This morning, in the Straits Times, Rohit Brijnath on India’s first series win in Australia.
As words go in sport, “earn” has an imposing weight. It is short, muscular and unfussy. It is a word which suggests no one is entitled to victory, that in competition there are no favours, that no bonus points are given just because you tried.
No, to earn is to acquire through merit.
There is no timeframe to “earn”, no guarantee, no deal that labour for a required number of years will bring victory. No, you keep working, keep believing, keep buying Scotch tape to bind broken dreams, keep going.
Ask Liverpool. Zero league titles in 28 years. Ask the Atlanta Hawks. Zero NBA titles for 60 seasons.
So you wait.
Fans started waiting for India to win a Test cricket series in Australia from 1947. Joe Louis was heavyweight champion. Fans got old waiting for victory, they got married and then waited with their kids as new teams wrote old stories of loss. They waited till loss became a jinx and then turned into a curse.
Years passed, decades ended, a century turned. Indians argued about Australian bounce, fear, horizontal bat shots and waited. They cursed, pleaded, tuned into Channel Nine and waited. They even moved to Australia as migrants – 291,916 between 2000 and 2016 – and filled stadiums and waited. Religion, it sometimes seems, knows less about faith than sports fans do.
Then yesterday India won their first series, 2-1, in Australia. In the game’s toughest format they subdued the sport’s toughest land. Team – and fan – had earned it.
People will say this is India’s greatest Test team and it smells like overstatement but this day was for applause not argument. A team defeated in England had cemented its cracks, kept its belief, won small skirmishes, married patience to urgency, bowled ferociously, ignored silly headlines (The Scaredy Bats, an Australian tabloid called them) and waited out tough bowling spells.
Captain Virat Kohli yesterday spoke of a nine-over spell bowled by Pat Cummins to him and Cheteshwar Pujara in Adelaide which yielded only eight runs. They were shaken but still there. Perhaps India won because they never went away.
India won the series stylishly, comprehensively and wore their intent almost always under a civil coat. This was worth the wait. The only line again crossed by Kohli – who was stupidly booed, can be overwrought and still has edges to sandpaper – was the batting crease, outside which he stands with classic contempt.
Elsewhere rival wicketkeepers discussed babysitting, Australian captain Tim Paine took a phone call on a reporter’s phone during a press conference and Kuldeep Yadav was thrilled Shane Warne was watching him take five wickets. It was cricket, fair but hard.
Kohli has built a team in his image: lean, urgent, bearded, defiant, fit, ambitious, sure, unselfish. Every time his team needed a hand, many went up. He gives his side an intensity and maybe they soften him a little. After all India’s two best players were a fast bowler, Jasprit Bumrah, whose deliveries snort even as he smiles and a devout batsman, Pujara, wrapped in contemplation.
Bumrah was something Australians had not seen and India had waited for: a genuine, 140kmh-plus, eyelash-trimming Indian fast bowler. Pujara was something we knew but considered extinct: in a Kill Bill-like IPL world he was a non-violent Test sculptor. He finished with more runs (521) than Australia’s two best put together and this was not incidental. Almost everywhere India was twice as good.
This was not the Australian team we once knew, who used to walk as if they owned the land and could score runs with a fence post. This was a hesitant side of brittle batting but even if we accept Australian cricket is rehabilitating, this does not dilute India’s win. You can only beat the rival in front of you. Roger Federer once beat Marcos Baghdatis in an Australian Open final. There are no asterisks to be attached here, only acclaim.
And yet only the unfeeling would not flinch at Australia’s cricketing slide. Everyone wants to see the bully tamed and yet cricket has always been lifted by their rugged, resolute style. Their rapid revival is necessary for if the kingdom of strong Test-cricket teams shrinks, being monarch won’t count for much.
But the game has a powerful missionary and in a time of short attention spans has come Kohli the evangelist of the long game. “I think it is important to spread that message of Test cricket”, he said and it was gently ironic. Purists might dislike him and yet he is leader of their most powerful cause.
Kohli, who was part of India’s 2011 World Cup-winning team, in India itself, saw this victory as a greater one for himself. Nothing more of its importance needs to be said. It might seem unjust that a drizzle interrupted India’s bid for another Test win yesterday, but there was no raining on this parade. When history is made, the moment glitters even in the gloom.
My name is Mihir. I am an Indian Cricket fan and I am not an Ugrawaadi.
I thought I’d write to you as one of those whose love for faith in our team and our captain is considered by some of you as providing unconditional, unquestioning support, as being one-eyed, as being a cheerleader. I’m just one of those at the party where you swing your bat at the Indian Cricket piñata. Not that I’m formally writing on behalf of my tribe, only as one of them.
