The image of Bhuvneshwar Kumar creating havoc among the South African top-order at the start of 2018 is one that could have been ‘the’ moment for Indian cricket fans in a season when three overseas tours were piled up. As he scalped the wickets of Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla with a perfect combination of seam position and swing in his first ten overs, the supporters lapped up each delivery for it could have been one of the positives assessed after a gruelling year.
Touring the ‘SENA’ countries and coming back empty-handed had been the norm for long – and as Bhuvi’s tight spell was negated by AB de Villiers’ heroics at the Newlands 12 months ago, a familiar script was expected to roll out. However, by latching on to the lessons learned in the series defeats against South Africa and England, and by playing with an air of confidence, Virat Kohli’s side scaled the peak in Australia – only the first Indian side to ever do so.
SA: The Emergence of Bumrah
For his uncanny action and his rise in the shorter formats, it was a general consensus that Jasprit Bumrah was not one for Test cricket. Though the bowler has an first-class average of 24.11, the notion was that he should have been wrapped in cotton-wool ahead of the World Cup, and his very first Test innings – at Newlands in the first Test – heightened apprehensions.
As Bumrah spewed the ball all over the park, his selection seemed a blunder. But with three wickets in the second innings, including those of de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, the bowler had arrived.
Finishing the tour with 14 wickets at an average of 25.21, the second best figures by an Indian bowler who has played only one series in the country, was just the start to a phenomenal Test career.
Having finished the year-long overseas assignment as India’s leading wicket-taker with 48 strikes, the growth of Bumrah the Test bowler can in no way be ignored.
He was ably supported by Mohammad Shami and Ishant Sharma, along with Bhuvi, as the fast bowlers ended the tour to South Africa with 50 wickets, nine more than what the Indian pacers achieved in 1996/97. It was also the second-best showing by any pace attack in a three-match Test series in South Africa.
However, the tour did not pan out as perfectly for the Indian openers, with Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul amassing 164 runs together without a fifty to their name. The batting as a whole failed to click, and the fact that Hardik Pandya was the second-highest run-scorer for the side after Virat Kohli displayed the poor rut the Indian batting was in. Ajinkya Rahane was ignored in favour of Rohit Sharma for the first two Tests due to the latter’s white-ball form and Cheteshwar Pujara’s woeful form overseas continued as the pressure on the batting unit was at its peak.
The selection blunders – dropping Bhuvi for the second Test and picking up Rohit Sharma whilst ignoring Rahane – did continue in England as well, but with a relatively short three-match series ending 2-1, the issues plaguing the side were overlooked.
ENG: A Can of Worms Opened
Due to the brevity of the South African series, the underlying problems that had been ignored cropped up in an ugly manner in England. Selection mistakes, injury mismanagement and lack of communication, the opening conundrum, the inability of the bowlers to dismiss the tail, the iffy keeper’s slot along with the failure to grasp the potential match-changing moments were in full force.
Cheteshwar Pujara was surprisingly dropped from the first Test at Birmingham, where England won by 31 runs. Kuldeep Yadav was picked in overcast conditions at Lord’s, and Ravichandran Ashwin was fielded in the fourth Test despite a lingering injury.
Ashwin’s failure to create a mark in dry conditions when Moeen Ali was changing the game with his part-time off-spin bowling prompted widespread flak for the Indian team management, and it was a pleasant change to see the same bowler not forced into the reckoning for the last three Tests in Australia after he was injured and Ishant Sharma being rested after a minor niggle.
The England series once again saw the openers waste their chances – Rahul scored 299 runs with the help of a fighting 149 in the last game, but Vijay and Dhawan looked completely out of sorts. Vijay, in fact, was sent home after the first two games.
The consistent failure prompted the selection committee to look towards Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal. 19-year-old Shaw missed the Australia series due to injury, while Agarwal has done well to latch on to his spot.
All along the England series, it was the lower-order that took matches away from India. England’s numbers 8-11 scored 636 runs at an average of 21.20, with Sam Curran and Adil Rashid taking the game away at Birmingham and Stuart Broad combining with Curran to take England past 240 at Southampton after having been 86/6 and 177/8.
With the Indian bowlers erring in their line to the tail-enders, the lower order proved to be a nuisance, and though the likes of Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc scored more than 300 runs in the recently-concluded series at an average of 20.10, the Indian pacers were more willing to cramp up the ‘batsmen’ for room, offering them little width to free their arms.
AUS: Seizing The Moments
A major reason for India’s 1-4 loss in England was their tendency to let games slip away by not seizing their chances. England were allowed to get to 180 in the first game after the side was on the mat at 87/7, and a similar script ensued in the fourth Test. In the same match at Southampton, a strong 92-run partnership between Pujara and Kohli was given away, which eventually proved costly.
However, in the series Down Under, the intent to grab the smallest opportunities could be seen.
A 62-run stand at Adelaide between Pujara and Ashwin after the slipping to 127/6 on Day 1. Bumrah’s spell on Day 3 at Melbourne that shot Australia out for 151. Attacking Travis Head in the first Test even though numbers 10 and 11 could easily have been attacked.
Keeping the fielders close and not letting the momentum slip away on that occasion only highlighted Kohli’s urge to be the best by making bold steps; as the captain stood aloft the podium, kissing the coveted Border-Gavaskar Trophy, the days of trying to stand back up after succumbing had finally borne fruit.
With the failures in South Africa and England leading to the emergence of more successful players, with the fast bowlers out-bowling their opponents, and with a group of young enthusiasts who hardly hesitate to ‘sledge’ their counterparts arising, the Indian fanatics, who had dissed aside Ravi Shastri and Kohli for their ‘best Indian side in the last 15 years’ remark now stand proud, very proud.
(Sarah Waris is a postgraduate in English Literature has taken on the tough task of limiting the mystic world of cricket to a few hundred words. She spends her hours gorging on food and blabbering nineteen to the dozen while awaiting the next Indian sporting triumph.)
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