Before the Tests against England began, Sourav Ganguly predicted a 5-0 whitewash for the home team. Cynics attributed this to the former India captain’s cockiness, the more moderate to a devious plan aimed at denting the morale of the visiting side.
Essentially, very, very few (I include myself in this bunch) believed such a one-sided scoreline was possible even though Virat Kohli’s team had swept aside New Zealand 3-0 in imperious fashion in the preceding series.
While India were the top-ranked Test side, England were hot on their heels at No.2. A series against Bangladesh prior to this tour ended in a 1-1 draw, but had given Alastair Cook and Co. reasonable time to acclimatize to conditions in the subcontinent.
Cook, Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Joe Root had also toured here in 2012-13, winning a stirring “turnaround” series. They knew the challenges posed in India—by pitches, spinners, batsmen—and what it would take to make this tour rewarding.
If anything, India were under greater pressure. The rubber, lost in 2012-13, was retained by England in 2014. Moreover, playing at home is a double-edged sword: for every country, but more particularly in cricket-obsessed India. Fans wouldn’t take kindly to a hat-trick of defeats.
The drawn first Test at Rajkot suggested a grim battle for India in the remaining matches. England seemed to have the necessary resources—seasoned seamers, classy all-rounders in Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, three spinners and a clutch of talented, gritty batsmen—to get the better of the home team.
Inexplicably, instead of putting India under greater pressure in the remaining matches, England went completely off the boil, playing like a rag-and-bobtail side, desperate not to lose and utterly clueless how to win.
Three defeats on the trot now make Ganguly seem like Nostradamus. The final scoreline obviously won’t read 5-0 since the first Test was drawn. But 3-0 after four Tests is bad enough. The series has been surrendered, and 4-0 looms large unless there is spectacular recovery in the last Test.
Winning three tosses out of four, England can hardly fault luck for their poor performances. What has clearly contributed to their downfall, though, is poor selection (playing three seamers in Mumbai, for instance), confounding tactics (Moeen Ali at No.4 was a clear misfit but was persisted with), and ultra-defensive batting in the second and third Tests.
A great deal of this stemmed from their compunctions and apprehensions about Indian conditions, though this seems such a colonial thing to say in the context of modern cricket, where players tour and play so often in different parts of the world.
James Anderson, England’s pace spearhead, highlighted this when discussing the dazzling brilliance of Kohli and R. Ashwin during the Mumbai Test. He averred that the two had succeeded because the “conditions” suited them. At best, this was partly true. More likely, this was sour grapes.
In hindsight, I reckon Ganguly’s prediction was not based so much on England’s weaknesses as his assessment of India’s strength. In every crunch situation, the home team has found somebody to bail it out of trouble or consolidate advantage.
Apart from the lead pair of Kohli and Ashwin, the performances and contribution of the supporting cast of M. Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ravindra Jadeja, Jayant Yadav, Parthiv Patel, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami (till he got injured) speak of the current strength of Indian cricket.
Obviously, playing and winning overseas is the big challenge ahead for Kohli, Ashwin and the team. But that does not diminish the flavour or significance of current success, or indeed the virtuosity of Kohli and Ashwin.
In a short span, both have emerged as maestros. Their exploits embellish the game. Indeed, the jugalbandi between Kohli and Ashwin has the cricket world in thrall. Anderson’s surly, tuneless crib is just so much nonsense.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.