Facts, Truth, Damned Truth
First, let’s get the basic stuff out of the way. India lost 1-4. They competed, but were outplayed by a better team. There is no hiding from that. The scoreboard, in all its indisputable and undeniable starkness, does not lie.
However, life teaches us that even a series of irrefutable facts do not necessarily add up to a complete truth. Take, for instance, the mini-battle of the series : James Anderson vs Virat Kohli. The undisputed champion of 2014 vs the pretender. Anderson pretty much owned Virat the last time we visited England in 2014.
In the intervening series in India in 2016 (India 4 England 0), Virat scored 655 runs @ 109.16. At that time, Anderson had said that Home pitches hide Virat’s technical weaknesses. The series in English conditions, with the Dukes ball was going to be the real test.
The record will show that Kohli (who top scored the series with 593 runs) was not dismissed once in 270 deliveries from Anderson (who in turn was in peak form as well, being the top wicket taker with 24 wickets).
From Cricviz :
Of course, a batsman as good as Kohli retains the right to claim autonomy. He has made changes to his game which have a right to be seen as reason for the Indian captain’s success. Kohli has tried to combat the issues of 2014 by batting around 40cm further out of his crease than he did in 2014, desperate to counter the lateral movement of the Lancastrian. Regardless of the crowing of Indian fans, Kohli was clearly willing to change his entire technique to combat the threat of Anderson. As a batsman, I’m not sure you can give a greater compliment.
Combining softer hands and stronger wills, Kohli has managed to make it though the series without falling to the hand of the swing king. Anderson is the only front-line bowler not to claim Kohli’s wicket, the kind of fateful flourish which one might expect from a hack scriptwriter or a cliched performer. To fall from dominance to complete ineffectiveness is a fall too extreme to be believable, but the tough truth of the numbers bears it out.
But was it? Did luck play a part? Did the relentless pressure that Anderson exerted manifest itself in the rest of the innings? Does this prove that Anderson is not really up there? Does his #1 ranking tell a flattering truth? Or was it simply a competition where one rival was just not able to close the deal? Pertinently, does the one sided result make you think that if there was another battle in the same conditions tomorrow, it would have a similar result?
“When we see one (a domination), we will not have to be told what is what. We will know.”
Will we? Really? Always? What do we know?
Incisive questioning versus bombast, fabrication and braggadocio
That 27 second clip of a 15 odd minute press conference has really been circulated by you guys, hasn’t it? So I’ll leave it out here. It has been analysed threadbare. I think it has fuelled the kind of general trend in public debate which is so much the norm. (Maybe the trend owes its existence in part to the desire to slot, perhaps? But I digress.)
Best team in 15 years? It is a hard question for a captain whose team has been beaten after a long tour.
Maybe what he should have said is something like – “I don’t think I should get into those things. Perhaps it would be best if you answered that question. We haven’t changed our mindset in that we try and focus only on our cricket. I don’t want to get into these kind of comparisons. Our job is to play matches, do our best, work hard, perform and try and win every match we play. There will be enough analysis of our performance. Our motive, as a team, is singular – that we put in a 120% effort, that we practice hard, keep our mindset positive on every day of the tour, keep our preparation at the level where we can win every day. If we do that, that will give us the greatest happiness. Tags and headlines are not for us. Our job is to play cricket.”
Well, as it turns out he did say that. Fact. But in the trend of partial facts, he said that after the 5-1 win over South Africa. And the question was, “Was that the greatest overseas win?”
I Won’t Accept Praise: Kohli Blasts Reporters After ODI Series Win | The Quint - YouTube
He also said, “Honestly, I can’t sit here and feel good about the tags and take praise, because honestly, it doesn’t matter to me. Honestly, it doesn’t. It didn’t matter when we were 2-0 down, and it doesn’t matter when we are 5-1 up. All that matters is the respect in the change room. What matters is what the management thinks about me, what I think of the players and what the players think of me. That is all that matters to me. These things do not matter. I know that the headlines change day in, day out….. As I said, it is not my job to say anything about what I do. Yes, if I make a mistake I will come here and accept it. I have never been one to make excuses and I will remain like that, but I am not one to come here and praise myself. I can never do that, because as I said, this is a job for me. I am not doing anyone a favour. I am representing my country, it is an honor for me and I am just stepping out to do my job.”
So, it turns out, he wasn’t quite indulging in braggadocio. Perhaps it was not bombast and it certainly was not fabrication aimed at diverting attention.
Maybe we can consider that perhaps the question was not quite incisive?
Ok. So if you will admit that the question was aimed at grabbing a quote, that it was basically a jibe in the garb of a rhetorical question, I will admit that the response was testy. The coach had said that the results that this team had got in the last three years overseas were better than previous teams. Maybe some of that is factual. But as you will doubtless tell me, it is not the complete truth. In sport, thankfully, it rarely is.
