Despite some initial hiccups in 'rainbow nation', Team India made a commendable recovery in the limited overs games, writes Aditya K Halder
The year 2018 is being considered an acid test for the Men in Blue. Virat Kohli & Co are not just out to prove their mantle in Test cricket but they are also aiming to complete the team puzzle for the road that leads to the World Cup 2019 in England and Wales.
The South Africa tour was an indication of just that. India won the limited-overs format against a depleted Proteas with relative ease. However, amid allegation of too much international cricket for Team India (which saw them play a useless back-to-back away and home series against minnows Sri Lanka) and lack of tour matches in overseas conditions, they once again failed to win a Test series in the Rainbow nation.
Winning seven of the 11 Test matches in sub-continent conditions (losing just once against Australia), the Indian batsmen amassed a humongous 6057 runs on dead pitches, with an average of 550 plus in each Test match.
However, the so-called explosive batting line-up (loaded with the likes of Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Virat Kohli) looked miserable on the seaming overseas track. The entire unit managed just 1,236 runs in three Tests (averaging 412 runs).
The top order failed to click on each occasion. Murali Vijay, who played in all three Test matches with three different partners (Shikhar Dhawan, KL Rahul and Parthiv Patel), accumulated just 108 runs in six innings with a top score of 46. To highlight the dreadful situation, the recognised batting-order failed to take the scoreboard above 150 on all but one occasion.
India's long-format specialist Cheteshwar Pujara, who has been considered India's key batsman in testing conditions, couldn't bring much to the field despite his time spent in the English county season as he managed just 100 runs in six innings —half of which came in one innings in the third Test.
Rohit Sharma, who earned his spot in the line-up after his charismatic third double-century in ODIs, failed to take his game to the next level yet again. The Mumbai India skipper managed mere 78 runs in four innings and was subsequently dropped for Ajinkya Rahane, who showed his class with a sulky 48 in the second innings of the third Test. Skipper Kohli, however, was the vital cog in the wheel as he managed to shake off the tag of a flat-track bully.
The Virat show
Kohli has a breath-taking batting average of 63.50 in 52 innings in Test. However, his average dips to 45.40 away from home (also includes Bangladesh and Sri Lanka); giving every reason for his critics to doubt him as a complete batsman. Coupling that with his failure in the England series in 2014, sceptics were not sure if Kohli could hit pay dirt in South Africa.
After a dry run in the first Test match, the aggressive Indian skipper seemed destined to remain under the shadow of Australian Steve Smith, who is currently the No 1 batsman in Test Rankings, above the Indian skipper. But, with an exquisite 153 in the first innings of the second Test, the newly-wed cricketer kept his critics at bay for a while. The innings was followed with crafty knocks of 54 and 41 runs in the victorious Test – amassing the highest total of 286 runs – ahead of AB de Villiers with 211 runs.
Kohli carried his form in the limited-overs format too. He was top scorer again with 588 runs in the six-match ODI series, scoring his 33rd, 34th and 35th century in due process as the Men in Blue trounced the host 5-1.
Being at the top of his game, Kohli may have reached the epitome of the ODI rankings and No 2 of Test rankings, but new to his captaincy role, which is often deemed aggressive and a tad bit arrogant by experts, Kohli made some obvious blunders during the South Africa tour. Opting for non-performing Rohit over Rahane and dropping Bhuvi for Ishant Sharma in the second Test brought the skipper into the eye of the storm as he received ire of former cricketers such as Sunil Gavaskar and Virender Sehwag. The swashbuckling former opener even went on to say that Kohli should drop himself if he fails to perform in the second Test.
The tweakers treat
As far as the bowling unit is concerned, the entire team went in all guns blazing. They convincingly took the entire 60 scalps possible with the red cherry; Mohammed Shami (15 wickets) and Jasprit Bumrah (14) stole the show sharing 29 of the South African scalps. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who was surprisingly dropped for the second Test in Centurion, claimed 10 wickets in two matches.
But the pace battery was soon shadowed as the colourful formats saw the rise of two wrist spinners in 'chinaman' Kuldeep Yadav and right-arm leg-spinner Yuzvendra Chahal. The duo repeatedly haunted the Proteas batting order as they outfoxed them in similar fashion throughout the series. Their aggressive bowling style often went for runs but their ability to turn the ball on any kind of surface with the knack of picking wickets at regular interval always brought back the pressure on the hosts.
Putting any hopes of spinning stalwarts'—Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja – return to the ODI scene into jeopardy, the 'chinaman' went on to claim a charismatic 17 wickets, while his partner in crime Chahal picked a haul of 15 in six ODIs.
Despite a bad patch in Test, the terrific trio of Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Kohli were back among the runs in a familiar fashion. While Dhawan managed three fifties and a century in the 50-over format, his opening partner Rohit managed a century to put an end to his woeful form in the Dark Continent. But once the trio is out of the fray, the middle order failed to ensure dependability as they often failed to fire together. Except for Rahane's 79 in the first ODI, there wasn't any significant contribution from the likes of Shreyas Iyer, Manish Pandey and the old guard MS Dhoni.
It is also the time to re-access Dhoni's spot in the batting order. Coming in at No 6, the 'keeper-batsman' was once an ideal batsman for the position as he could slaughter the bowlers at will in the slog over. But with time, Dhoni's demeanour has changed into more of a sheet anchor who holds the team from one end. Bringing him at number four might do more good to the team, ensuring more solidity in the batting order as the slog hitting in the final overs can be left with the likes of Hardik Pandya and Manish Pandey.
On the right track
With a massive series win in a country that wasn't rout before, the Shastri-coached side has managed to affirm a fiery top-order and a settled bowling line-up with enough backups. The middle-order might look disorganised but with the inclusion of Suresh Raina, Team India seems to be heading to the right direction of creating a squad capable of lifting the World Cup in 2019.