could not win the series despite fielding some of their greatest players and high expectations.India won a series in West Indies and England for the first time close to five decades ago. After that, they have been winning Tests, but series victories in the three major cricket-playing countries have been few and far between, if not elusive.
The captain who inspired confidence of winning was Nawab Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, when he led India to a 3-1 series victory in New Zealand in 1967-68, the first-ever overseas one. When skipper Virat Kohli and his favourite coach Ravi Shastri began 2018, the two could not gel with fans and critics, with team selection and on-field strategies creating the said rift. When a team fails to win, even if matches are closely-fought, mistakes get magnified.
Kohli waited for the moment to fix that: his team’s tour Down Under, one that culminated in a 2-1 series win. Never mind that it could have been 3-1, if not for rain and bad light. His run-ins with media after every defeat in South Africa and England had made him look churlish. But Kohli was at ease in Australia, with no trace of tension on his face during this series. He was all milk and honey with scribes.
Kohli did not try to settle scores with those who had tried to pin him down at every opportunity. Instead, he was charitable, just wanting to enjoy his moment of glory without getting to eyeball-to-eyeball with his critics. He believed in himself and his team, and kept insisting that they were good enough to beat any side in the world, even if some of his team selections looked bizarre. Shastri was at his talking best, putting this victory above World Cup and World Championship victories in the 80s.
The men who Kohli did not trust to deliver at the start came good at the first opportunity they got, and he had the grace to pay them handsome tributes in Sydney.Cheteshwar Pujara had convinced him that there is place for batsmen like him in the top order. His three hundreds plus Kohli’s and Rishabh Pant’s made India’s batting look sound, with others playing around them.
Kohli’s confidence stems from the performances in South Africa and England. Whatever one might say, it has to be conceded that this Australian team was the weakest fielded at home for decades.Before the series began, it was thought that it would be a battle between Australia’s bowling and India’s batting. But that was not to be. It turned out to be a clash between India’s bowlers and Australia’s batsmen. Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins have now been rested for the ODI leg. India, on the other hand, have included Mohammed Shami in their ODI squad and given Jasprit Bumrah rest.
Shastri may not be everyone’s favourite coach, but his insistence on getting bowling coach Bharathi Arun back has paid off. The 50 wickets pacers got in Australia (out of 70) and their 179 scalps in 2018 are testimony to the burly former India fast bowler’s tactical inputs. Ishant Sharma, Shami and Bumrah have looked lethal as a fast-bowling troika. They left South Africa (147) and England (132) way behind, showing the difference in class.
Even if the Steve Smith and David Warner had played, that would not have altered the eventual scoreline. Actually, it is their pace battery, with the exception of Pat Cummins, that let the side down. To add to that, their top six batsmen never got going, with Marcus Harris’ 79 in Sydney being their highest score in the series. Australia have never before had a four-Test series at home without any of their players scoring a hundred.
India have thus won both Test and ODI series in all Test-playing nations, except South Africa, where they are yet to win a Test series.
(The writer is a veteran commentator and the views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com)