When you’re the captain, you can get away with things like this from KL Rahul!
On January 5, 2018, India played South Africa in the first Test in Cape Town.
For India, it wasn’t just the first day of a three-Test series, it was the first day of a huge 12 months of Test cricket on the road in which they would go up against the ‘big three’ away from their fortress at home. With two series losses and what will be a series win in Australia, India end the 12 months on a high.
But was it a successful year overall, and what has the team learnt?
We will answer if it was a success or not later. But first, let’s look at what they learnt.
One clear lesson was their change in mentality with regards to their middle order. The team now revolves around Cheteshwar Pujara at three, Virat Kohli at four and Ajinkya Rahane at five. Everyone else fits in around this.
In doing so India look to have acknowledged that they made a mistake in not picking Rahane for the first Test in South Africa, and not picking Pujara for the first Test in England. All batsmen will have a poor run of form, and these two did, but the class players do not become bad overnight, and more faith perhaps needed to be shown to these staples of the Indian batting line-up.
By the time they arrived in Australia, coach Ravi Shastri and skipper Kohli had worked this out.
In South Africa, India used two wicketkeepers and batted them in a variety of positions. In England, they picked Dinesh Karthik before switching to Rishabh Pant. The shifting of their keeper around the batting order had disappeared by the time the Australia series arrived. Pant was batting at seven and not being moved up and down for any reason.
India’s wicketkeepers made 65 runs at an average of 7.22 when not batting at 7. Every time they shifted the keeper, around it didn’t work. By the fourth Test in England, it looked as though the penny dropped for Kohli and Shastri. Pant has been kept in a stable position and been outstanding.
India have discovered they have a new bowling leader in Jasprit Bumrah. With a run-up and action you wouldn’t teach to anyone learning fast bowling, his raw talent has been allowed to come through and succeed in his first year at the highest level.
India also seem very conscious of managing Bumrah, as with an action that looks strenuous on his right shoulder, he may need a lot of rest and recovery between Test matches. However, if he stays fit, he could be a real asset for India over the years to come.
Virat Kohli is a work in progress as a captain. His celebrations of wickets in Melbourne and Sydney have been more controlled, certainly compared to many a time in South Africa, England, and early on in the Australian series. Whether he remains an in-control and calm captain, or reverts back to the wild hollering celebratory one, remains to be seen, but the calmer Kohli is more beneficial to India. He may be maturing as a leader.
The last thing India would have learnt is they simply have a good enough team to win in all places. Their skipper has led them with the bat, but hasn’t had enough support on the first two tours.
They now have the bowlers to produce Test wins. Bumrah has been a find and Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami have been in career-best form. They have improved their bowling in 2018 and there is no reason why they can’t keep that going in the years ahead.
If Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal can provide protection and stability at the top, their three older heads in the middle can do the rest. Whether it’s Hardik Pandya, Hanuma Vihari or Rohit Sharma at six will depend on form and conditions. It will be their challenge to get that right in 2019. It’s the only position that isn’t nailed down now in this top order.
So was the last 12 months a success for India? The answer is neither yes or no.
To win one overseas tour, especially the last one, means they end the year on a good note. It takes the pressure off the coach who would have faced the axe if the year produced three losses from as many away series.
Also for captain Kohli, who doesn’t hide the significance of what Test cricket means to him and the legacy he wants to leave behind, to be the first sub-continent leader to win Down Under will be remembered for a long time to come. People will mention it was against a weakened team, but that was out of Kohli’s control.
What he could control, he did to the point of a series win.
India were competitive on the other two tours. With more support for their captain with the bat, who was way out ahead of second best, was where they ultimately lost both series. It left India with a bit of a ‘what could have been’ feeling, which they will still feel a little disappointed about.
One thing India did leave behind in 2018 were three excellent Test series for cricket fans. Gone was the white flag they hoisted when Michael Clarke made a triple century at the SCG in 2012. Gone were the innings losses they had suffered at times in England (Lord’s last year they got caught on a wicket that was just doing too much). They were competitive throughout the 12 months, and deserved their win Down Under.
Indian fans can be proud of their team and with Shaw, Pant, Agarwal and Bumrah all debuting at Test level in these 12 months, they can be optimistic for the future.