Eye on India: 2016 was a year of revival for Test side led by Virat Kohli, who says ‘it’s just the beginning’
In 2014, the last year in which MS Dhoni led India’s Test side, they played nine Tests, all away from home.
They won at Lord’s, but lost five games in three different countries — New Zealand, England and Australia.
So pronounced was the decline of a side that had sat atop the Test rankings in July 2011 that not even one Indian player was part of the conversation when the ICC selected its Test Team of the Year.
The side had slipped to No 7 in the rankings. In most respects, it was a year to draw the curtains on. Forcefully. That was the mess that Virat Kohli inherited.
This year, India played 12 Tests and won nine of them. The others were drawn. The unbeaten run now spans 18 Tests and stretches back to August 2015.
India are now 15 points clear of Australia in the Test rankings, a gap that will surely widen after a four-Test home series against Steve Smith’s men in February-March next year.
Of course, there are caveats to this remarkable revival. Most of the successes have come at home, where Dhoni also won 21 of his 30 Tests as captain.
The overseas triumphs have come in West Indies and Sri Lanka, no longer the most intimidating touring venues, though Australia may disagree.
The real test of Kohli’s captaincy mettle will come in 2018, when India visit South Africa, England and Australia.
But for now, there is plenty to savour. When South Africa were routed 3-0 in India in late 2015, so much of the post-series chatter was about the pitches and how they had exaggerated the qualities of India’s spinners.
After the 4-0 drubbing of England a year on, no one is talking about the pitches, except to say how fair they were.
England also won the toss in four of the five Tests. In the last two, in Mumbai and Chennai, they piled up 400 and 477 in their first innings. They lost both matches by an innings.
In every tricky situation, India found a hero, or three. By the end, England were so demoralised that Ben Stokes, their all-rounder, said ‘sunburn’, when asked what the team could take from another day of struggle in the field.
The mental disintegration was so thorough that England ended up losing all ten second-innings wickets in less than two sessions, with the last six adding just 15 runs.
Trevor Bayliss, the England coach who had once enjoyed great success with Kolkata Knight Riders in the Indian Premier League, spoke of being thoroughly outclassed, and urged some of his younger players to learn from the Indians.
“If you’ve got your head screwed on right, you look at the best and see what they do,” he said.
Of those that played more than seven Tests, Kohli, who finished the year with 1215 runs at 75.93, had comfortably the best average. KL Rahul, Cheteshwar Pujara, and Ajinkya Rahane were also in the top tier.
As for Ravichandran Ashwin, voted the ICC’s Cricketer of the Year and Test Cricketer of the Year, he was way out in front at the top of the wicket-taking charts, with 72. Ravindra Jadeja, who ran though England on the final day in Chennai, was in fifth with 43.
As shown by Karun Nair’s blistering triple-century — he went from 200 to 300 in a mere 75 balls — India’s batting depth is enviable. But against England, the pacers — Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma — also outbowled the opposition.
If India can strengthen that component even further, Kohli could yet have a team for all seasons, and all conditions.
“This is just the foundation that’s been laid for us to carry on for many years,” Kohli said after beating England.
“It’s just the beginning. It’s not even a tiny bit of what we want to achieve.”
Hockey triumph best of the year
The country’s Olympic disappointment aside — and there too, the achievements of PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Dipa Karmakar could be a massive spur for women’s sport — this has not been a bad year for Indian sport. Bengaluru FC reached the final of football’s AFC Cup, Vijender Singh emerged unscathed from his first few pro boxing bouts, and there was more success in badminton, led by Sindhu.
But perhaps the most notable victory of the year came in the hockey’s Junior World Cup, held in Lucknow earlier this month.
Of the past 10 such tournaments, Germany (West Germany in the 1980s) had won six. India’s only success had come in 2011, with Deepak Thakur scoring two hat-tricks on his way to topping the goalscoring chart.
Thakur’s generation could never replicate that success at senior level, and in three subsequent stagings of the competition, India had made the last four only once, in 2005, when Spain beat them on penalty strokes to take the bronze.
On home turf, they were expected to do well, but with Germany and Australia very much in the fray, few dared to dream of gold.
Having thumped Canada (4-0) and England (5-3) to start the campaign, India faced their first roadblock against a tenacious South African side. It needed a late goal from Mandeep Singh, who has represented the senior side, to take them into the quarter-finals as group winners.
There, they trailed to a goal from Spain’s Marc Serrahima for more than half an hour before late strikes from Simranjeet Singh and Harmanpreet Singh — Punjab remains the cradle of Indian hockey — took them into the last four, and a clash with Australia.
That eventually went to penalty strokes, after Gurjant Singh and Mandeep had given India a 2-1 lead. Australia missed two of theirs, while India were four from four.
With Germany eliminated in similar fashion in the other semi-final, it was Belgium that awaited in the summit clash.
Gurjant, the young man with an appetite for the big occasion, put them on their way with an early strike. Simranjeet added another and Belgium managed only a last-gasp consolation in reply.
For Indian hockey, whose glory years had appeared to have faded, it was the perfect pick-me-up after another failed Olympic campaign. Only time will tell if it is the start of a real renaissance.
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Updated: December 24, 2016 04:00 AM