21 Jan 2020 19:09 IST

Indian cricket is back to its glory days

So what is at the heart of India’s success? A lot less braggadocio and a lot more modesty

Just two-and-a-half years ago, the Indian cricket team was at an impasse. Having lost to Australia in the 2015 World Cup, the team travelled to England with great hopes after a stellar 2017 season, only to be thrashed by an underdog, Pakistan, at the Oval. As I noted in these columns, Virat Kohli and his line of star batsmen proved that they were unable to handle genuine pace bowling — a weakness that had plagued our team for over 40 years. It didn’t matter that the match was played on a near-perfect batting pitch, so flat and dry that Pakistan scored with gay abandon. The entire India-11 scored less than the top two players of the Pakistan side.

Speaking after the match, Kohli did not seem to be too concerned about the loss. “We will take this on our chin and move on,” he said, and showed no remorse at the way the team played.

And, true to his promise, the team has had remarkable success lately. No one knows what specific changes the team made but the results are clear. India has not lost a series against any major team in nearly two years, ODIs and T-20s included. In all of 2019, India had a win-loss record of 18-10, an impressive feat. After being humiliated by Australia in Mumbai last week, India showed remarkable poise to easily beat Australia in Rajkot and Bengaluru, clinching the series 2-1.

At the top

The world’s top two batsmen (Kohli and Rohit Sharma) are Indians. The batting line-up, always impressive, boasts youngsters such as KL Rahul, who also demonstrates substantial talent behind the wickets. Rahul can bat as easily to open with Rohit (as he did in Bengaluru) as he bats down the order.

The bowling team is rock-solid again. Jasprit Bumrah is the world’s #1 ranked ODI bowler. The team has perfected its use of yorkers, both to limit runs scored by opposition teams during the last ten overs and to bowl batsmen out clean. Speaking after the Bengaluru match, team manager Ravi Shastri admitted to this strategy saying that the yorker was as old as the game of cricket itself. True, but somehow, the Indian team forgot this simple truth during crucial matches in 2015 and at the ICC Cup in the UK.

The fielding is so much more professional now. Our players have always made a big show of being physically fit, but it is only recently that their athleticism is yielding fruit. At least 20 runs were saved during the Bengaluru match, a fact crucial to India’s victory. The brilliant catch by Kohli to send Labuschagne home started to turn the match in India’s favour. But it was the superb catch by Shreyas Iyer to take out Steve Smith which practically sealed India’s victory. Smith, having played a textbook-perfect knock until then, cringed at his decision to hit the ball high, an extremely rare lapse of concentration for Australia’s most dangerous batsman. He had been playing delightful ground shots all along and by the look on the Indians’ faces, they had been resigned to see Smith stay at the crease until the last ball was bowled. Those last six overs after Smith was dismissed saved at least 30 additional runs.

Modesty is the word

So what is at the heart of India’s success? It all comes down to the basics. A lot less braggadocio. The Indian team of even a few years ago made it a point to be arrogant on the field, in front of the cameras, to play mind games against the opponents. India had never been like this before and old-timers frowned and fretted that India was turning into a Pakistan or an Australia.

Led by Kohli, Dhawan and Jadeja, appeals for leg before or caught behind turned into vagrant displays of repeated shouts to the umpire, almost intimidating the official. A batsman dismissed from the opposition team would invariably result in exuberant expressions of made-up ecstasy by the entire team, much like a hunter having claimed a kill. The body language conveyed to everyone watching — “We’re the best; don’t mess with us.”

Except that we were not then the best team. Today, we are the best, but thankfully, we don’t act as the best team. Modesty shows when it’s not on public display — just ask Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. Not a single player’s position on the side is a foregone conclusion and the sense of entitlement among the top players is gone. Every player has to earn his spot on the side. Kohli’s effusive praise about KL Rahul in Rajkot cheered up the youngster in Bengaluru. But unless he is consistent in his performance in New Zealand, he could well be pulled from the side during future tournaments. Once out of the playing 11, it is very hard to return.

Will the winning spree continue?

The team quietly goes about its business rigorously training off the field. The batting team knows exactly what to do and ably supports the bowlers. The bowling team works hard and takes criticism constructively, constantly attacking the opposition.

There are no real all-rounders on the team and this may be the most disruptive move yet. India is proving to the world that all-rounders in the mould of Kapil Dev and Ian Botham are no longer needed. Jadeja is the only one of repute and even he just makes it into the Top-10. India appears to have changed the paradigm of cricket success by perfecting a simple formula. Batsmen bat well. Bowlers bowl well. Everyone fields with purpose and agility.

The Indian team has a long period of rest and recreation once it returns from New Zealand. The IPL will keep all players fit, but India is not competing in any tournaments until September 2020, when it takes on England in India, followed by a tour to Australia. Can India’s new-found formula still win matches? Time will tell.

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