India finally emerges as the lords of Test cricket
Till a few days ago, however, its commercial prowess was not matched by results on the field. In a sport where winning overseas is what really matters, India has traditionally underperformed abroad. It has not won a major limited overs ICC tournament since 2013. It has toured England three times since 2007 and lost the Test series each time. It has never won a series in South Africa. Last year it lost both the Tests it played in New Zealand. And while it did win in Australia two years ago, the absence of David Warner and Steve Smith was cited as a reason for that victory.
India was lauded in the cricket world for the money it brought to the game and for the passion of its fans. It was recognised for the skills of many of its batsmen, for producing high-quality spin bowlers and for its home record. But it seldom commanded the respect or inspired the awe that a truly top team does, particularly in the ultimate crucible of the game — Test cricket. It was always perceived to be vulnerable on foreign soil, on bouncy pitches against hostile pace bowling attacks.
India was too powerful and too important for the game to be mocked openly. In several quarters, however, there was a feeling that the Indian team wasn’t as good as it was hyped up to be.
The last 30 days have, however, changed the reputation and image of Indian cricket, perhaps forever. Tributes have poured in from all parts of the world over India’s stunning performance in Australia. From former captains in England. From cricketing greats in Australia. Even from arch-rivals Pakistan. The significance of India having the bench strength to play an almost second XI that is good enough to beat a full-strength Australian team at the Gabba was not lost on anyone.
As Andy Bull wrote in the Guardian, after the Brisbane Test, the ground has moved, lifted, shifted and settled again, making cricket’s landscape look a bit different. India has been the spiritual and commercial home of cricket for a long time. The Indian cricket team has now stamped its authority on the field and has the opportunity to create an aura around itself.
When West Indies beat England 3-0 in the summer of 1976, it began a domination of world cricket that lasted for more than 15 years. Australia’s hard-fought 2-1 victory over the West Indies in the Caribbean in 1995 signalled the end of one era and the beginning of another. India has had that kind of a series.
To come back after being blown away for 36 in the first Test at Adelaide and win the next Test at Melbourne was no mean achievement. To do it without your talismanic captain and best batsmen as well as two top bowlers was immense. But in the next two Tests at Sydney and Melbourne, India took its performance to the next level. Australia began the fifth day in both matches as favourites to win, and in situations from where they have won countless times. That they were thwarted in the third Test by two injured men was incredible. That India won the fourth Test by three wickets with a near second string side on the evening of the fifth day was quite simply the stuff of legends.
Over the four Test match series, India played 20 players. Injuries mounted, personnel changed, but every day a new player put his hand up and delivered. Ajinkya Rahane led the way with a captain’s knock in Melbourne. A battered and bruised Cheteshwar Pujara put his body on the line as he soaked balls and pressure through the series. Hanuma Vihari and R Ashwin battled injuries to save the match at Sydney. Mohammed Siraj chose not to return to India after the death of his father, and took five wickets in an innings in his third Test. Shubman Gill showed his prodigious talent to the world as he scored 90-plus on a tension-filled fifth day of the last Test. And, finally, there was Rishabh Pant who conjured up dreams of an improbable victory at Sydney, before leading India over the finishing line at the Gabba.
Australian coach Justin Langer made the point about how you have to be really good to emerge from 1.4 billion people and play for India. For too long, India had confined its selection net to a few big cities and towns. MS Dhoni was the first mega star to emerge from a small town. What began with Dhoni has now almost become a movement, as hungry and talented cricketers emerge from the unlikeliest of places. And, unlike in the past, these young men are not suddenly thrown to the deep end, unprepared.
The IPL and T20 cricket were supposed to sound the death knell of five-day cricket. Ironically, IPL (along with the India A tours) has emerged as the grooming ground for a new generation of Test cricketers. This generation, starting from Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya, has been savvy enough to realise that the IPL may make them wealthy, but it is Test cricket that will make them heroes.