By Luke Flannigan for LastWordOnCricket
As India welcome Bangladesh and an Australian side fresh from a mid-summer facelift later this month, their attention will turn back to Test cricket. Impregnable is their fortress, and the temptation for many might be to look upon these Tests as foregone conclusions. Those people are probably right, and for the purposes of this article, let’s indulge them.
Looking beyond India’s marathon home season is Virat Kohli’s greatest challenge as Test captain. Longevity atop of the rankings is a fanciful notion in Test cricket’s current climate and gruelling away series outside of Asia await beyond the horizon. It is a challenge, which will ultimately determine how far this Indian team can go. Right now they are good. Could they be great?
A dynasty eludes the modern era
Dynasties in Test cricket are one of the rarest jewels of sporting dominance. There have been three in the game’s entire history. Perhaps that is to do with the fact that up until the latter half of the twentieth century, the field wasn’t yet competitive enough to credit a monopoly, although Australia’s Invincibles of the 1930’s and 1940’s would beg to differ.
Test cricket is tough this much is true. A game in which the home advantage is stripped of cliché and given impossible significance instead. It’s like starting a football match were the hosts are already 1-0 up, or a basketball game with the score line 10-0 at tip-off. Or if Test cricket were tennis you’d be a game up and first to serve.
Unlike the truism of any other team sport, the hometown crowd isn’t what makes an away trip intimidating. It’s the conditions, the pitch and the eleven better-experienced players in such conditions that are in front of you. The odds are heaped well and truly against you. As such, the games are at times horribly one-sided. It is normal to boisterously thrive at home and then be pummelled to a pulp away. Tests are the toughest challenges to compete in, never mind dominate.
No sides were feared more than the three, which created dynasties. The Invicibles from Australia with the batting god Bradman, the West Indies of the 1980’s with their frightening frontline foursome of pace, pace, pace and pace, and Warne and McGrath’s golden Australia. But are Virat Kohli’s India currently feared?
India’s impressive run
In India, sure.
England die-hards might surely sign up quicker to a seminar in teeth-pulling than watch another series in Asia after 2016. It certainly declined rapidly; more of a graceless plummet than a fatigued glissando. A 4-0 drubbing, which India polished off by breaking England’s back. 759/9 declared and a triple hundred for a man playing in his third Test provided a gross embellishment of India’s superiority.
This of course was also after demoralising a South Africa (admittedly on pretty nasty pitches) and making light work of New Zealand. It was in Asia, yes, but South Africa were world number one at the time. New Zealand also had periods in that series where they were in the game. Between those contests they won two series away in Sri Lanka and the West Indies. They only lost one Test in the process. 19 Tests. One defeat.
But there’s a crucial snag: they haven’t done it against the best away.
While impressive, their record is not enough. Nobody is bowing down and hailing them the new overlords of the cricketing world. In the Test domain, nothing warrants such praise if you haven’t beaten the best in their own backyard. Any English fair-weather fan will tell you, if you haven’t conquered a swinging ball you may be good, but you’re not a great. By their reckoning, such players wouldn’t belong in cricket’s Valhalla.
On India’s last outings to England, Australia and South Africa, the score lines read 1-3, 0-2, 0-1: a record of one win, four draws and six losses. Add their 1-0 series defeat to New Zealand in there and you have the four series directly preceding their recent run of success. Nothing about that is dynasty.
India incapable of producing a dynasty of world beaters?
The problem is rooted in Indian culture and conditions. With spinning pitches, which deteriorate as early as day three, India need to stock their squad with the best spinners. It’s purely logical. You don’t play four seamers on a dust bowl. That is, unless you have an attack which includes Malcom Marshall, Andy Roberts and Michael Holding.
Spin in India can easily get twenty wickets. But it doesn’t get you twenty wickets abroad. And here lies India’s issue when touring. Their best player and indeed the current best Test bowler, Ravichandran Ashwin could be taken completely out of the equation in Australia and England, leaving India one weapon of mass destruction down, in an otherwise fairly limited armoury.
Focusing on the two most recent dynasties, and we see that there success was underpinned by their bowlers. In truth, Australia had a freak of nature in Shane Warne. He shouldn’t have been as good as he was. But he was. Meanwhile the West Indies in the 80’s didn’t need a freak. When you have four of the best fast bowlers to ever live, the winning takes care of itself. India don’t have a freak of nature, nor four of the best, though they do have a world-class spinner and an unfamiliarly promising pace attack.
A team to play beyond an Indian summer
Thus it would be fair to argue that India have created one of their best away attacks ever. At least they may challenge the best abroad. Shami, Umesh, Ishant Sharma and Bhuveneshwar Kumar will be challenging in seaming conditions; more challenging than Moeen Ali, Rashid, Ansari and Dawson were on India’s spinning tracks in late 2016. What’s more, India’s pace attack out-bowled Anderson, Broad, Woakes and Stokes in the five-Test series in Asia, which was perhaps an overlooked fact.
Shami is a handful with his skiddy pace and swing, Umesh can hit 90 and above with reverse and Bhuveneshwar Kumar will always take wickets in England. There could be a competitive India away from home. Time will tell.
On the other hand, batting has always been India’s stronger suit. India’s home crowds come to see India bat. Their heroes for the most part, are batsmen. Sachin, Dravid, Sehwag, Gavaskar, Kohli. And it is perhaps this scope, which leaves them lacking abroad. Not that is necessarily a fact that can be helped. India producing consistent and decent seamers is as polemical a problem as England producing good spinners.
That being said, with India’s current batting lineup, the embarrassments in England are less likely to be repeated. Kohli is a behemoth, a run hungry force of nature, and it bugs him that his record is poor in England. Pujara is a better player now. He has combined Dravid’s brick wall style defense with Kohli’s quick-fire scoring ability. Rahane averages 50 away from home and Vijay can set an excellent platform having already succeeded in England.
Someone to hate
With a realistic scope, India are still a work in progress. Kohli is taking one series at a time and is determined to be ruthless. That was clear against England. With the teams they’ve fielded of late, there is no denying that they are looking unbeatable at home. However there isn’t a strong indication that they will tip the balance of the Test cricketing world, beyond that of the home rule status quo. Test dominance is more a mirage for now.
Perhaps that is something, which Test cricket is missing. Someone to hate. Someone you love to hate. Someone you love to hate but secretly love because of how great they are. Everyone hated Australia during their supremacy but no-one could deny how amazing McGrath was, how devastating Gilchrist could be and how much everyone loved Shane Warne. Rivalries and champions are reasons why sport thrives and why Test cricket has been so enthralling.
Where would we be if Australia and England didn’t hate each other? Or what if India and Pakistan’s rivalry didn’t exist? We would be missing out on some of the most potent contests in the entire world. If New Zealand weren’t cheated by Australia, who is to say that the Hadlees, McCullums and Williamsons would have existed. Years of being ignored followed by underarm gate in 1981 put fire in New Zealand’s belly. And let’s not even talk about the West Indies and grovelling.
Tests are losing their appeal in cricket’s modern era and nothing would spice things up like a good old-fashioned villain. After all, had the Joker not been in Batman The Dark Knight, it’s hard to believe it would’ve been anywhere near as good.
India aren’t there yet, and they may never get there. But it’s something to hope for. Hope is at times all Test cricket presents.