Every time India searched for answers against New Zealand in the one-dayers at home, they had the captain and the first officer to helm the inquest. Captain MS Dhoni would issue an SOS call to his deputy, Virat Kohli, for a quick chat, an emergency meeting.
Dhoni and Kohli would stand there, often next to the batsman on strike – to get under his nerve – and wave their arms in all directions. The fine leg would be brought in, the fine leg would be sent back. The slip would be taken off, the slip would be back in position. They played with the batmen’s mind. They played with the opposition’s plan. Dhoni and Kohli, together, helped India rattle the opponent.
“I have already started using him (Kohli) more,” Dhoni had remarked on his camaraderie with his deputy. “If you witness a match you will see I have more interactions with him on the field.”
In ways like these and more, India shattered rivals and their dreams for most of 2016. It was a year Dhoni’s trust in Kohli increased by the day. It was the yearKohli the leader took centre-stage. By the end of it, it was Kohli’s India that wowed the cricket world with their ruthless brand of cricket. And,Dhoni’s India stood there and cheered as its younger version found its wings.
It was a nightmare of a start to the year, though. India were back in Australia, after a tour defined by defeat in 2014-’15. This time, however, they were Down Under only for limited-overs matches. And when India were beaten in four of the five ODIs, the Indian fans resigned themselves to a familiar script.
The punishment in the ODI series meant the sword over Dhoni’s head was sharpened. India would have to rewind the clock a fair bit to come across a series triumph achieved by Dhoni’s men. The T20 series that awaited the Men in Blue was, thus, the proverbial ticking timebomb for the illustrious Indian captain.
Just when the alley appeared to be at its darkest, Dhoni’s boys found a spark that lit up the path. They blanked Australia 3-0 in the T20Is – their first bilateral series win in Australia. It allowed captain Dhoni to breathe, but more importantly, it allowed India to hope.
A World T20 at home presented India with their best chance to be two-time winners of the trophy. And the starry display in the T20s Down Under began to rebuild the belief broken by the prolonged poor run in the lead-up to it.
But the build-up was yet to get better. There was the banana skin of the T20 Asia Cup to contend with. Not only did India not slip, they mastered it, and added another trophy to their cabinet. A T20 trophy in a multi-national event less than 10 days before the World T20 could not have been better timed. It had allowed India to believe.
The hype was in place. The buzz was in the air. And it all crashed when New Zealand handed India a defeat in the opener. But like they had bounced back from the very bottom at the start of the year, India were reborn after the initial shock from the Kiwis.
A last-ball win against Bangladesh and a gritty chase against Australia sealed India’s passage to the semi-final. They would play the West Indies at the Wankhede – the stadium they were crowned 50-over world champions in 2011. They even had the total on the board, which seemed enough to book their tickets to Kolkata for the final. But there was eventual shock and awe as no-balls and dropped catches combined to allow West Indies to stun the hosts. The Wankhede was silenced. And a campaign that promised world glory fell short just when they appeared all but set for it.
It was a spirited show that India put up at the World T20. They were, after all, only eclipsed by the eventual champions. But the powers that be at the Board of Control for Cricket in India decided that Ravi Shastri did not deserve a contract extension as team director.
The Anil Kumble era
So in came Anil Kumble. The former India captain and spin legend was asked to take over as the head coach of the national outfit. It marked the start of another transition. Kumble’s tenure started with a tour to the Caribbean with the Test side, the national team most in transition.
Kohli and Co. had hammered South Africa, who visited them in late 2015. But that was in the comfort of their home. West Indies may have been a weak opponent, but it was still an overseas trip. India had not tasted a series triumph outside the subcontinent for five years. The last time they did, it had been in the Caribbean islands back in 2011.
Dhoni’s team had scraped to a 1-0 series victory in 2011. They had, on the way, even let go off an opportunity to chase a gettable target in Roseau and make it 2-0. That was a cautious India. But a change of guard at the top had run in a change in approach of the team. It was now an Indian team that did not wait for an invitation to be aggressive. And that they proved this year in the Carribean, as they counterattacked even when they were on the mat. By the end of the four-Test series, it was not merely a 2-0 triumph that stood out but also the brand of cricket this Indian team would define in the days to come.
The T20 world champions managed to nick a 1-0 win against Dhoni’s outfit in a haphazardly arranged two-game T20 series in the USA. The contest played out in late August would be India’s only loss for the remainder of the year.
New Zealand and England
New Zealand came to India with hope and Kane Williamson. India figured the touring captain out after the century in the first game and deflated their hope to whitewash them in the Tests.
With Kohli’s stakes as captain on the rise with one strong show after another, the ground under Dhoni’s feet had turned unstable.
