Team India’s march
Cricket obsessed Indians may give short shrift to Test cricket, but 2016 has been a rip-roaring year for Team India as far as the longest format of the game is concerned. Riding on series wins against West Indies (2-0), New Zealand (3-0) and England (4-0) — India is presently topping the ICC Test rankings with 120 points, a clear 15 points ahead of Australia with which it will be locking horns at home in a 4-Test series this season. A showdown with the fourth ranked Proteas in South Africa will materialize only in early 2018; and there is little likelihood of any engagement with third ranked Pakistan in a neutral country, given the current bitterness between the two neighbors. India only has a 3-Test away series coming up in the second half of next year, so there will not be much scope for Team India to shed its ‘poor travelers’ tag in Tests anytime soon. Still, there have been many positives for Team India to take home in the Tests, even though it is yet to replace the Fabulous Four of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly with batsmen of comparable stature. Test skipper Virat Kohli is in the form of his life, averaging nearly 76 while blasting three double tons this year. New coach Anil Kumble, known for his meticulous planning and understated firmness, has joined forces admirably with Kohli to forge a side willing to back itself to the last man. There can be no better illustration of this diehard attitude than the Cheni Test in which Ravichandran Ashwin with the ball and Kohli with the bat flopped badly, but Ravindra Jadeja with 10 wickets and rookie batter Karun ir with a humongous triple ton more than made amends with a famous victory to completely bury England. In the earlier Test at Mumbai, Kohli hit a counter-attacking 235 after a sizeable England first innings score of 400, with spinner Jayant Yadav coming in at number nine to score a century (the first by an Indian at that position).
In the plethora of statistics and broken records, the heartening aspect to emerge is a stronger bench strength for Team India. ir had come in for Ajinkya Rahane at Cheni, and is likely to get an extended run. Another substitute in a key position who did well was wicketkeeper-batsman Parthiv Patel, recalled to the highest level after eight years. Coming in for injured Wriddhiman Saha in the third Test at Mohali, Patel as a steady opener gave his team magement more options in other positions down the order. While Saha remains the country’s best glovesman and is capable of playing match-winning knocks (like his ton against West Indies at Gros Islet last year), another emerging talent both in front and behind the stumps is Rishab Pant who has been going great guns with the bat in the domestic circuit this season. Among those who weigh in purely as batsmen, Cheteswar Pujara, KL Rahul and Murali Vijay (despite some problems with the short ball) have held their own, while the likes of Rohit Sharma and Manish Pandey will be waiting in the wings. Team India’s tail has been wagging vigorously, with the likes of Ashwin and Jadeja putting a high price on their wickets. One crucial front on which skipper Kohli is perceived to have made a definite impact is the new ball attack, with Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma all putting their hands up at different times to make a collective statement of their own. India may still be a fair distance off from laying truly sporting wickets, but the shorter cricketing formats have forced its fast men to use the air and crease more ingeniously and devise other skills to take out batsmen. It is sound strategy to invest in the pace bowling department if Team India is to win abroad, so the more cogs in the wheel, the better. This is one aspect where it has fallen short even with ‘Captain Cool’ Mahendra Singh Dhoni at the helm, who has bidden farewell to Tests. But Dhoni has enjoyed a second wind in the shorter versions, batting with freedom as a finisher, and still leading Team India in one-dayers and T20 cricket. He may have stumbled agonizingly at the last four stage in World T20 Cup, but has made amends with the Asia Cup crown and series wins against Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and New Zealand. As a team in transition in the three formats, India so far has struck an admirable balance with two skippers at different ends of their careers. Considering the Supreme Court’s pressure on the BCCI to reform its ways, it is remarkable that some cricketers are maging to thrive in spite of their administrators.