The eight-wicket victory at the PCA Stadium on Tuesday (November 29) evening marked the first time in 23 years that India had won more than one match in a Test series against England.
In a further iteration of the magnificent hand he had in the fortunes of the national team during his distinguished career, it was on the basis of Anil Kumble’s heroics that India had last won at least two Tests in a series against the Englishmen, more resilient on their sojourns to this part of the world than they have been given credit for.
Admittedly on designer tracks sought for and obtained by Mohammad Azharuddin, Kumble’s legspin bamboozled Graham Gooch’s side in early 1993 and brought him 21 wickets as India swept to a 3-0 whitewash. A formidable batting line-up easily stacked up the runs against an English attack desperately short of quality spin resources in particular, and Kumble then completed the demolition job with Venkatapathi Raju and Rajesh Chauhan as wonderful back-ups.
Between 1993 and now, India and England have been engaged in eight Test series in both lands. India have triumphed thrice – 1-0 (3 matches) at home in 2001, 1-0 (3) away in 2007 and 1-0 (2), back at home, in 2008. England’s wins have all come in the last three series – 4-0 (4) at home in 2011, 2-1 (4) away in 2012 and 3-1 (5) at home in 2014, while the teams split a four-Test series in England in 2002 1-1 and a three-match showdown in India in 2006 by an identical scoreline.
South Africa have universally been acknowledged as the best visitors to India, and not without reason. Unlike a lot of the non-Asian teams who oftentimes sacrifice their strengths in a bid to tackle unfamiliar conditions without adequate sticks, South Africa have steadfastly backed their pace-bowling riches and come out none the worse for it. England have alternated between and betwixt, relying on their faster bowlers and Shaun Udal, the one-Test wonder offie, to win the Mumbai Test and level the 2006 series, and then riding on the enormous skills of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar six and a half years later to script a sensational comeback against Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s outfit.
Alastair Cook’s side didn’t exactly enter this ongoing series as overwhelming favourite – the skipper himself sought to deflect pressure away from his team by pronouncing them the underdogs before the first Test in Rajkot – but England flew over from Bangladesh armed with skill sets that should have given them a decent shot. Notwithstanding the debilitating defeat in the second match in Mirpur when they were undone by a teenager enjoying his first taste of Test action, England ought to have been in reasonable spirits even if not many of their batsmen had played in India before.
The first innings at the PCA Stadium was further proof that India’s tail no longer wags simply because India don’t seem to have a tail. With Ashwin as the constant, and Ravindra Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha and, most recently Jayant Yadav, all more than passable at the bat, the days when the opposition openers started to eye the dressing-room at the fall of the sixth Indian wicket have well and truly passed into history.
But, for some reason, the typical bulldog spirit has been conspicuously absent. They had the advantage of batting first – which they cashed in on by mounting a big total – in Rajkot, but since that effort, and an uncertain late charge with the ball on the final evening of that game, England have let themselves down. Perhaps, they came to India expecting Bunsen burners and therefore an excuse for not being competitive; perhaps, therefore, when confronted with pitches that have been as true as you can expect, they haven’t been mentally sharp enough to make the adjustments. Or, perhaps, they just haven’t been allowed to play with any freedom and confidence by Virat Kohli’s men, driven by their desire to prove themselves as an all-weather team and bolstered by the backroom inputs from Kumble, now plotting the downfall of opponents in his avatar as the head coach.
To suggest that Kohli and R Ashwin are India’s batting and bowling bulwarks respectively is to state the obvious, of course. Kohli has towered above his mates and his rivals in the first three Tests, both the quantum and the quality of his runs indicating that he is truly at the peak of his prowess. And while he might not always have received support from his top order – with the honourable exception of Cheteshwar Pujara – his middle and lower order have often bailed the team out. The first innings at the PCA Stadium was further proof that India’s tail no longer wags simply because India don’t seem to have a tail. With Ashwin as the constant, and Ravindra Jadeja, Wriddhiman Saha and, most recently Jayant Yadav, all more than passable at the bat, the days when the opposition openers started to eye the dressing-room at the fall of the sixth Indian wicket have well and truly passed into history.
Ashwin hasn’t had the most overwhelming series with the ball yet – he still has 15 wickets from three games, only behind Adil Rashid’s table-topping 18 – but when he has been good, he has been very, very so. India’s versatile five-man attack, though, isn’t an attack just on paper. Each of the bowlers is a genuine wicket-taker, and when Ashwin has been somewhat off the boil, India haven’t been rudderless or impotent. Except in Rajkot when the flatness of the surface and the singular absence of reverse swing negated their best efforts and intent, they have relentlessly hunted down England through pace and spin. Mohammed Shami, a yard sharper and supremely skiddy to boot, has produced telling bursts, mixing up unplayable deliveries with his ability to extract life from even a docile fourth-day PCA Stadium surface, while Umesh Yadav has been equally dangerous while bowling in the high 140s, getting the new ball to home in on the stumps and the old ball to tail on the little more abrasive surfaces in Visakhapatnam and Mohali.
“On these kind of pitches, to not lose heart and keep coming in and running in and bouncing guys speaks a lot of their character,” said Kohli on Tuesday evening, then sounded an ominous warning, “I’m only waiting to play on pitches that assist them a little bit and it’ll be nice to see what they can do there as well.”
Jadeja and Jayant have been more than merely the supporting cast to the Ashwin show, the former one of the most underrated but wily bowlers and the latter a classical offspinner who is benefitting from Ashwin’s trust in his own abilities that then easily translates into working on his mate getting better as well. Jayant’s has turned out to be an inspired selection because he has looked at home both with bat and ball. Some cricketers land up looking like they belong in the searing cauldron of international cricket; the Haryana lad easily fits in that category.
Most crucially, perhaps, India haven’t allowed either the vagaries of the toss or the unavailability through injury of key personnel to derail their plans. To lose a recently prolific opener and the first-choice wicketkeeper on the eve of a Test match can be a body blow, but in Parthiv Patel, India summoned a two-in-one replacement for KL Rahul and Saha. The move wasn’t exactly the most popular, but in his first Test since August 2008, Parthiv was competent behind the sticks and refreshingly positive in front of it. The really good teams look at adversity as an opportunity. India are there. The really great ones grab that opportunity, sometimes even wait for it to present itself. This team could yet get there.