India conquering the final frontier by winning Test series in Australia after 7 decades

For India, this series win is conquering the final frontier much in the same way Australian team conquered the ‘final frontier’ (called by Steve Waugh) by beating India in India after 35 years in 2004.

Despite all round acknowledgment that the Indian team could overwhelm the Aussies, the first ever series loss (2-1) to India on home turf in it's seventy-year history would surely rankle the cricket crazy country for some time to come. But for the rain gods listening to the prayers of the Australians, the story would have been more embarrassing. It is also after thirty years that the Aussies have been asked to follow on in a Test, though this could have been done by Captain Kohli in the third Test itself.

Australia have lost to South Africa and India consecutively in 2018. Hope the world would not witness again, the nation mourn and captain weep and resign similar to Kim Hughes's tearful resignation after losses to West Indies and England during 1983-84. It took Hughes’s deputy Allan Border a decade to rebuild the national team that ruled for two decades under Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting. Undoubtedly, the Australian team, temporary absence of Steve Smith and David Warner notwithstanding, is currently undergoing a rebuilding phase after the retirement of a bunch of legends (Waugh brothers, Hayden, Gilchrist, Warne, McGrath).

For India, this series win is conquering the final frontier much in the same way as the Australian team conquered the ‘final frontier’ (called by Steve Waugh) by beating India on Indian soil after 35 years in 2004. Now, only beating South Africa on their soil remains. In a way, it was a return of favour to the Aussies, in the same coin in many ways.

Arguably for the first time, a visiting team managed to get under the skin of the Australian team and sledged similarly if not more ( Rishabh Pant constantly taunted Paine on being a temporary captain). The host team was left rather shocked by the hostile bowling that saw their batsmen ducking and regular hitting of helmets by pace battery pounding at about 150 kmph – an unimaginable feat coming from a country whose medium pacers bowled opening overs for formality for decades. 

The host team also faced the ignominy of following on twice ( once effected by India) after three decades; a team whose batters crumbled in a heap most of the time and the highest scorer didn’t touch eighty, forget anyone scoring a century. For a change, the Aussie team looked like the Indian team which is dependent on one or two players. The Australian team is too dependent on Steve Smith and Warner and one prays that they don’t fail on return, otherwise all hell would break loose.

In this series, the Aussie tail also failed to wag and that would have troubled the Indians as the case in South Africa and England this year. Quite unnaturally, except for the second Test, Australia played with a defensive field whereas Kohli set an attacking field in most of the matches and matched his aggressive posturing with catching postures around the batsmen. 

The Indians derived vicarious pleasure in experiencing what possibly the entire country was doing; Indians did that for generations i.e. praying and looking up to the heavens to open up and pour rain to save them from embarrassing defeats.

The emotion was epitomized by Michael Clarke uttering that only the rain gods can save Australia in the third Test. It didn’t happen when the weather forecast predicted but it did on the last two days in the final Test when Australia were looking down the barrel and that saved them the ignominy of losing the series 3-1.

By scoring three centuries and over four hundred runs, Pujara finally justified the mantle of being a worthy successor to the legendary ‘Wall’ (Rahul Dravid) of world cricket. Before that, he had merely averaged 29 runs in combined overseas series in Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand. Kohli was dismissed twice after failing to put down the ball on his leg side- an otherwise strong point for him.

Mayank Aggarwal was certainly the find of the tour and may have ended India’s search for an opener who could face searing pace on bouncy pitches overseas. After Lyon’s performance in the previous Test, Sunny Gavaskar had raised his rating sky high.

Mayank earned many ‘anks’(points) in reducing Lyon from Lion status to an average bowler in the third Test. The series would also be known as ‘hurrah for bumrah’ as he is now acknowledged by all as a very intelligent bowler and is on his way to become the best in the business.  

It seems that the lucky charm that helped them win is the ubiquitous black beard borne by this Indian team; easily, it can be called as a ‘band of bearded brotherhood'. Just notice how now Rahul ,Murali Vijay, Rahane, Pujara, Shami, Ishant, Jadeja – besides Virat- don a beard.

