By Samaresh Barman
India's recently concluded test series with South Africa has generated a lot of responses amongst cricket lovers and other observers of the game. For, cricket is the most popular sport in our country and if you have a flamboyant captain like Virat Kohli at the helm of things, it is natural that wherever India plays, their game will be scrutinized and talked. Among those who wrote a column, while the test series was still on course was noted historian Ramachandra Guha, whose column has drawn lot of attention. Guha in his column criticized BCCI and current coach Ravi Shastri for toeing the lines with Virat Kohli.
There may be arguments in favour of Guha and against it, but the common people in India won't mind Virat Kohli's functioning as captain if he can deliver wins overseas. India won almost everything during their long home season against all the opponents and there are no surprises to that. India has always been a strong team in their own backward and everyone was eagerly waiting for South Africa series to see whether India can win the series and play like a top-ranked team.
After a riveting threetest matches, where South Africa defeated India 2-1, the post-mortem is conducted and various conclusions are made. India didn't play any warm up matches prior to the test series and put up an interesting squad during their opening match in Cape Town. Ajinkya Rahane, one of India's most successful batsmen overseas, was dropped and Rohit Sharma was picked over him based on his current form.In a seamer-friendly condition, Indian batsmen struggled in the first innings but courtesy a brilliant Hardik Pandya counter attacking innings India could some how managed to hang in there. Later they bowled out South Africa cheaply to ignite some hope of winning the test match, but their much-vaunted batting line-upthrew cold water on that hope.
In the second test played in SuperSport Park, Centurion, India bowled South Africa out for 335. This was the best pitch amongst all the three test matches played and India was expected to play well. However, except Virat Kohli no one scored big and India could not manage to surpass South Africa's first Innings total. Worst, in the second innings while chasing a target of 287, India's batting line-uponce again disintegrated against a disciplined South African bowling attack.
Notwithstanding India's defeat in Cape Town and Centurion, India came back strongly in Johannesburg. In the most trying conditions, India played out of their skin and showed exemplary character to defeat South Africa to clinch a rare overseas test match victory.
So, neither team India played like a no 1 team nor they won the series. Yet, those who have watched the series closely hope for better things from team India in future. There are reasons for that and this series has exhibited some rare traits in Indian team which some of theirpredecessors didn't exhibit.
From Ajit Wadekar to MAK Pataudi to SauravGanguly to MS Dhoni, one perennial problem these captains always faced during their time in overseas tours is lack of quality fast bowlers who could deliver them 20 wickets.Indian's never had fearsome fast bowlers who could exploit the foreign conditions and win matches. Indians were so reliant on spin that during 70s the fielders would roll the ball to the fielders (instead of directly throwing it to the fielder) so that the shine goes of the ball quickly and spinners could come into play. This is how India played during those days. Even Ganguly or Dhoni didn't have fully fit fast bowlers who could run in all day and create pressure and take wickets.
In the recently concluded test series, India's fast bowlers not only taken all 60 wickets on offer but also the manner they have taken the wickets would please the captain. Although the pitches were very bowler friendly, Indian fast bowlers were quick to adapt to the conditions. Also, for the first time, India has a varied fast bowling attack, with Bhuvneshwar Kumar swinging the ball both ways, Shami exploiting the old ball, Ishant hitting the deck hard, Bumrahwith an awkward bowling action and Umesh Yadav with pace.In earlier tours, India could not go for kill and had to play defensively, but in this series bowlers have brought India back into the match several times only to be disappointed by the batsmen.
During 90s, even when India's top order has scored runs, there were very little contribution from the tail enders. So, the result was, often India'sbatting would collapse without much fight.This series has shown that even in challenging conditions, Indian tail enders are willing to put up a fight. Bhuvneshwar Kumar contributed useful runs in both the test matches he played. Ashwin has always been a reliable no 7 batsmen. Even the likes of Shami and Ishant also showed they can hang around a bit. When India will tour Australia, England and New Zeeland, tail enders contribution will be crucial.
Recently South African former test captain Graeme Smith has raised doubts over Virat Kohli's ability to get the best out of his players, and wondered aloud if Kohli is a long-term captaincy option for India. Kohli is an interesting character, he is intimidating, supremely skilled and fiercely aggressive. While he has doubters, till now he has been able to bring the best out of his players. For various reasons, Indians never been able to play fire with fire in overseas conditions. Virat Kohli believes in playing fire with fire, even if it may burn some of his own players. in Johannesburg, when umpires were inspecting the pitch if it was unsuitable for play, Kohli sitting in the balcony indicated Bhuvneswar and Shami to stay, because he himself valiantly had played in that treacherous pitch and scored runs. Kohli's leadership style may raise some eyebrows amongst pundits but it may serve well Indian cricket.However, ifs and buts aside, it will be the results that would most please the cricket lovers and silence the critics. Whichever way it goes, in next one year Indian cricket promises to be exciting and its actions would be keenly watched both on and off the field.
(The writer is PRO, Tezpur University. He may be reached at email@example.com. Views expressed here are personal)