Indian Test Cricket – Running Out Of Time?
This Parthiv-Pujara moment isn’t the reason why this match was lost. Yet, if ever a picture told the story of a series, this would be it.
Since India last toured South Africa for a Test series, South Africa have traded 3 wins, 4 losses and 2 draws in home Tests against Australia, England and New Zealand. In the same time, they’ve won 8 of 9 home Tests against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the West Indies. These Tests were meant to be India’s chance to join that first group and maybe, just maybe, record a generation-defining series win.
At the top of this series, Markram had played three Tests. Elgar had made South Africa’s only Test hundred during their shellacking in England last summer but, outside of that, had 8 single digit scores in 12 Test innings against proper opposition going back to March last year. Amla averages just 31 runs per innings against such opponents since mid-2016. De Villiers, openly disillusioned with his workload, was a week removed from his first Test in nearly two years. Their captain was returning to competitive cricket after two months out with injury. Their wicketkeeper now has 171 runs in his last 12 Test innings. Philander had missed two of South Africa’s previous three Tests and had been publicly called unfit by his captain. Steyn hadn’t played a Test in 14 months.
There was simply never going to be a better time to win in South Africa.
A few uncomfortable moments aside, India’s bowlers got that message. This is the first time in 28 Tests that an Indian team has taken twenty opposition wickets in successive away Tests outside Asia. And I suspect that if you’d served India this exact hypothetical at the start – that they’d need to chase 208 and 287 in the first two Tests to win the series – they’d probably have licked the plate clean and swallowed the spoon.
In effect, this series loss was condensed into two short, gutless spells of batting. India’s first 11 overs on the first afternoon at Newlands yielded 3 wickets for 28, compounded by another 17 overs on the second morning that produced just 29. The fourth afternoon at Centurion saw 3 for 26 in 16 overs, and another 11-over, 4 for 38 stretch finished off this game today.
More than these collapses, though, which pressure can trigger, there were errors. Some of these were rooted in Kohli’s irascible, twitchy decision-making that has fed his bizarre record of never having played the same eleven players in successive games in his now-34 Tests as captain. There were reasons for some, excuses for others.
What there isn’t an excuse for, however, is Pujara running himself out twice in the same Test. There’s no excuse for Pandya running himself out like *that*, ever. There’s little excuse for India’s top 3 scraping together fewer runs combined than Kohli. There’s equally little excuse for getting outgunned on partnership numbers by an extremely average South African batting lineup.
Disappointingly, the same old rallying points that these failures have been blamed on in the past are already out in force: the lack of adjustment time and the difference in playing surfaces prominent among them. The trouble is, changing preparation for foreign tours to this degree would involve uprooting a lot of how Indian cricket is run. These are genuine tradeoffs, too – revenue generation, white ball cricket and scheduling among them – and they simply don’t bow down to the received wisdom of the Test team’s performances abroad being Indian cricket’s biggest priority. Now more than ever, there’s a limit to how far you can push back citing the primacy of Test cricket, because a lot of its relevance has been submerged by the achievements of Indian cricket elsewhere.
Perhaps that’s why, when it’s time to take stock of this generation of Indian cricketers, it’s the white ball losses that will rankle more: the 4/130 batting first at the 2014 World T20 final in Dhaka, the unnervingly quiet surrender on an extremely favourable surface in the 2015 World Cup semifinal in Sydney, getting outbatted by the West Indies in the 2016 World T20 semifinal in Mumbai, the chafing memory of the Indian bowling freezing under pressure against Pakistan in last year’s Champions Trophy final. It’s a remarkable litany of failures, and one that’s incongruous with the staggering amount of dominance over white ball cricket that the IPL-sharpened Indian team has otherwise enjoyed over this time.
But that merely cycles back to the principal absurdity of international cricket: that dominance doesn’t always translate to greatness. There isn’t a more appropriate place to recognize this than in South Africa, a team that has spent more time than anyone cares to count over the past generation as the world’s No 1 ODI side. No one believes it for a minute, of course, because they’ve never won a World Cup. In that sense, there was a desperate, almost nihilistic realization that this Test series was the yardstick for this Indian team’s greatness because traditional wisdom had pre-ordained it as such. And this defeat merely confirms that that greatness is still out of reach.
Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps there’s a case to be made that this India is already an all-time great Test team. Their ability to convert home Tests into wins in recent years certainly admits of this. But how – to grab the famous absurdity from the other end – can an all-time great Test team be this poor this often?
And yet, even this historically reliable diagnosis feels inaccurate. Their batting especially, which has let them down so desperately in these two Tests, has so often been a strength. Their last cycle of tours to England, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand produced something like 13 hundreds and another 35 fifties. Only Australia and England have put up comparable batting numbers away from home against these teams in the last 5 years.
To India’s number, we can now add Kohli’s 153 at Centurion that was a remarkable exhibition of assuredness and crushing control, and Pandya’s 93 at Newlands – an astonishing two-and-a-half hour firefight against Morkel, Rabada, Steyn and Philander with his team 7 down and nearly 200 runs in the hole – that was the exact opposite. Maybe we’ll look past the defeats and recall these innings with warmth and pride in the future but, right now, it’s hard to say.
What we can be surer of is that good teams don’t stay together forever. Nine of this present squad started the first Test in Johannesburg in December 2013. Nine of this lot started the first Test in Auckland the last time India toured New Zealand. Nine also started the first Test in Nottingham on India’s last Test tour to England. Nine, again, started the first Test in Adelaide on India’s last Australian tour.
It’s fair to ask how much longer this team stays together if it doesn’t deliver a defining success. It’s definitely fair to ask this today, when, somehow, they find themselves as far away from greatness as they’ve ever been.