“If you look at the last three years, we have won nine matches overseas and three-Test series. I can’t see any other Indian team in the last 15-20 years that has had the same run in such a short time, and you have had some great players playing in those series.”

— Ravi Shastri, 2018

Are you among those who compare teams and individuals across eras? Those who wonder how Victor Trumper would have faired in the Twenty20 era or how Sachin Tendulkar would have countered the fearsome West Indian fast bowlers of the 1970s without a helmet?

Such comparisons are as meaningless as they are indulgent. Advertisers use similar tools to draw the attention of your limbic system. After all, if it isn’t “the best iPhone of all time”, is there any point in buying it? It’s also a great copout when you aren’t left with any other excuse. “Okay, I got a B-minus in Maths, but you know all my elder brothers and cousins couldn’t even get a C?”

The claim and the aftermath

The above statement from the infamous Ravi Shastri press conference falls in the same category of meaningless indulgences and copouts. Like everyone else, Shastri is free to knock himself out. His other utterance from the same presser where he stated that the series could have easily been 3-1 in India’s favour is far more stupid, shameful, and disrespectful to an opponent who has just won fair and square. For a man who covered professional sport longer than he played it, it shouldn’t be hard to understand elite sport is always decided on fine margins. To claim a moral victory for running an opposition close is much worse than admitting defeat.

Unfortunately, it was then left to Virat Kohli to answer the inevitable query on his team being the best Indian travelling side in the past 20 years after a 4-1 loss in his press conference at the end of the series. You had to feel for Virat Kohli there. How does he react to the overt chest thumping of his own coach right after a shattering and humbling loss?

To his credit, Kohli didn’t talk about the last 20 years and just said, “We have to believe we are the best side, why not?” As captain of a young team, you must allow Kohli the leverage to have conviction in that statement. He is the kind of person who would find it hard to drag himself onto the playing field if he doesn’t believe his team is the greatest of all time or has the potential to be one. It is up to others to critique the claim factually. It is fair on Kohli and his team’s part to believe they are the best (without bringing the unnecessary comparison aspect) as long as it is not used as an excuse for a loss. Heck, even the best teams and best players lose all the time. As Michael Jordan once said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

So what cost Team India a series that many believed they could have won. Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan. In sports, it’s left to those who analyse to the game to adopt this orphan. The experts have already given you scores of causes for the defeat. I will try to analyse the merit of a couple of popular theories (who says you can’t critique the critics?)

England’s lower order runs were handy, but was it the cause of India’s defeat?

A side-by-side quantitative comparison has led many to the conclusion that the main cause of India’s defeat was the lower-order runs that England got. Sure enough, if poor top-order batting and excellent swing bowling by both teams cancel themselves out, then lower-order runs seems to be the distinguishing factor. Or, is it?

When Barcelona and Real Madrid play each other, you know Barcelona will always string together more passes. That’s how they approach their game. To say that Madrid lost because they couldn’t make as many passes as Barcelona is only looking at half the picture, at what transpires on the field without considering the strategy behind it.

England packed their sides with all-rounders. It was part of their game plan to get runs out of lower order. India’s game plan was to get runs out of their top five. A more accurate way to look at England’s lower-order runs is to say the team that executed its game plans better won in the end.

Poor selection cost India; poor approach cost them more

A common lament of Indian fans is that selection decisions cost India the series. Sure enough, India’s selection policy throughout the five Tests was muddled, to put it gently. But were England’s selection decisions any better? England just won a Test series where they carried Adil Rashid for the most part as a glorified spectator. Selection oversights notwithstanding, a more accurate assessment of the series would say: not enough Indian players did justice to their selection; enough English players did.

As an aside, blaming everything on selection in hindsight is part of Indian fans’ false belief that their team loses only because of some misfortune. Remember that Milkha Singh biopic that ignored the fact that others ran a better race and put his loss down to some random emotional sequence? Hopefully, as India matures as a sporting nation, sports fans will learn to stop treating defeat as a tragedy and attribute it to some terrible sleight of fate.

More than the selection, it was the approach from some Indian players, especially batsmen that needs correction when they are in similar close contests.

The job of the modern international batsman is a challenging one. He is expected to turn into a power hitting machine one day and an obdurate shield, defending everything, the next. The demands of Test and white-ball cricket are so different that it’s pretty much impossible to adapt your muscle memory in time to play both formats. Those who succeed across formats, make a minimal adjustment to their methods while playing T20, ODI or Tests. Virat Kohli is an excellent example of this.

To see the ultra-defensive approach of someone like Hardik Pandya through most of the tour was disappointing. You don’t turn Pandya into Pujara (or vice versa) mid-series. I would have rather seen Pandya go down swinging than trying to play in a way that doesn’t come naturally to him. In contrast, Rishabh Pant’s approach to batting was refreshing. It wasn’t dictated by the match situation or opposition as much as his own method of scoring runs that works for him.

The one thing that goes in this team’s favour is the fact that they have a core that is still quite young. Players like Pandya, Pant, Rahul are still finding and improving themselves at this level and are going to be better players when India tour Australia at the end of this year. A series win against a depleted Australian side is very much on if the team fixes minor chinks in their strategy and plays the game that suits their style of play the best.