Seven Test wins on the trot, four of those by a margins of an innings and a few runs: the first, an Indian record and the second a first in the history of the game. Twelve consecutive Test series wins at home, to extend their own world record.
One word to describe India’s Test performances in the home season of 2019: emphatic.
After winning the first day-night Test to be played in India, Virat Kohli and Co extended their lead at too of the ICC World Test Championship table. Which, to be fair, is a bit early to read into given the schedule so far has, by design, favoured the No 1 side in the world. From here on, India have 11 Tests pending in the WTC and six of those are in New Zealand and Australia, five of them at home against England.
For their part, Kohli’s team has done what is under their control: beat the opponents in front of them. As South Africa and Bangladesh have found out, India are a ruthless win-machine at home under Kohli’s captaincy (more so than it has ever been the case in India).
After this short home season, here are some takeaways for the Indian side:
(Note: Virat Kohli is good at batting and he broke records for fun. That will not be discussed in any more detail here.)
Pace is ace
No of Bangladesh wickets to fall at Eden Gardens: 19
No of Bangladesh wickets taken by Indian spinners: 0
No of Bangladesh wickets taken by Indian pacers: 19
A Test match win at home for India, where 19 wickets fell, and not a single one for a spinner. Let that sink in.
It is quite amazing that Eden Gardens, the venue where Indian Test cricket saw the first-ever Test hat-trick for Harbhajan (and that cameo by Sachin Tendulkar too), has now gone two Test matches without a single wicket taken by an Indian spinner.
And that too, in the absence of Jasprit Bumrah.
India’s fast bowlers finished 2019 with 95 wickets in Test matches at an average of 15.16 and a strike rate of 31.06. That strike rate is the best in a calendar by any group for fast bowlers (minimum 50 wickets) in the history of the game, according to ESPNCricinfo.
More than all the incredible numbers, though, what has stood out has been the chemistry between Ishant Sharma, Mohammad Shami and Umesh Yadav as we saw during an interview after the win in Indore. This is a fearless bowling attack where each of them also enjoy each other’s success. That’s a dangerous combination for opponents.
While the pace trio deserves to be credited as a unit, one man must be appreciated for his comeback of sorts. Umesh Yadav was originally not meant to be a part of the Indian squad announced for the Test series against South Africa. But Jasprit Bumrah’s back injury opened the doors for him and he reminded the world how good he can be in Indian conditions.
Umesh is a very unique case study among Indian pacers because he has consistently been more threatening at home than away, which is counter-intuitive for an Indian fast bowler. His ability to bowl quick through the air and extract reverse swing with the older red ball made him a threat and he had a brilliant home season in 2016-’17.
In his own words, his form dipped since then and he had to win a place back in the side. With some spectacular bowling during this home season, he has forced himself back in the reckoning.
“His keeping credentials are for everyone to see. He has done well with the bat whenever he has got a chance. According to me he is the best keeper in the world”
That was captain Kohli’s statement in the press conference before the first Test against South Africa. The decision to bench Rishabh Pant after his superb initiation to Test cricket overseas (more so with the bat than gloves) came as a surprise to many but, even then, it felt like a decision based on fairly sound logic. As we had written on these pages, it was a call taken based on Saha’s brilliant technique as a wicketkeeper. And, after a slightly shaky start in Vizag, Saha kept improving with every match and finished with a performance at his home ground that left fans gasping.
It is often said that wicketkeepers have done their job if they are not talked about after a Test match but there comes along an occasion or two when they deserve all the praise they get: for Saha, the day-night Test at Eden Gardens was one such.
Now the question is, has Saha done enough to keep his place when India begin their away tours in 2020? Will India be tempted to shore up their batting by bringing Pant back? As things stand, Saha would have to the favourite because not missing a chance behind the stumps becomes even more crucial against tougher oppositions in tougher conditions. But the Bengal ‘keeper would do well to fine-tune his batting skills to stay ahead of the curve.
