The three-match Test series against New Zealand, whether the Indian team would like to openly admit or otherwise, was primarily about reaching the top of the Test rankings. To get there at the beginning of a long domestic season — India are playing an unprecedented 13 consecutive Tests at home — would give the team a real shot at not just reaching the No. 1 spot, but staying there.
And at Eden Gardens, the first part of the mission was accomplished with a hard-fought win against a spirited New Zealand side.
The joy on the face of Virat Kohli was hard to miss. He was glowing.
MEET THE NEW No.1 TEST SIDE – #TeamIndia pic.twitter.com/q2a38mAYsl— BCCI (@BCCI) October 3, 2016
And why not. Forgive the cliche, but it’s the greatest form of cricket there is and his side is now the best in the world at it. They were No. 1 for a brief while earlier this year, but that was happenstance before Pakistan’s memorable drawn series in England gave them the No. 1 spot. This time around, India have earned their place at the top, on the back of two professional performances in Kanpur and Kolkata — extending their unbeaten run at home to 13 matches.
And the men behind the wins? While your Kohlis, Rahanes and Pujaras have been good on and off — India have not actually put in a fully dominating batting performance in any of those 13 matches — it is the bowlers who have stoop up and made it count. Time and again. And not just with the ball, with the bat too!
Take the last two Tests for instance. There were batting collapses in each of the four innings. The lower middle order bailed India out in each of the four innings — led by one of Wriddhiman Saha, Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja. And every time the Kiwi batsmen showed application and threatened to take the game away from India, one of the bowlers stepped up and delivered. It was Ashwin and Jadeja in the first Test. It was Bhuvi and Shami in the second.
The West Indies series was similar too. Kohli made that 200 in the first Test but the lower order was left to do the scoring and wicket-taking in the rest of the series.
If these few Tests are not enough to make a case for them, let’s go back a bit to the South Africa series. Ajinkya Rahane was the only batsman (from either side, in fact) to score a century. None of the other batsmen averaged even more than 30. India were as bad as South Africa when it came to negotiating those dust bowls. The bowlers, led by Ashwin, delivered a series win against the then-World No.1
Do you see a pattern emerging?
In a lot of ways, it was apt that the win came at the hallowed turf of Eden Gardens. Rewind 13 Test matches, and it was at Eden that Monty Panesar and Greame Swann dealt India a blow that very few have managed in recent history — a home series defeat.
MS Dhoni had to face a situation unfamiliar to Indian captains of recent past. He did recover to deliver home series wins against Australia and West Indies but what followed was three consecutive series defeats in New Zealand, South Africa and England. With a young team trying to follow up on the golden generation, under a captain whose ability to lead them in the longer format was persistently questioned, things were not looking too good for India. The batsmen were still young and inexperienced, the bowlers, when they were not getting injured or dropped due to poor form or getting banned for life for alleged spot-fixing, were inconsistent.
And while we are rewinding, let’s go to December 2009. When MS Dhoni, captaining a side that was a mix of the golden generation and the future stars, took the team to the very top of Test ranking for the first time. It was a side that boasted of a batting lineup that could be called the best in the world at that time. Virender Sehwag at the top of the order with Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and a certain Sachin Tendulkar to follow. On the day the team that became No. 1 for the first time in 2009, the top six in the batting lineup boasted a combined total of 41489 Test runs. The top four in the lineup each had an average of over 50 at that point in their careers.
Even the great side led by Sourav Ganguly, won all those Tests in England, South Africa, Australia thanks to one consistent batting lineup — the bowling lineup, minus Zaheer Khan (when he was fit) and Anil Kumble were hit and miss.
This generation — the Gen Next under Kohli — is doing it differently. The best batsman in the side, Kohli, has an average of just over 43 in 47 Tests so far. Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara, arguably two most consistent batsmen in the side, average 47.6. Murali Vijay at the top has an average of just over 40 — which is roughly the same as India’s strike bowler Ashwin’s batting average.
The first time India became No. 1 in 2009, the headlines invariably went to the batsmen. The Fab Four, as they were called, were the architects of that great side. But, perhaps as an indication of the changing times, it’s bowlers and the lower order batsmen who are grabbing all the attention in the current side.
You always need 20 wickets to win Test matches, that has not changed over the years. But Kohli’s men are having to take 20 wickets with a lot fewer runs on board than the golden generation. And in Kolkata and Kanpur, they showed they can do it even when the pitch is not a rank turner. The team showed they have a bowling unit capable of adapting to a situation that is alien to them. (A subcontinent track that was assisting fast bowlers? Where did that come from, Eden Gardens!?)
But if this team has got to where it has right now, it has the ‘second half’ of the side to thank for. The better half.