WHEN the national selection committee sat down to pick the Indian team for the Test series against South Africa, they must have pondered many questions post the Indian debacle in the shorter formats of the game. The team had lost the Twenty20 series (0-2) and they struggled to maintain their hold over their opponents in the
One-Day series that followed, losing 3-2 in home conditions.
The Test series was billed as a blue-riband one where new skipper Virat Kohli would be leading India against the No. 1 Test side in the world which had not lost an away series for nine years.
South Africa were, deservedly, on a high; their major draw, A.B. de Villiers, was on song with his innovative and explosive batting.
The South African, who was to play his 100th Test at Bengaluru, was getting the kind of reception that Sachin Tendulkar received each time he walked out to bat during the one-dayers.
The selectors decided to stick to the tried-and-tested method and put all their "money" on the part that would gnaw at the South African Achilles Heel - spin bowling. The selected team had three frontline spinners with Ravichandran Ashwin in pole position. "It was necessary to play to our home advantage," said former Indian opener Lalchand Rajput. "India had to stage a comeback after losing the Twenty20 and One-Day series and they needed to play to their strength and exploit South Africa's weakness against spin," added Rajput who has also coached the Indian team in the past.
The first Test at Mohali proved the selector's strategy correct when India won by a comfortable margin of 108 runs. The South Africans capitulated under aggressive spells bowled by the Indian spinners and had no answers to queries posed by the Tamil Nadu off-spinner and his comrade in arms, Ravindra Jadeja. The Proteas tasted their first, sour bite of defeat on a pitch that turned, almost square, on day one aiding the "spin twins".
The despair for the numero uno team continued throughout the series as they were flummoxed on wicked turners. The Indian team, that looked dejected after the series losses in the shorter format, were now prowling like hungry Tigers after tasting blood. The bloodbath continued as India trounced their opponents 3-0 in a four-match Test series.
The fact that the wicket gave dollops of help to the spinners drew major criticism from the media as well as from players of national and international repute. Former Australian opener Mathew Hayden and Australian Twenty20 poster boy Glenn Maxwell questioned the pitches on social media calling them "disappointing" and "diabolical".
The Indian response was led by Team India director Ravi Shastri who countered the charges in his inimitable style - with aggression. He pointed out that similar results favouring Australia were seen in the recently-concluded series against New Zealand and in the last championship for the Ashes (versus England), both played in Australia.
Shastri found an able partner in former Australian captain Ian Chappell who put the blame of defeat on the lack of technique of the Proteas batsmen rather than on the condition of the pitch. The argument of "bad" pitch versus lack of technique and application is a debate that will go on without a positive conclusion but the moot point: Can India savour this win without the baggage of having home advantage is worth taking a look at. Indian cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar blamed the terrible batting by both sides during the third Test at Nagpur; stating the pitch had no demons except those in the batsmen's minds.
Discussions and debates aside, where the Indian Test team stand is what matters most when it comes to looking at the future. Is Virat Kohli on the right track to take Team India to a higher level with his aggressive attitude? How will India perform on wickets that do not help their spinners? Has India found the right combination for their duels abroad? The answers lie in what was seen in the series against South Africa.
Ashwin, with 31 wickets, topped the bowlers list, putting him alongside notable Indian spinners like Erapalli Prasanna, Bishen Bedi, B.S. Chandrasekhar, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. "Ashwin shouldered the responsibility that was given to him and led the Indian attack from the front," said former India spinner Nilesh Kulkarni. "He stuck to the basics and did not try too many variations. Undoubtedly, he was aided by Jadeja who kept the pressure on the Proteas, not giving them any freedom," added the former left-arm spinner.
Rajput agreed: "Ashwin is a world-class bowler who backed his strength and did not try too many things like he did earlier."
Spin apart, there were two more factors that helped squash the challenge of the Proteas. The leadership and batting. Virat Kohli's leadership was exemplary when it came to marshalling his resources. "One could see clearly how united the team was and how the pacers and the spinners were complementing one another," said Kulkarni. "Virat is maturing as a leader and is aggressive but with patience," added Kulkarni who also stressed how the skipper kept egging on his bowlers to keep the pressure on the Proteas at all times. Unifying the team and delivering as a unit are the imperative aspects in a team game, felt Kulkarni and Rajput.
The series against South Africa also brought to the forefront two aspects which will be important when playing in different conditions abroad: Batting and pace bowling. This series saw the Indian batting revolve around three pillars - Murali Vijay, Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane. Both Rajput and Kulkarni lauded Rahane's efforts. "Rahane has moulded himself to all situations and looks like a complete player," said Kulkarni who captained the Mumbaikar in the Ranji Trophy. Added Rajput: "The way he grafted at Delhi just shows his class, it was like the khadoos (never-give-up) Bombay player of the past."
The victory notwithstanding, will Kohli be able to cause dents when they tour? Kohli, Rahane and Vijay have a good track record on wickets abroad. Gavaskar rated Rahane above Kohli when it came to playing abroad, citing the fact that Rahane looked at ease in all conditions - the green pitches of England or the pacy, bouncy Australian and South African wickets. Kulkarni and Rajput feel that if Cheteshwar Pujara comes to the party, India's batting line-up will be formidable.
Will the current team be able to reverse the misfortunes of the team led by Mahendra Singh Dhoni during India's last tours of England and Australia? Are there any chinks in India's armour?
The Indian batting looks stable and what matters most is the bowling attack. "It is a matter of taking 20 wickets and I do believe we have the capability," said Rajput. Said Kulkarni: "Just the way the pacers Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav supported the spinners, Ashwin and company will need to support the pacers when playing on pacer friendly pitches abroad. It's all about reverse role play."
The most important chink in India's armour is their lack of self-belief which was seen during their tours abroad in the recent past. Time and again, India slipped from a dominating position and ended up losing the series.
The team management's primary job will be to keep the morale high and make the team believe in its abilities. A year ago, Shastri had predicted that his team "will be a bullet side, among the top two in Test cricket in 12 months". The latter prediction has been achieved and now it is for his wards to show how sharp they are when they play abroad against formidable opponents and show the world they have an impenetrable armour.
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