The Ashwin-Jadeja battle
The Indian team management does not tire of reminding us about the culture of competition in the side and, at the moment, there is no spot in the Test XI as hotly contested as that of the lead spinner. After missing out in West Indies when Kohli preferred Ravindra Jadeja in the lone-spinner role, Ashwin Ravinchandran started the home season on fire with a superb display in Vizag against South Africa. His bowling in the first innings (7/145) there was a reminder of how good he can be even when the conditions don’t aid spin. But he found himself increasingly on the sidelines as the pacers took over from there. After eight wickets in the first match of the home season, he finished with 20 from 10 innings overall.
Jadeja, on the other hand, had fewer wickets to show for from the five Tests (13) but has grabbed the opportunities at No 6 in the batting lineup. He has finally added consistency to his undoubted batting talent and, at home conditions especially, is seen as a viable No 6 batsman, enabling India to play five bowlers.
Now, with India not playing a home Test in 2020, has Jadeja done enough as an all-rounder to keep his spot as the sole overseas spinner in the XI? Or has Ashwin reminded Kohli and Ravi Shastri of how good he can be even on non-turners?
It is difficult to say, but the balance seems to be tilting in favour of Jadeja.
Agarwal, Sharma and the aggression against spin
Even years from now, it would be no surprise if the likes of Dane Piedt, Keshav Maharaj, Mehidy Hasan have serious nightmares about their time in India in 2019. As brilliant as it was to see Indian pacers dictate terms during this home season on pitches that were not rank-turners, it was equally heartening to see the batting lineup take the attack to the visiting spinners.
India’s status as good players of spin had come under some threat in the recent past, partly because of the nature of the surfaces that were being used at home. But Rohit Sharma and Mayank Agarwal were simply outstanding in using their feet against the spinners, and clearing the boundary.
The South Africa series witnessed a new record for most sixes hit a three-match rubber while in Indore against Bangladesh, Agarwal equalled the record for most sixes in an innings by an Indian: both made possible due to the approach against opposition spinners.
Rahane, Pujara’s positive approach
For Ajinkya Rahane, four consecutive fifty-plus scores on the trot. For Cheteshwar Pujara, four out of the last five innings have produced half-centuries. Both of them would, no doubt, have liked a century or two more to their name but their consistency with the bat is one of the cornerstones of this batting lineup, as Kohli does not get tired of mentioning.
But what was especially heartening to see what Rahane and Pujara playing with a certain sense of freedom and authority. For both Rahane (SR: 56.84) and Pujara (SR: 61.58), the series against Bangladesh features in the top three in terms of strike rate in their careers (more than one match in a series).
Often, they can get a bit too bogged down with their conservative approach, focussing on their air-tight defence. While that is their strength, there is nothing wrong with backing one’s instincts to play a few strokes every now and then.
The Test centers debate
One of the biggest talking points to emerge from this home season was a serious debate about what needs to be done to improve footfall at the venues for Test cricket in India. Sourav Ganguly’s reign as BCCI President begin with excellent numbers in Indore and Kolkata for the Bangladesh series and preceded by poor turnouts against South Africa. The former Indian captain and the current Indian captain have been both vocal about bringing the fans back to the venues and the pink-ball Test was a shot in the arm for both of them.
But there are other issues to consider if the duo are serious about a fixed Test calendar in India. For starters, see table below for just how inconsistent the number of home Tests for India have been. The 2016-’17 season saw a record number of Tests hosted in India but either side of that, there have lean seasons.
In 2020, India are not scheduled to play a single home Test (mostly because of the T20 World Cup later in the year) and that is a sad situation when the board and captain are serious about keeping the game alive in the country.
India's home Test seasons
Sure, the next home series is going to be a big one against England in 2021 but the focus needs to be on making sure there are a set number of Tests played at home every year to ensure there is interest in the game. England and New Zealand are in the middle of a series that is not part of the Test Championships and that is something India must look into, if needed in the future.
“It is not the only solution to rejuvenate Test cricket, but it is one of the things we need to do. If only we are able to control dew, the pink ball Test can become an annual feature in India,” Rahul Dravid had said recently. “You make it tough for the bowlers when the ball gets wet and takes the swing away... it (pink ball) is a novelty that will attract people to the stadium and must be tried.”
“Basic things like toilets, seating, car parking need to be looked into, these are things that will draw,” he added.
The debate over crowds and the success of the pink-ball Test have been good starting points, but this cannot be a one-off.