As an aside, watch this fine interview. This was Ravi Shastri taking questions that were not aimed at grabbing headlines. This was before the South Africa tour. (Quick gist – This team has the potential. At long last we have a bowling line-up that will give us a chance. But for now, it is just potential. The next 12-18 months – the tours of South Africa, England and Australia will tell us how good they are. They have the desire and now they have an opportunity. It is exciting to believe)
Ravi Shastri Interview (Exclusive) | Head Coach, Indian Cricket Team | CNN-News18 - YouTube
Maybe looking at the big picture is what the doctor ordered.
An Opportunity Lost
Yes, none of this takes away from the fact that we lost. We could have, should have won, but we lost. It must hurt. Here is a considered perspective of the loss (and of that dodgy comparison). It taught me a lot about the kind of questions and questioning which could be incisive.
We won the first Test in Ahmedabad. Comprehensively. By 9 wickets. In that first Tet though, Alastair Cook, then their captain, got 176 in the second innings following on. It was to have a remarkable bearing on the series, despite the huge loss. Its exemplary nature, invigorated the team, made them believe that they could bat in these conditions. In the next Test at a Wankhede dustbowl, India went in with 3 spinners and just the one quick, won the toss and should have been good for a win. Cook got another century but was joined by Pietersen who got 186. England won the match by ten wickets.
The third Test at the Eden Gardens had India winning the toss for the third time, batted first for 105 overs, and still lost. By 7 wickets. Alastair Cook got 190.
The fourth Test was drawn but Cook’s 562 runs had contributed more than just the numbers. That first innings in Ahmedabad, you could say, had infused the confidence in the side’s batting unit that the ghosts could be fought.
England won the series 2-1. In our conditions, on pitches made for us.
Virat got that 149 in the first Test loss at Edgbaston. A more ready, perhaps better cooked team, would have got into that slipstream like England had. Lords happened next, and that seemed like it was that. It must hurt.
There were some other differences too. Before the series, England did a three day training camp at the Global Cricket Academy in Dubai. Then they did 3 more three day warm up matches before the Tests started. All red ball cricket, no white ball. India’s warm up by contrast though, was a few weeks in England, sure, but all white ball cricket.
That India will do a trip to the Academy before the Australia series is now a fact. That they are also angling for more warm up games ahead of the Australia series is also true. These they have spoken of. As lessons.
What I did not hear, and I am pretty sure you didn’t either, were any excuses. Nothing about conditions, not a word about the tosses. Not a word about the fact that a big factor for our optimism (Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar) were either partly or entirely not available. Nothing about the first choice wicket keeper being unavailable because of injury. That these factors would have led to a rework of the team balance was never proffered. Not once did we see dissent from the Indian team; no fingers were pointed at the weather conditions at Lords and the role it played (actually listen to the post Lords press conference here and see if it could have been any better).
What we did hear were lessons and admissions: That England played better; that there were multiple times in the series where the pressure was on them but that mistakes were made by India that led to England capitalising; that the team understood that it was a failing and would need improvement; that individual players had been spoken to; that the effort had been to try and understand what made them wary or weaker in those moments when the pressure was let go; that it was important to recognize that those concerns not be an assigning of blame or responsibility, but to learn about what the team and the captain needed to do to make sure it didn’t happen again; that starts to the series were important and you needed to be more confident going in and setting the tempo rather than chasing it. That without that learning and those questions, there would be no improvement.
If you listen to the rest of the post series press conference (minus those 27 seconds), you will hear the lessons.
As grace and modesty go, I will take that. This isn’t about pretending to epoch-making perfection. This is about recognising that there is progress, and there are failings. And trying to get further.
Comparisons are odious. You have taught us that.
For my part, I keep my faith on a somewhat grey-er canvas. I don’t hold it against those wonderful teams that we lost overseas to Zimbabwe in 2001, or that my memories of 2007 are somewhat tainted by the World Cup. Yes, we have never really dominated and steamrolled everything in our path.
My faith is built over time. It is based on Gavaskar, who taught us that we could stand up to overseas opposition in overseas conditions. On Tendulkar’s generation which built on that confidence to understand that we could take them on. On Dhoni’s teams that could often (but not always) be good enough to be the best of their time and when we weren’t, it did not lead to rampant burnt effigies and stone pelting (though some of you guys tried to stoke that with match ka mujrim type of stories). Yes, I think we owe him that.
And now, on whether Virat’s efforts could channel his “perpetual state of smolder” into a team that is similarly ambitious and driven to overcome failures and improve enough to excel.
None of this will make any one of these teams better than the ones before. They are just proof of evolution. I get that.