Tuesday, January 8, 2019

India's away campaign in 2018

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In any other time in Indian cricket, 4 Test wins across consecutive tours to South Africa, England and Australia in a 12 month period, would be hailed without conditions. This is however not any other time in Indian cricket. This is the time of Virat Kohli. The one of a winning mindset. The one who puts team goals before individual milestones. The one who wants his bowlers to bowl fast. The one who doesn't mind losing a Test in the quest for a victory. The one who appears willing to live and die by outcomes of cricket matches an not by the number of 100s he and his mates score. 

Virat Kohli is not your regular Indian great. Winning is a large part of who Virat Kohli is. In order to win, Virat Kohli is willing to put the building blocks needed to seek victories. He batted for the coach he wanted, he pushed his players to be more fit, he invested in fast bowlers, he embraced a no-excuses mindset and he created a team culture that did not honor seniority by default. 

And he talked of winning abroad. 

Some saw the spark and a glimpse of what was in store in his first match as captain in Adelaide 2014. Even as India lost that Test, they lost going for an improbable win. 

Since that Test, Virat Kohli has taken India to number one in Test rankings. India have won pretty much everything in sight at home. Outside India, they have won in Sri Lanka and the West Indies. While winning in West Indies is not as hard as it used to be, winning in Sri Lanka as India did after 22 years was special. 

When it comes to winning in England and South Africa, Virat Kohli's India has not broken new ground and in fact under performed in comparison to some of the previous teams who have won tests and drawn series in South Africa and won Test series in England. While the series win in Australia may go a long way in giving the Kohli-Shastri team some breathing space, overall the combined outcome of the 12 Tests in South Africa, England and Australia is a bit disappointing. 4 wins, 7 losses and 1 draw does no justice to the promise of Virat Kohli from 4 years ago. 

I had expected more.

Even so, when you dissect the Test matches, you can draw some conclusions that may lead to a more optimistic outlook for India in the future.

India now have a Test team that can capitalize when conditions and turn of events are even slightly in their favor. Except for the rain in Sydney, India won all Tests when they batted first and when their bowlers were presented the opportunity to bowl last in helpful bowling conditions. They even delivered under pressure of defending smallish first innings targets set by their batsmen. The 250 in the first innings at Adelaide and 187 in the first innings at Johannesburg come to mind. India now have the bowling to get them back in games when their batsmen fail to provide the first innings cushion. Prior to the 2018 tours, in Tests since January 2000, India had lost 15 tests on the road when their batsmen scored 250 or less in the first innings; 11 of them either by an innings or 10 wickets. 

India's bowling has improved but only compared to their own bowling from previous teams. Both in South Africa and in England the home team out bowled India. Previous pace attacks from India were so abysmal or good only in spurts that an attack that consistently takes 20 wickets seems above any criticism. To win Tests however, you have to out bowl the opposition bowlers consistently. On the tour to South Africa, the home bowlers did not match up to the exploits of the South African pacers and in England the home teams all rounders proved too much for India's bowlers to match in skill and variety. 

On difficult pitches India's batting hasn't been able to produce one of those freakish performances that defy norms and conditions. The pitches on offer have been tough and the fourth innings targets have been tricky. As a collective batting unit, rarely across the 7 losses; all when batting second; have India's batsmen been blown away, any more than the home batsmen have struggled. Batting conditions have been tough across the 3 series. To compare the averages of batsmen in this series with previous performances on more friendly pitches and conclude that India's batting has let themselves down is misleading. The only way India could have won any of those 7 tests they lost is if their bowlers would have out bowled the home team bowlers or their batsmen produced a freak performance. Singling out only one aspect is trying to ignore the context of conditions. 

Winning in Australia is satisfying but the performances across the 3 series which was the most anticipated away season was ultimately humbling. 

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