Sidharth Monga in Sydney
It took 13 days to break Australia down. On the 13th day of Test cricket in England, India had already lost the toss that was going to consign them to a 3-1 deficit. That’s how difficult it can be to beat a home team, even this Australian team, none of whose batsmen has a better first-class average than India’s No. 8. It took 13 days of hard-fought Test cricket – an average selection but still intense cricket even in the Perth defeat – for India to finally crack open the series.
On the 13th day, the dam burst. Jasprit Bumrah had been bowling excellently without much reward in Perth, but he now got on a roll and ran through Australia when all they needed to do was bat four sessions in their first innings at the MCG to escape with a draw, what with all the weather around and the time taken by India to score 443. It was on this day that India’s sustained pressure broke Australia down. It was arguably India’s best day of Test cricket in recent memory: Bumrah was on fire, the support bowlers came around, catching was sensational, to add to the patient bowling there was magic created by the teaming together of Rohit Sharma and Bumrah for that lethal slower ball just before lunch.
It was in effect 13 days of doing more or less the same things they had done in England. The only big difference was showing faith and giving a touch of security to a core group of three batsmen, which, as has been said here before, is the best batting core going around in Test cricket. They had the confidence to be themselves here; this was the only series India started with both Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in the XI. Apart from that, though, India didn’t do much differently except win more tosses than they lost.
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This 13th day and the subsequent series win were in a way a vindication of what the team had been saying: they were getting close, they just needed those finishing touches. They spoke of big moments and of courage and clear-minded approach required in those big moments. You can argue against that, but one thing India didn’t speak of was tosses. Only after having won the series in Australia did Kohli bring up the lost tosses lest they be accused of being sore losers. Kane Williamson did so after losing in India, Tim Paine did after losing in Melbourne. Luck was on India’s side this time – Australia were without their best players, tosses were with India – but you didn’t hear them talking about losing seven out of eight tosses in England and South Africa, or about the injuries to Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar in England.
England’s tour of Sri Lanka, New Zealand’s tour of Pakistan and now this tour establish a clear trend that toss advantage is becoming as important as home advantage. Trends, though, are for us to observe. These guys go out there and make trends. They have the power to disrupt trends. In Sydney, when Paine lost the toss, he dropped his head back a little. You don’t see that with India. They kept going in trying to disrupt the trend. If 100 things go into the result of a Test and one of them is proving of late to be unduly significant, you don’t stop doing the other 99. India kept asking their batsmen for those extra 30 runs, their bowlers to be better in the third innings, but not once in the last year did you hear Virat Kohli complain about the conditions or the toss. Never did he regret a team selection. Win or lose, good XI or bad XI, he wanted to be out there, they wanted to be out there.
Which is why there is some truth to Ravi Shastri saying this team was not looking to be on the first flight home despite the series defeat in England. Joe Root possibly felt they were looking to get out of it when he put India in at Trent Bridge. Faf du Plessis possibly felt that way when he pushed his groundsmen past the limit when asking for certain conditions. India turned up both times, despite the 2-0 scoreline in South Africa, despite the decimation at Lord’s. This series win is a tribute to those Test wins.
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Kohli has been part of Indian sides that could shelter behind the “come to India, we will show you” narrative. This side has not gone down that route. It takes conviction to believe in your style of play in the face of a 4-1 result. The last time India lost 3-1 in England, it had brought wholesale changes to how they were coached and by whom. This team knew they were always there, and needed just a sniff in order to barge in. They have continued repeating the good habits, and this time luck has been with them. Don’t regret, don’t complain, don’t look back in anger.
The weakness of the opposition’s batting plays a part in it, but India have shown they have a better more-rounded attack than Australia’s. The home quicks looked to work just with the outside edge, and consequently just with the new ball, but India attacked both edges and were twice as effective with the old ball. There is suggestion Australia feel under so much scrutiny they are not even following even legal reverse-swing practices – throwing on the bounce, for example – but even the Australians will admit India’s fast bowlers have made the seam stand up much better and prouder than Australia’s.
According to Cricviz data, midway into the final Test, India had swung a large amount – 18% – of the deliveries between overs 40 and 80; Australia managed only 8%. At the start of the final Test, as per a Shane Warne tweet, only 205 balls out of the 2592 bowled by Australia’s quicks would gone on to hit the stumps. That’s 8.6% as against India’s 10.9. India’s fast bowlers got 12 bowleds and eight lbws, Australia’s hit the stumps six times and had no lbws.
Of course when Australia did bowl outside off, they did run into the statue of self-restraint. Pujara was unimpeachable there. He batted 1258 balls, fourth-highest for anyone who has played a maximum of four Tests in a series. It was not just Pujara, though. The restraint Kohli himself showed was remarkable. He respected the conditions and the quality of the bowling in the first three Tests, he respected the lines bowled at him, and he kept denying the bowlers. At the end of the third Test, according to Cricviz data, Kohli had played attacking shots to only 12.5% of the balls he had faced from the quicks. The last time he had attacked less in a series was back in 2012-13. If Australia’s attack fell apart in the final Test, India had achieved that with old-fashioned Test cricket, ball after ball. This was an assured batting line-up going about its work in an assured way.
In the end it seemed all too easy. How often do you spend the last four days of an overseas series – your first win in Australia – knowing you will win the series no matter what? The hard work had all been done on the first 13 days. Two series and 13 days if you will.