A couple of hours after the Boxing Day Test of 2014 wound down to a draw, and Australia had sealed the series, a quiet press release from the Board of Control for Cricket in India announced to the cricketing world that India’s most successful Test captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was stepping down as captain and retiring from the Test game immediately handing over the reins to the young man-in-waiting, Virat Kohli. As his last act in the Test arena, Dhoni, in the company of Ravichandran Ashwin, safely negotiated through the final hour to manage a draw for India at Melbourne.
The timing could not have been any more perfect for the incoming captain who had got a taste of it earlier in the series in Adelaide due to injury-forced absence of Dhoni, and would lead the side out in Sydney few days later. There was going to be a long home stretch of 17 Tests (interrupted by four in the West Indies, three in Sri Lanka and one in Bangladesh – all manageable overseas challenges) allowing Kohli to grow in to his job and build the young team around him.
Kohli-led India in 2015 had terrific success (five wins, one loss and two rain-affected draws) and swept aside the weak West Indies team in mid-2016 before embarking on a 13-Test home season hosting New Zealand, England, Bangladesh and Australia. It was expected to be a tough examination of the Indian side still coming together as a team since the departure of some of the greatest cricketers to ever don Indian colours.
All the big numbers
As the ninth Test of the home stretch ended at Hyderabad with India wrapping up a handsome win over Bangladesh by 208 runs, it is useful to look back on the happenings and to have a look ahead to what promises to be most exacting portion of the home season with Australia in India for four Tests.
Since the loss to Sri Lanka at Galle in July 2015, India are on 19-Test undefeated streak, only the fifth longest such streaks in history [15 wins, 4 draws]. Kohli has registered six series wins as captain, going past the record of his predecessor Dhoni in 2008-‘10. The string of 19 Tests without a defeat also bested the marks of Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev-led India of 1976-‘80 and 1985-‘87, respectively.
Successful teams on a roll usually persist with an unchanged playing XI. Kohli has been the full time Test captain for 22 Tests now, and he is yet to have the same team sheet in any two consecutive Test matches. Some of the changes have been forced, due to injuries, and some of them have been due to Kohli’s penchant for having only five batsmen in the line up that provides him the flexibility in the bowlers to choose based on the pitch conditions and oppositions.
Only Kohli and Ashwin – the best batsman and bowler in the side – have been the constants through these 22 Tests. It is a testament to the quality of the side, and the ability of the players in and around the Indian national side that with even such frequently changing parts, the team has been on a remarkable run of success. Playing at home helps too.
It’s been a team game, through and through
Fifteen centuries by seven different India batsmen have been notched up in the nine home Tests this season, led by none other than Kohli with four, including two double hundreds. Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay scored three each to aid their skipper, while Ajinkya Rahane and his injury-replacement Karun Nair, KL Rahul and Jayant Yadav whipped in with one each. Ashwin leads all bowlers with six five-wicket hauls, followed by Ravindra Jadeja with two and Bhuvneshwar Kumar with one. More than personal landmarks and milestones, almost every player has contributed in significant, sometimes small, ways for the eight victories in these nine Tests; Mohammad Shami’s three-for and two-for and Jadeja’s 90 along with Ashwin and Jayant’s fifties at Mohali set the stage for India to win that Test.
India have not just managed to beat quality sides in New Zealand and England, and the up-and-comers in Bangladesh, but the margins of victory indicate the sort of dominance they have had over their opponents; two wins by an innings, one victory by eight wickets and five more by at least 178 runs.
That brings us to the remaining four Tests against the team from Down Under. Even as Australia’s batting line up has gone through changes recently, their competitiveness and ability to win Tests would entirely depend on their bowling attack.
Remember MS Dhoni’s contribution as well
With Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood – two of the best young pacers in the world today – and the most successful offspinner in Australia’s history Nathan Lyon, aided by the steady left arm spin of Steve O’Keefe, Australia possess the quality and variety to consistently challenge the Indian batsmen. Starc has repeatedly exposed fragility in opposition opening batsmen and India’s merry-go-round of openers do appear likely to fall victims to the left-armer’s extreme pace. It would then fall on the shoulders of Pujara, Kohli and Rahane to routinely provide sufficient scores for their Ashwin and Jadeja to be effective.
In Steve Smith and David Warner, India will face the top ranked and fifth-ranked batsmen in the International Cricket Council rankings. The newcomers Matt Renshaw and Pete Handscomb have had excellent starts to their careers, and along with Usman Khawaja could provide just enough support to their batting linchpins Smith and Warner, and keep their bowlers in the game. To that, add the “never-say-die” approach of the Aussies and we have a mouth-watering Test series in the offing.
A series win, even if it is not a whitewash, would set Kohli and his side up for the tours abroad to South Africa and New Zealand in 2018. The stretch of home Tests under new leadership has allowed India to identify the players that they could invest in, and rely upon for those overseas challenges, and India have Dhoni to thank for, for that impeccable timing of handing over the responsibility of shepherding Indian cricket.