In the aftermath of India’s embarrassing Test series defeat to England in 2014 on yet another overseas tour, Ravi Shastri termed the team’s cricket as “spineless”, an attribute that he loathed himself in his playing days as an obdurate top-order or middle-order batsman.
Four years later, the 55-year-old seems to have aided his side in eradicating the weak-willed, soft centre that has typified an Indian touring party in recent years by becoming head coach in July last year. Shastri was undoubtedly the beneficiary of an acrimonious split between former head coach Anil Kumble and captain Virat Kohli which saw the former resign a few weeks before Shastri’s appointment, but the current Indian side embodies characteristics of both the composed, cool Kumble and the hard-hitting, uncompromising Shastri, as demonstrated by their recent tour of South Africa.
Ironically, India began their tour by suffering a 2-1 Test series defeat, and the old saying ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ chimed true once again. Perhaps it demonstrated the volatile state of player power, as six months after managing to force a coach with unsustainable training methods into resigning, they were left unassisted by their board who preferred to indulge themselves in a financially-motivated, and frankly one-sided ODI and T20I series at home to neighbours Sri Lanka.
Within three weeks of landing in Cape Town, India found themselves 2-0 down and flustered by the pace attack of Kagiso Rabada, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, and later Lungi Ngidi, whose impressive start to life at this level overshadowed the sorrow of thousands of South Africans over another Dale Steyn injury. India’s bowling unit had kept their end of the bargain and dismissed the opposition in each innings of both Test matches, but scores of 135 and 151 in the fourth innings at Newlands and Supersport Park doomed the team to failure.
The “spineless” accusations were on the cusp of everyone’s lips once again, and Virat Kohli’s highly-criticised chopping and changing methods brought out the raw passion that is a regular spectacle of his leadership, allowing it to filter into the press conference room.
It would be too simplistic to state that his sharp response to journalistic criticism was the turning point, but nevertheless there was a resilience in Johannesburg, from the middle order at least, to provide enough runs for the bowlers to seal victory. Momentum materialised once again, as a consolation Test victory soon gave rise to a 6-1 demolition of the hosts in the ODI series and a closer 2-1 series win in the T20Is.
Kohli’s traits were once again at the forefront, adding another three centuries to the 32 previously accumulated in a scintillating career that promises to grow in strength, if that is even possible. Nevertheless, it was the serenity of the bowlers and their instructor behind the stumps which counterbalanced Kohli’s verve with necessary serenity.
Guided by wicketkeeper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India’s new spinning pair of Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have taken all the plaudits, and rightly so, for having dislodged the more experienced duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who themselves created their own page in Indian cricket history before the unexplainable resurgence of wrist-spin saw the finger-spinner outdated – for the current climate at least.
Even so, it was Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah who chipped away in the background and perhaps have undermined the search for the fast bowler with unprecedented express pace. The BCCI have for years invested time and energy in Umesh Yadav and the raw speed he brings to the attack, but his consistency and his tendency to spray the ball around drew detractors. Yadav still provides a valuable, experienced back-up option, but in Bumrah and Kumar, Kohli’s side have ‘thinking’ bowlers, rather than those whose limitations to pace and bounce are constantly exposed.
No doubt Bumrah and Kumar have upped their pace since their introduction into the side over the last five years, yet with their development and variety of knuckle balls and slower deliveries, the most exciting progression that this pair could embark upon is whether they will develop the next type of ball that everyone will be eager to learn and improve on, much as Ashwin pioneered the Carrom ball.
In both Test and limited-overs formats, the duo are supported by substantial back-up in the fast bowling department through Yadav, the effervescent yet too often reserved Mohammed Shami, the enigmatic Hardik Pandya, as well as the wiry Ishant Sharma, who has signed a contract with Sussex for the first two months of the English county season.
Add in two of the quartet of aforementioned spinners, with an odd appearance from Axar Patel, and the future seems to be shaping up nicely. India fans will struggle to remember such quality variety on the bowling front this century, therefore posing an interesting proposition when they land on English shores this summer.
England saw just a glimpse of what India’s seamers could do in 2014, with Sharma’s 7-74 at Lord’s the prime example, and even then, the home side’s tactics baffled commentators and spectators alike with what Sunil Gavaskar termed ‘hurrackery’, or rather, the insistence on playing the pull and hook shot despite the obvious ploy set by Sharma and MS Dhoni to dismiss them in that manner. Kumar took 6-82 in the same Test match but that was a tamer, gentler Bhuvneshwar. The 2018 seamer has been branded the new ‘Rockstar’, but a more discreet persona in comparison to the original, moustachioed ‘Rockstar’, Jadeja.
If anything, India’s batting seems rather more problematic. In the limited overs format Shikhar Dhawan put on many stellar displays in South Africa, but his tendency to relentlessly slash his blade at anything outside off stump may bring about a few more problems on the Test stage in swinging English conditions. Openers K.L. Rahul and Murali Vijay scored just 30 and 102 runs from four and six innings in South Africa respectively, and, despite his peerless form, Kohli at times looks susceptible early on to nicking off outside his off stump, which James Anderson knows all too well.
The no.4 and 5 spots are still up in the air in the limited overs format, where Suresh Raina has most recently regained his place, but in the past England have been great exponents of peppering him with bouncers, which still appears to be his undoubted weakness. None of Manish Pandey, Ajinkya Rahane, Shreyas Iyer or Kedar Jadhav have performed sufficiently over the past year to cement their place but they are all still in the running with the 2019 World Cup in mind.
Shastri stated that the tours of South Africa, England and Australia in this 18-month period will determine the legacy this India side leaves across the different continents. South Africa seems to have raised hopes of a change to the repetitive humiliations, but the next two series will be the tipping point, one way or the other.
Photograph: Cricket Mad via Wikimedia Commons