At the start of 2018, Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri acknowledged that the 12 months to follow would be the defining period for Indian cricket. The team was to visit South Africa, then England and finally Australia for Test tours, seeking to justify its No. 1 ranking and erode India’s less than flattering record overseas.
India had travelled previously to these lands with optimism and hope, but while they tasted sporadic success in England, they had never won a Test series in the other two countries. Not even during the golden phase of Indian cricket for most of the 2000s could they overcome the Australia-South Africa hoodoo, because while there were batting riches aplenty and the occasional virtuoso paceman, the lack of depth in the pace bowling arsenal was a hurdle too imposing to overcome.
If the captain and the head coach genuinely believed that these countries could be overcome by this bunch, it wasn’t without reason. For the first time in their history, India possessed a pace-bowling group that is the envy of the cricket world — Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami laid the foundation for India’s Boxing Day Test win in Melbourne.
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That, allied with a solid, experienced batting core group that has been together for five years, and that has tasted success against pace and bounce in Australia, and swing and seam in South Africa and England, added meat to designs of shedding the dismal shackles of the past.
However, the chasm between potential and performance remained unbridged. India ran South Africa close at the start of the year, walking toe to toe with their opponents for large parts before running out of steam and coming up short during key moments. Victory on a spiteful Johannesburg surface in a dead rubber was dotted by courage and conviction, but it didn’t mask the disappointment of another campaign gone awry.
England went much the same way as South Africa, again in extremely challenging batting conditions. Apart from Kohli, who batted in a different plane to the rest as he emphatically exorcised the demons of the horror tour of 2014, the rest failed to measure up to James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Sam Curran and Moeen Ali. The Nottingham win was but a mirage; for all their protestations about the closeness of the contests and the unfairness of the score line, it was impossible to look at a 4-1 defeat as anything but a hammering.
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Australia, therefore, offered the final shot at redemption. Torn asunder by the sandpapergate scandal of March that has thrown Steve Smith and David Warner into temporary oblivion, the one-time masters of the game seemed ripe for the picking. While the bowling attack was as threatening as ever, the batting was a curious admixture of the inexperienced and the ill-equipped. Even the most diehard Indian fan was beginning to lose patience; their heroes had talked the talk, but they weren’t walking it. Australia loomed as the panacea.
Hardly had the euphoria of Adelaide, and the well-earned 31-run victory, died down came the crushing 146-run loss at the Perth Stadium, enveloping the cricketing landscape in a sense of déjà vu. Against this backdrop, the spectacular 137-run triumph in the Boxing Day Test, India’s first win at the intimidating MCG since 1981, has bought over several of the sceptics. There was spunk and steel and spark in admittedly favourable conditions, just as there was purpose and hunger and desire. Most notably, there was an embracing of the understanding of the need to put common sense above bravado.
The realization that the path to glory need not always be lit up with incandescence, but can be traversed by dogged determination, is the first overt acknowledgement of the channeling of the aggression of which both Kohli and Shastri are huge fans. India’s second win of the series was ground out the old-fashioned way on an old-fashioned sub-continental type of pitch — a big first-innings score followed by spin and reverse-swing to open up a massive advantage, and more skill in the second dig through the impressive Jasprit Bumrah to slam all escape doors shut on the Aussies.
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For the first time ever in Australia, India head into the final Test of a series holding the advantage. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy is already in their grasp, no matter what happens in Sydney next week, but Kohli has made it clear that a series win remains the topmost priority.
Already, his band of warriors has emulated Bishan Bedi’s class of 1977-78 by winning more than one Test in a single series in Australia. If they fuse that with a series triumph, they will have gone where no Indian team has been before. And show that they aren’t just the No. 1 one team in the world, but also the best in the business.
Kaushik is a veteran cricket writer who has reported on over 100 Tests. He co-authored VVS Laxman's autobiography '281 and Beyond'.
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