Wearing a numbed expression after the Delhi defeat, Pat Cummins mumbled in a feeble tone: “It hurts.” After two three-day defeats in the series, the morale and ego of his team was battered. It was a feeling shared by 15 other captains who had led their troops to the ambitious invasion of India in the last 11 years.
For the best part of the last four decades, India has been a daunting country to tour. Only four captains have left the country with a victorious smile in the last 36 years — Imran Khan, Hansie Cronje, Adam Gilchrist, and Alastair Cook. But in the last decade, India has bullet-proofed the cloak of invincibility, so much so that their superiority at home is comparable to some of the finest ever in the world.
From losing to England in 2012-13, the last team to beat them at home, they have claimed 15 series wins on the spin, an unmatched record, better than the two batches from Australia (1994 to 2000, 2004 to 2008, both with 10 series wins) and the mighty West Indies, who from 1976 to 1988 won 10 crushing series.
Undoubtedly, measuring the greatness of a team through numbers does not paint the whole picture. But they are like the initial outlining of a canvas, without which the picture looks incomplete. Starting with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy a few months after the England defeat, India have won 36 of the 44 Tests at home, drawing six and losing just two, with a win percentage of 81. To convey their supremacy further, 15 times they won by an innings, nine times with a margin of 150 runs or more, and five times with an eight-plus wicket margin. The lowest victory margin was 75 runs or by six wickets, which ascertains the comprehensiveness of their victories.
Only Don Bradman’s Invincibles boast a better win percentage (over a 10-year period) with 82, winning 14 of their 17 matches and losing none on either side of the Second World War. The Australia of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting was infallible at home from the New Zealand series in 1997 to the South Africa series in 2008, a period wherein they won an incredible 52 of their 68 games with a win percentage of 76. And during that period, only New Zealand and India walked away from Australia with a drawn series. The hardest team to beat at home was the West Indies, who went undefeated for 23 years. But intermittent losses and a high number of draws meant they won only 47 of the 94 games in this span.
Disparity home and away
It’s not a comparison of great teams in different eras to derive who is the best, but contextualising India’s aura at home. Besides, a team cannot be talked about as the greatest or one of the greatest without considering their record away from home. In the aforementioned period, India has won only 21 of the 53 matches overseas, lost twice in South Africa and New Zealand, lost and drew one series apiece in England, lost one and won twice in Australia, and have not played Pakistan at all. Waugh’s Australia and Clive Lloyd’s West Indies consistently won abroad too. Waugh’s men won everywhere but in India, Lloyd did not lose a single away series in 12 years.
But at home, this India is as unbeatable as the finest teams in the game’s history. This is a team blessed with some of the most sparkling talents of their time. Two great batsmen of their time as the batting pillars, three spin-bowling all-rounders as the primary protagonists of their golden runs, three of the finest seamers the country has produced, a maverick wicketkeeper, and a steady stream of high-class glovemen. And heroes that emerge from nowhere to influence games.
This is the template for most world-beating teams — a core nucleus of five-six cricketers with others shuttling around them.
There is irresistible depth too, a bench that could potentially beat most teams. Imagine the supremely talented Shubman Gill and Kuldeep Yadav have to warm the bench; imagine a team not feeling the void of their injured lead bowler; imagine a team that has no place to squeeze in Ranji Trophy colossus Sarfaraz Khan, or not consider a batsman (Mayank Agarwal) who averages 70 at home. Like the likes of Sylvester Clarke, Colin Croft and Wayne Daniel could hardly enjoy a consistent spell in the great West Indies team, not because of lack of firepower but because there were better quicks than them. Like how Michael Hussey had to wait till 30 to make his debut, or how the likes of Greg Blewett, Matthew Elliot and Michael Slater could not reclaim their spots because their replacements were so good.
It is also a team that refuses to lose. Even in the direst hour, they somehow find the wherewithal to bounce back.
At Kotla, the match was slipping out of their hands on Day Two before they engineered a splendid comeback to wrap up the game before tea on the next day, demonstrating the ruthlessness that only the best have. Oftentimes, they have walked the tightrope but seldom lost their footing.
Several strings to the bow
It’s a team that knows more than one way to win. They can out-bat, out-last, and out-bowl teams. Their spinners can sting, and seamers can bite. There was a time, not too long ago, when they went with a lone seamer so that they could sneak in another spinner. These days, they can play three seamers and still win. Both Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami are undroppable, and in their own way made telling contributions to India’s victory march. In 20 matches at home, Shami has plucked 74 wickets at 20.63. Overseas batsmen come fearing the spinners in the third and fourth innings, only to be blown away by Shami’s brilliance. South Africa would confess, as he rolled them out with five wickets on the final day at Vizag. Siraj, too, has spawned fire, picking up 15 wickets at 22 in five games.
Not to forget the roles of Umesh Yadav (133 wickets at 29) and Ishant Sharma (138 at 30). They can batter teams on turners; and bruise them on green-tops.
What is unnerving for the rest of the world, however, is that they still have glaring room for improvement. Rohit Sharma still lacks a reliable opening partner; the number five spot is still up for grabs, their best batsman is wading through a lean patch, and the speed dream team of Shami, Siraj and Bumrah are yet to grace the field together. Just how far they can go when they fill the holes baffles the mind.
Yet, they are brushing aside opponents. True that Australia’s bowling firm was injury-wracked, but their batting was still formidable. Steve Smith averages 60; David Warner had recently hammered a double hundred, Marnus Labuschagne and Travis Head are in the top five of the ICC batting charts. Cummins is a daunting bowler and an inspirational leader. Yet, they were made to look ordinary. He knew the enormity of the task. “We all know how difficult it is. Only two Australian captains have succeeded here in the last 50 years. It’s the most difficult place to win.”
In that sense, a series win in India has become the touchstone of competence in world cricket. Australia have sunk in their last two expeditions; England too have lost their last rubbers, New Zealand last tasted a Test win in 1988, going winless in 34 games; South Africa have lost six of their last seven games. None of the remaining pack could muster anything respectable. It’s not the final frontier, but the frontier itself.