The Positives and the Downsides for the Indian Test Team in 2018

C. Namasivayam

India managed to hang on to their No.1 position

India started the year 2018 with a Test match loss against South Africa at Capetown and wrapped up the year with a win against Australia at Melbourne. India won the third Test match against Australia at Melbourne by a huge margin of 137 runs. This was India’s 150th Test win. With this win, India have taken a 2-1 lead in the ongoing series.

By winning the third Test, India have retained the Border- Gavaskar Trophy irrespective of whatever happens in the fourth Test at Sydney. Now India are at the brink of creating history by winning a Test series in Australia for the first time in 71 years.

During the year 2018, India played a total of 14 Test matches and finished with an even record of winning 7 and losing 7. The team had lost away series in South Africa and England and won the one-off Test against Afghanistan and the Test series against the West Indies at home. India have managed to hold on to their No. 1 position in ICC Test rankings at the end of the year.

As the records suggest, the year 2018 has been a mixed bag for Team India in Test matches. There have been a lot of positives as well as downsides in performances in 2018. As we wrap up 2018, let us examine the positives and negatives for the Indian Test team in 2018.

Positives

1. The success of the fast-bowling trio

The Indian fast bowling trio has broken a 34 years old record

The biggest positive for Team India in 2018 has been the combined and consistent performances of the three fast bowlers Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami. All the three fast bowlers have been relentless in their efforts and created match winning opportunities for the team.

The fast-bowling trio created a record by taking the maximum aggregate number of wickets in a calendar year. Ishant, Bumrah and Shami combined together took a total of 136 wickets in 2018 to go past the record of 131 wickets taken by the fearsome West Indies fast bowlers Joel Garner, Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall.

The enormity of this achievement is explained by the fact that the record of the West Indies fast bowlers stood the test of time for 34 years before the Indian trio broke that record this year.

Bumrah, who made his Test debut at the beginning of the year, is the leading wicket-taker for India in 2018 with 48 wickets followed by Shami with 47 and Ishant with 41 wickets. It was due to their outstanding performances that India managed to all the wickets in the series against South Africa, West Indies and Australia. The only time the Indian bowlers failed to do so was in the Lord’s Test against England. It was indeed a remarkable achievement by all the Indian bowlers.

Hence the biggest positive for India in 2018 was the performances of the pace trio.

2. The strength of the middle-order

Pujara and Kohli - India's most successful batting pair in 2018

The Indian middle-order led by their Captain Virat Kohli stood out to quality bowling attacks in challenging overseas conditions. Both Kohli and Pujara were outstanding right through the year while Ajinkya Rahane was not far behind.

Kohli is the leading run-scorer for the year with 1322 runs, scoring 5 hundred and 5 fifties at an average of 55. Pujara is fourth on the list with 837 runs and 3 hundreds. Ajinkya Rahane, who was not in the best of form, did the supporting role to perfection with 644 runs to his name.

It was the partnerships in the middle-order that enabled India to put runs on the board for the fast bowlers to play with. The middle-order contribution was vital in India achieving 4 overseas wins in the year.

Rahane too contributed along with Pujara

In Johannesburg, Kohli and Pujara scored fifties in that low-scoring match. At Nottingham, Kohli came up with scores of 97 and 103 while Rahane made 81 in the first innings and Pujara 72 in the second innings.

Pujara scored 123 and 71 at Adelaide while Rahane contributed with 70. In Melbourne, it was once again the turn of Pujara (106) and Kohli (82) to come good on the first day for India to guide India to a formidable first innings score of 443.

The performances of the Indian middle-order, especially that of Kohli and Pujara, were instrumental in some of India’s memorable Test wins in 2018.

3. Improved Indian fielding and the performance of Rishabh Pant behind the wickets

Rishabh Pant has been a revelation for Team India

The Indian fielding standards have improved a lot during the year. By and large, they took all their catches and Kohli, Rahane and Rahul were exceptional in the slip cordon.

The performance of Rishabh Pant behind the wickets needs a special mention. Though he was all at sea in his debut series in England, he slowly settled in his role in the series against Australia. By taking 20 catches in the first three matches of the series, Pant created the record for most number of dismissals by an Indian wicket-keeper in an away series.

Besides, Pant proved his usefulness to the team as a dare-devil lower order batsman. Not to forget his constant chatters behind the wicket to get into the skin of the Australian batsmen.

The performance of Pant - the wicket-keeper and the improvement shown by the Indians on the field are the two huge positives for India in 2018.

4.    Effective spin-bowling attack

The Indian spinners played their part

Though the Indian fast bowlers took the center stage on overseas conditions, the spinners too did their bit to make the Indian bowling more potent. In the five matches that he got to play, Ravindra Jadeja took 25 wickets. He contributed to the memorable Melbourne win with 5 wickets.

Ravichandran Ashwin, though plagued by injuries, took 38 wickets in 10 matches. He contributed with 7 and 6 wickets respectively to India’s win at Birmingham and Adelaide.

Though Kuldeep Yadav didn’t get many opportunities in the overseas Tests, he took 10 wickets in the 2 Test matches at home against the West Indies.

