Has India earned the number one spot in Test cricket?

Fri 11 Jan 2019

The answer to this can be confirmed by simply checking the rankings, but where’s the fun in that? Instead of surrendering the joy of the game to an avalanche of data, sometimes relying on instinct is welcome.

Let’s apply a comparative hypothesis: Which international team would fans, donning their impartial hats, want to watch? The answer for me? India. The current team brings enviable qualities to the Test arena. This verdict is based less on the pioneering and comprehensive 2-1 away series win over Australia, their first in 71 years, and more on the team’s relatively new holistic approach. They play with soul and a sense of respect, seen in how they walked around the boundary to thank fans after defeating Australia by 137 runs at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Playing the team card

Yes, the incumbent Australians were vulnerable and India seized the opportunity to punish them, but the Indian team also lost the Test series in South Africa and England last year. This side, like New Zealand in January 2013 under captain Brendon McCullum and coach Mike Hesson, had an epiphany in South Africa 12 months earlier.

Coach Ravi Shastri alluded to it in the post-match press conference in Sydney. At one point they decided “there’s a certain brand of cricket we’re going to play... we’re going to find out what suits the team best and take it forward from there”. Captain Virat Kohli also struck a chord with New Zealand fans now acclimatised to Kane Williamson’s selfless approach.

When asked to single out the best contribution in the India-Australia series, the skipper played the team card. He said the 66 balls faced by Hanuma Vihari to see off the new ball on Boxing Day in Melbourne was “as big as anyone getting a 100”. This came straight from the Williamson playbook. If Kohli comes anywhere near maintaining those sentiments long term, his tenure will be revered.

The Kohli factor

The Indian team is formidable and watchable. Their capabilities have been obvious in Australia. Cheteshwar Pujara and Jasprit Bumrah were especially unstoppable. However, the most important human component to any sustained success will be Kohli. His playing ability has been enhanced with the captaincy, and he is among the most powerful leaders of any sports team worldwide. I witnessed the energy he can generate during the New Zealand-India Test at Eden Gardens in 2016. Kohli stood in the slip cordon and raised his palms skyward. The higher they went the louder the crowd roared. He was a human amplifier.

If Kohli embraces Indian fans’ love of the game and defends against slipping into a cult of personality, he will become a captain loved at home and respected abroad. At 30, he’s a poster child for a savvy generation of Indian millennials. They know the power they wield, and they defer to no one. He only has to avoid getting lured into a narcissistic echo chamber and believing the hype.

The coup in Australia suggests the sport’s momentum could stay with India for the foreseeable future, given the talent on show anywhere from the Ranji Trophy to the Indian Premier League. The IPL investment has matured over 11 editions into a jewel, albeit a gaudy one, on the cricketing landscape. For local players to get an annual audience with the world’s best is of priceless development value.

If the qualities of empathy, passion and independence are replenished in the Indian dressing room to feed the team culture, and the combative approach of the players simmers but never boils over into poisonous aggression, a dynasty could be propagated.


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