If pleasing the cricket powers that be needs any further proof, observe how novices like Rishab Pant, Bumrah and even Kuldeep have taken to sporting beards. Even Ashwin is keeping up the pretense by keeping a faint French beard.

The only exceptions are Sanjay Bangar and Ravi Shastri but then they don’t take the field. Or is it the captain who wants to save time in shaving and concentrate on practice?

In the last 14 Test Matches, 12 times Indian bowlers specially the pacers have bowled out the opposite team twice. Thus, the Indian team may have finally buried the ghost of living with a reputation of being unable to bowl out opposition Test teams twice in a Test unless one prepares rank turners at home. 

India can profusely thank South Africa for softening the Australian team by beating them 2-1 in the ODI series and 1-0 in the T-20s prior to India’s arrival. South Africa had exposed Australia’s brittle batting line up by beating them 3-1 in the Test series in early 2018.

My direct following since the seventies shows that all the successful Test teams must necessarily have an equal balance in batting and bowling with a worthy wicket keeper contributing when chips are down- be it Rodney Marsh, Deryck Murray, Gilchrist or Butler.

This maxim holds true when one looks at the mighty West Indies of the seventies-eighties (also filmed in ‘Fire in Babylon’) and all opponents annihilating Australian team.

The former boasted of a fine balance by having strong batters like Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Gomes and Lloyd and a pace battery of Marshall, Holding, Roberts and Garner.

Similarly, the Aussies had Hayden, Langer, Ponting,Waugh brothers, Gilchrist and bowlers like Mcrath, Mitchell Johnson, Hogg, Gilespie. Similarly, during the seventies Australia boasted of the likes of Bill Lawry, Redpath, Doug Walters, Chappel brothers and had the Lillee Thomspon duo that terrorized the world’s best batsmen by short pitch bowling and bloodying the body.

Before Clive Lloyd, the West Indies team had similar balance in the form of Frank Worell, Kanhai Wes Hall, Gary Sobers, Lance Gibbs etc.

Even the most successful Pakistan team under Imran Khan during the 1990s had great batsmen like Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad, Rameez Raza and bowlers like Imran,Waqas,Wasim and Qadir. This holds true for Sri Lanka under Ranatunga which had batsmen like Arvinda de Silva, Dias, Ranatunga and bowlers like Chaminda Vaas and spin wizard Muralitharan.

India enjoyed similar balance under Sourav Ganguly with batting maestros like Sachin, Rahul Dravid, Laxman and bowlers like Kumble, Srinath, Harbhajan but the problem with that team was the inability of Kumble and pacers except for Kapil Dev to trouble the batsmen while touring overseas.

It’s only this year that the Indian pacers have troubled the South African and English batsmen but their batting is still powered by Kohli and Pujara with Rahane coming good once a while. In England, the series was quite close and India were in with an equal chance of winning in nearly in all the Tests but lost 4-1 due to departures of Kohli and Pujara when it mattered.

Even in the current Australia tour, India were lucky that Pujara stood ground when Kohli failed. Of course, in the Sydney Test, Rishabh Pant and Jadeja joined in the party but that was due to the pressure being taken off by a strong opening stand.

Now after this series victory, are we seeing a champion world class team? Frankly, there is no qualitative change in the Indian team that faced South Africa and England this year. In fact, India was out right lucky in many ways: unlike in England.

Virat’s luck in winning tosses helped in Australia specially in the fourth Test; luckily for India, besides Virat, Pujara clicked in three matches; and unfortunately, the batting of the Australian team was woeful to say the least and unlike South Africa and England, the Aussie tail didn’t wag at all except for one odd innings by Cummins in the third Test.

If only, the Aussie team would have put a decent score, the batting calibre of the Indians would have been truly tested. So one shouldn’t read too much about this victory, and also one shouldn’t pat oneself on the back by beating West Indies these days.

