Numbers don’t lie: Why India’s record under Kohli should be taken with a pinch of salt

Bhaskar Chawla

The last two years have been incredible for Indian cricket. Ever since Virat Kohli took over the Test captaincy, India has only seen highs in this format. The run started with a long-awaited series win in Sri Lanka in 2015, saw India become the first team in nine years to win a series against the Proteas outside South Africa. They also became the No 1 Test team, beat England and Australia, and seal yet another series win in Sri Lanka.

While these are great achievements, they all have something in common which would make close followers of Indian cricket take them with a pinch of salt: they all came in Asia. With the exception of a 2-0 series win against a West Indies team that would struggle to beat Ranji sides, each of team India’s wins have come in the home-like conditions of the subcontinent.

Home wins aren’t ‘trivial’ but are losing value

By no means are home wins to be dismissed as “trivial”, for the simple reason that no other Indian captain has had a record this impressive while playing in the subcontinent. The only one who comes close is Kohli’s predecessor, MS Dhoni. The Indian team and its fans have learned from the England series in 2012 and the Australia one earlier this year that playing in home-like conditions does not guarantee victory. There is no place to hide in Test cricket, and no team can win a Test match without playing well.

However, just like a currency loses value when there’s too much of it in circulation, home wins also lose value if we see too many of them, and that is exactly what has been happening in the last six years or so. This period seems to have started for India after the 2011 World Cup, but India is not the only team that has seen a spike in home wins since then. Below are the home win percentages of major teams (Test playing nations except West Indies, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh) against each other in two periods – from 2005 to the 2011 World Cup, and since the World Cup till now.

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Pakistan and India lead the pack with a whopping 33% and 25% spike in home wins, respectively. But it’s clear that every single team except Sri Lanka has won more at home since the 2011 World Cup. In the case of Australia, even the 2% rise is very significant, given that they had one of the best teams in the history of the game in the 2000s, and saw a sharp decline in performance and stature in the 2010s. Maintaining even the same home win percentage proves how much easier it has been to win at home since 2011. Sri Lanka’s drop in home performances can be explained with the retirement of their greatest bowler, Muttiah Muralitharan and, more recently, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene.

Non-Asian teams struggle in the subcontinent

Another factor to consider is which teams India play in the subcontinent. Between 2005 and 2011, 57% of the matches India played in Asia came against other subcontinental teams. Since 2011, this number has reduced to 18%, meaning that they’ve mostly played non-Asian teams in the subcontinent. So, it is important to see how these teams have done in Asia. For more clarity, let’s look at their loss percentage in Asia.

Every single one of the major non-Asian teams has lost way more matches in Asia since 2011 than they did between 2005 and 2011. Whether Asian pitches simply spin more since 2011 or these teams didn’t have the right personnel for Asian conditions is a matter of debate, but this is yet another graph that shows that India have had it relatively easy in home matches in the last six years.

Team India has always been judged by its overseas performances. Sourav Ganguly made his name by being India’s most successful captain overseas. Rahul Dravid also had a very good overseas record. While we generally look at overseas wins, a more practical approach is to see the percentage of losses overseas (outside Asia), as the ability to prevent defeat in foreign conditions is a more realistic marker of success.

Providing some context

Kohli’s predecessor, MS Dhoni, captained India for 60 Tests. Dhoni’s three predecessors – Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble – led the team in 63 Tests combined, which is roughly the same number of matches. Let us contrast India’s win percentage in Asia and the loss percentage overseas against major teams under Dhoni and his three predecessors. This graph will provide more context to Kohli’s captaincy record.

The graph makes it clear that India became a different team once MS Dhoni took over its reins. With a few exceptions, India dominated all oppositions in the subcontinent, but struggled to even save matches overseas. Kohli’s win percentage in Asia is 72.7% right now. This is not that different from Dhoni’s, given that many matches under Dhoni were played in the period before 2011, and included matches against a much more competitive Sri Lankan team.

Numbers may show that Virat Kohli’s team is an exceptional one. But fine-tuning these numbers reveals that this isn’t really the case. While it isn’t right to think that home wins mean nothing, it would be better to take Kohli’s captaincy record with a pinch of salt until his team plays a significant number of matches overseas.