And to Dhoni’s horror, the Kiwis managed to hand India a scare in the ODIs. The hosts were run close, and the series was alive as the team headed to the decider. Dhoni’s boys had fallen to South Africa last season, and they were on the verge of another embarrassment – this time against New Zealand.
Fortunately for Dhoni, his team hung on to hand India another triumph in the year. That brought the curtains down on a mixed year for Dhoni. His team had lost to Australia in the ODIs, failed to go all the way in the World T20 and suffered another defeat to the Windies in Lauderhill. But the Asia Cup T20 title combined with the T20 series win Down Under and the triumph over New Zealand had allowed Dhoni to hold on to the one-day leadership till the onset of the new year at least.
England were up next. They came as the only team to have won a Test series in India over a decade. India, on their previous two visits to the United Kingdom, returned humiliated too. But on all those instances, it was Dhoni’s India. Now, it was Kohli’s India.
When England were in with a chance to deliver the knockout punch in the opening Test in Rajkot, people wondered if Kohli’s bubble was set to burst. Instead, it was the one bad day in office that the young captain brushed aside, as his side decimated the English in the remaining four Tests. India had a score to settle with England at the start of the series. By the end of it, they had left the visitors bare and exposed.
It was a year, thus, that started off with great uncertainty. But it ended with India as the world No. 1 Test side, and as the second- and third- ranked sides in T20Is and ODIs respectively.
“Individual performances are important, but in the end it is what those performances do for the team that matter,” Kohli had expressed. “If we have been able to become the best in the world, it is because there is a lot of bonding among team members and there is always someone to raise his hand in a difficult situation. I think that is what makes a top side.”
Biggest positive: Kohli
But the biggest positive to come out of 2016 for India was Kohli’s growth as a leader and a Test batsman. The wild and abusive celebrations were gone and he now wore a more mature and dignified look. They were worthy of a national captain, unlike the previous ones that could be expected from a teenager whose emotions ran haywire.
Like when Kohli fought time to allow Karun Nair to score his triple ton, he backed his team. He even involved the crowd to back his team. Kohli was now not just one of the best players in the world, but he also wanted his team to be the best.
Kohli’s majesty with the bat in the one-dayers had been tirelessly replayed over the years. He added three more ODI centuries in the limited-overs games India played in, apart from the spate of hundreds in the IPL.
But it was Kohli in the whites that people still had doubts about. He was yet to cast a spell on the admirers of the longest form of the game. But three double tons – the first for an Indian captain – in six months reinstated his value as one of the best in every format of the game.
Ashwin, the all-rounder
The emergence of Ravichandran Aswhin as an all-rounder, likewise, has the potential to turn a page in Indian cricket’s history. Ever since Kapil Dev had hung up his boots, India searched every nook and corner of the country to find a person who could perform with both bat and ball, albeit with perturbing success.
For the first five years of his career, Ashwin was primarily an off-spinner. He could bat, but you could not bank on him to save a game. Even as an off-spinner alone, his place in the side was far from assured.
But with the confidence with which Kohli backed Ashwin, not only did he consistently run through opponents with the ball, he was transformed into a top-six Test batsman by the end of 2016.
For years, India had watched in awe as teams like Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa bred world-class all-rounders. Now, they had a man of their own – atop the all-rounder’s chart.
Prolific bench strength
Similarly, when the teams from Australia and South Africa dominated through the ‘90s and early 2000s, it was a formidable bench that gave them the power. After years of struggle, a prolific bench strength was another aspect checked in India’s wishlist. Rahul Dravid, appointed as coach of the under-19 and ‘A’ teams more than a year ago, had now settled. The flow of reserve players from his camp to the senior side was now as per the blueprint the BCCI had in mind when they added the former India captain in the system.
Dravid’s vision, teamed up with Kohli’s trust in every player he handed a debut to ensure India ended 2016 with almost at least one replacement for every member of the playing eleven on the bench.
Jayant Yadav picked up wickets and scored a century. Nair converted his first century into a triple ton. KL Rahul made sure that Murali Vijay and Shikhar Dhawan, India’s preferred opening pair in Tests, know they have serious competition. And finally, Parthiv Patel made a remarkable return after eight years to make it difficult for the selectors to ignore him once the injured Wriddhiman Saha is back.
Even in the one-day set-up, the likes of Kedar Jadhav and Manish Pandey came from under Dravid’s vision to add firepower to India’s bank.
To sum it up, 2016 presented India with a leader, who brings along with him a combination of fresh ideas and aggression. It also gave the country the all-rounder it yearned for. Finally, it set in place a pool of reserve players – all capable of championing international challenges.
In 2017, India have a Champions Trophy to defend. The basics are in place. All they must now hope is for Dhoni’s Midas touch to return in the one-dayers. For India’s clout in the longest format is well taken care of. India enter the new year with the hope of consolidating their hold over world cricket.