It isn’t perfect. It isn’t even close to being perfect just yet. But there is still no denying that this Indian men’s Test team is the best touring team in the world currently and perhaps the best Indian touring team ever.
India were very good in the 80s thanks to the solidity provided by Sunil Gavaskar and Dilip Vengsarkar, and again in the 2000s when Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly joined Sachin Tendulkar’s party... but they were never this good at winning.
Those squads were built around batting riches and the odd great bowler (Kapil Dev, Anil Kumble, Zaheer Khan). But the way Virat Kohli wanted his team to do things was different. Rather than seek the safety net of an extra batter, he reckoned it would make more sense to simply blow the opposition away with the many great bowling options he now possesses. It was an aggressive approach; it could go wrong too but the essence of it was pure Kohli – a win at all costs mentality that didn’t mind the odd defeat.
After the big loss against England in the third Test earlier this year, Kohli was asked whether he would consider a sixth batter... something that Gavaskar had been advocating as well.
“You are talking about a pure batsman?” he had then countered. “I don’t believe in that balance and I have never believed in that balance because either you can try and save a defeat or you can try and win a game. And we have drawn games in the past with similar number of batters.”
He had added: “If your top six (including keeper) don’t do the job there is no guarantee that the extra guy can bail you out. You have to take pride in taking responsibility and doing the job for the team. If you don’t have the ability or resources to take 20 wickets in a Test match, then you are already playing for two results and that’s not how we play.”
It is this paradigm shift that has revolutionised India’s approach to Test cricket and made opponents look at them differently. This is a team that will simply keep coming at you and they do it often by playing five bowlers. Most great teams in history had four good bowlers and a batter or a world class allrounder to help with the balance. But Kohli’s all-out approach puts teams on the back foot even before the game begins.
Since December 2018, over 35 innings, the average total against India in an ‘away’ Test is 248 runs. The highest total is 432 (England at Leeds in 2021) and the lowest is 100 (West Indies at North Sound in 2019). Nine times the opposition has been dismissed below 200 and only nine times have they scored more than 300.
This is why Kohli believes that if his team can get to 300-350 while batting, the bowlers will take them to victory. It isn’t just instinct, he is relying on hard data instead.
Also worth noting is that the average innings against India lasts just 76.20 overs. Divide that number with the five bowlers that India usually plays and the workload is managed well and the bowlers can keep running in hard.
As per statistician Rajneesh Gupta, in eight away Tests this year, the pacers have accounted for 83% of wickets taken by Indian bowlers. The recipe also works at home, where in six Tests this year, the spinners took 85% of the wickets for India. And that has meant Kohli has had no reason to move away from his formula.
And of course, as said earlier, things aren’t perfect. The batters can do better but for the moment, if one of them does well, as KL Rahul did at Lord’s and in Centurion, for instance, it sets up the game for India. If you are the opposition skipper, then just the idea of India getting over 300 runs is bad news.
'Away' record in the last 3 years
The fact that India aren’t tourists anymore is huge. And that is why when Kohli and Co win away from home, it almost seems routine now. Our expectations from the team have changed and it might not be wrong to say that India go into every series – regardless of the conditions – as favourites now.
The unit has stayed together for a long enough time to have a good handle on all conditions and that experience helps too. They have found their heroes and then again, they have unexpectedly found new heroes who have risen to the occasion when the team needed them to.
There will be the odd numbing defeat and in sport, that will happen. But on the whole, from the magic of the win at Gabba to the routine nature of Centurion, 2021 has been quite the journey for the Indian team; a journey that promises to get better as long as this team sticks together.
A little more from the batting unit and this team could truly join the ranks of some of the greatest Test teams ever and they’ll do it in a style that is all their own.