The Indian spinners played a good supporting role to their fast bowlers by holding one end up and by providing crucial breakthroughs.

5. Improved Bench Strength

Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav did their best when given a chance

Apart from the regulars, even players like Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav displayed their skills in the limited opportunity they got. In the Hyderabad Test against the West Indies, Umesh Yadav finished with figures of 10 for 133.

Though Bhuvneshwar Kumar played in only 2 Test matches at the beginning of the year against South Africa, he took a total of 10 wickets in those 2 matches. The contributions made by Kuldeep Yadav and Hanuma Vihari in the limited opportunities they got were praiseworthy. 

6. The emergence quality youngsters

Mayank Agarwal and Prithvi Shaw are the finds of the year

The emergence of new young players like Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal augurs well for Team India. Prithvi Shaw scored a century on debut against the West Indies before he was ruled out due to injury. Mayank Agarwal, who made his debut in the recently concluded Melbourne Test, impressed everyone with his attacking mindset and scores of 76 and 42. Not to forget Jasprit Bumrah who made his Test debut only this year.

With young players like Prithvi Shaw, Mayank Agarwal, Rishabh Pant and Hanuma Vihari who are already in the team and with other exciting prospects like Shubman Gill and Ishan Kishan, the future of Indian cricket is in good hands.

The Downsides

1. The vacancy at the top of the order

All the Indian openers were consistent in being inconsistent

Both the Indian openers Murali Vijay and KL Rahul had a torrid time this year as most of the matches were played abroad. Apart from scoring a big hundred in an inconsequential Test match at Oval, Rahul struggled to survive at the crease with his apparent technical deficiencies. In almost all the matches, he was either out bowled or leg before wicket.

Other than scoring a hundred against newcomer Afghanistan, Vijay failed to score a single 50 in the other matches. Shikhar Dhawan did not do any better. The continuous failure of the Indian openers right through the year put a lot of pressure on the Indian middle-order.

2. Allowing the opposition tail to wag

Sam Curran played some crucial innings in the lower order in the Test series against India

The Indian bowling failed to wrap up the opposition tail which cost them the England series. Sam Curran regularly bailed England out of trouble with his batting. The inability of the India bowlers to wrap up the tail cost India the close matches at Edgbaston and Southampton in the England series.

In the Adelaide Test, the Australian tail very nearly won them the match when they were short by a mere 31 runs.

3. Meek surrender of the Indian tail

As against the opposition tail wagging, the Indian tailenders simply gifted their wickets without making any useful contribution. At all times the Indian tail never had the stomach to fight it out which was reflected in the margin of defeats.

Tailenders like Ishant, Shami and Bumrah, although excellent with the ball, never made an effort to stay at the wicket and add some crucial runs to the team's total.

4.Overreliance on the toss of the coin and inability to chase down targets

India are over-reliant on the toss of the coin

Team India, being the No 1 Test team in the world, are expected to equip themselves to handle all adverse conditions. But of late, they have become over-reliant on the coin falling in their favor.

In the seven matches that India won in the year, except in one match against the West Indies at home, India won all the other 6 matches batting first. Conversely, in all the 7 matches that India lost during the year, the one common factor was that in all those matches they were batting second.

At Cape Town, India failed to chase down 207 and at Edgbaston, they faltered yet again during the chase of 194. The inherent weakness of the Indian batsmen to chase down gettable targets was a big negative for Team India in 2018.

5. The miscalculations of the team management in team composition and selection of the players

Shastri and Kohli made a number of wrong calls in 2018

The Indian team management headed by Captain Virat Kohli and Head Coach Ravi Shastri committed the following miscalculations in the year.

a) In the first two Test matches in South Africa, India dropped their most reliable batsman Ajinkya Rahane to accommodate Rohit Sharma. India lost both the Test matches.

b)  In the second Test match of the England series at Lord’s, on a seamer-friendly wicket and under overcast conditions, India decided to drop Umesh Yadav and go in with Kuldeep Yadav.

c) Throughout the England series, KL Rahul was persisted with in spite of repeated failures and Karun Nair was continuously ignored and subsequently dropped. Prithvi Shaw never got a look-in despite the failure of the other 3 openers.

d) In the England series, Jadeja was ignored until the last Test at the Oval and the half-fit Ashwin was persisted with.

e) At the start of the Australian tour, the selectors made a big mistake by recalling Murali Vijay. After Vijay’s struggle in England, Mayank Agarwal should have been given a chance much earlier. Vijay, in his return, failed along with the other opener KL Rahul.

f) In the second Test at Perth, the Indian team management decided to go in with an all-pace attack and included Umesh Yadav in the playing XI in place of a spinner. As it turned out, Nathan Lyon, the off-spinner from the opposition camp, ended up with 8 wickets in that match.

g) In the third Test at Melbourne, India’s decision not to enforce the follow-on after taking a first innings lead of 292 caused sleepless nights for all the Indian fans. Taking into consideration the weather forecast and the strength or the lack of it of the Australian batting line-up, India should have enforced the follow-on.

To sum up, the Year 2018 has been a reasonably good year for Team India in Test matches. Though their success rate is only 50%, they managed to win 4 overseas Test matches and are now at the brink of creating history down under.