Though India had lost the series against South Africa and England this year, one can’t miss that in both those series India, unlike in the past, didn’t fight as an underdog; in fact, both Faf du Plessis and Joe Root credited India to be worthy contenders. Even in the 4-1 series loss  against England, India had an equal chance of winning the series but couldn’t win due to over reliance of the batting on Kohli.   

One must not read too much about this victory though as basically it was the collective failure of the inexperienced Australian team to pose an effective challenge. A closer analysis would show a discerning observer, that the pattern of the Indian performance shows a similar continuum – over reliance on the captain and Pujara.

This needs to change if India is to become a Test team to be remembered  in line with the best.

Yet, the Indian team is on the right learning curve and has all the potential to be the best. In fact, they are almost invincible on home turf. This has happened as India has adopted a similar professional approach and work ethic in elaborate training, practice and fitness regimens.

India also needs to bury the fearful ghosts of losing on a Nagpur green pitch to Australia in 2004.It  needs to prepare pitches for enabling players to face balls rising up to the waist level if not up to chest level as it does in England, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Only Virat and Pujara have the technique to face balls rising up to chest level and that’s why others have struggled even though occasionally Rahane, Rishabh Pant and Jadeja have made some runs in the last two series abroad.

Virat Kohli was understandably booed by crowds for his aggressive body language (near chest bump with rival captain Paine). Australian fans do act racist. One remembers how the 1985 WSC final between India and Pakistan was dubbed as the contest between bus and cab drivers.

Ranatunga’s total support of Muralitharan's bowling action led to name calling by the Australian fans and led to Ranatunga stating that everyone knows where the Aussies come from. The Indian players did rightly by not responding to the crowds’s taunts of need to show visa by the Indians.  What the Aussies miss is that the erstwhile docile Asian teams have turned around into fierce competitors and want to be treated as equal and with respect.

The T-20 format specially the IPL and other leagues have done a great service to the cause of Test Cricket: firstly, due to the changed pace, mindset, technique and temperament typical of twenty twenty, a drawn Test match has become a rarity and a result in a Test match is always exciting to experience. Secondly, the skill sets shown by players like Pujara and Kohli separate the class batsmen from the rest.

Like the Boycott and Dravid of the past, Pujara’s patience, doggedness and determination can only be seen in Test cricket. The true test of character and class can only come from contesting  over five days. Pujara was praised for his doggedness and determination by Kumar Sangakarra and Kevin Pieterson. 

Thirdly, the thrill of seeing the twists and turns and glorious uncertainties of cricket can only be enjoyed by seeing a Test match.

Look at the ironies of world cricket that players like Pujara doesn’t get picked in the IPL. Rahul Dravid had suffered similar ignominy when initially he found few takers in the ODI format but he proved his critics wrong later on, when he showed how players like him provide solidity in building scores and chasing runs, specially when blasters like Gilchrist, Jayasuriya, Sehwag and Sachin fail at the top order.

Dravid, Hashim Amla, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Mahela Jayawardane showed how classic cricket shots are as important in ODI as in Tests.  

In another continent and series, the Pakistan team lost their first two Tests and series to South Africa during these two weeks. Pakistan’s batsmen struggled against the world’s best pace battery (South Africa even finding a new one in Olivier after finding Rabada and Lungi Ngidi in quick succession).

Despite Pakistan boasting of an equally impressive pace attack and taking wickets, the batsmen failed to put a decent double hundred score consistently and lost.

Even India still need to find some more 150 kmph pacers in the same way Clive Lloyd found after being battered personally in Australia in 1975 and returning to find a fearsome foursome that terrorized the world’s best batsmen for over a decade.

Like Clive Lloyd led a team of 15 nationalities, Kohli leads a team of immense diversity. He has succeeded in winning all Test series at home with ease and has carried on the trend of India not losing a home series since 2012. But for a truly champion team, he has to build a balanced team about which one speaks in foregoing paragraphs.

(The writer is a senior IAS officer)