India prevailed in a close Twenty20 (T20) series, following a near-clean sweep in One Day Internationals (ODI), to finish the tour of South Africa on a high. Had the Test series been won too—it was touch and go—this would have been the best overseas venture ever by an Indian team.
Nevertheless, defeat in the Test series must still rankle with captain Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri. Prior to the tour, both were confident of the team overcoming the old bogey of playing overseas.
This almost came to pass. The bowlers were exceptional and had the batting come good in the first two Tests, the scoreline could well have read 2-1 in India’s favour instead of the other way round.
Ironically, India turned the tables on their opponents, on the worst pitch of the series, showing exemplary mental toughness and resilience. But by the time the batsmen too found their bearings, the series had been lost.
Everybody agrees now that had the itinerary been planned better, the Test series could possibly have panned out differently. It was nonsensical to not have at least a couple of first-class matches before the first Test.
Administrators like to extol the importance of Test cricket. Players insist that this is the format they covet most. Why, then, should Test matches be treated in such a cavalier fashion?
In earlier days, the captain and coach would submit a report on the tour—and not only on player performances—to the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). If that practice continues, one hopes both Kohli and Shastri have registered a stinging protest at the ill-conceived itinerary.
That said, there is much to cherish from this campaign, the most pertinent being the team’s capacity to remain unintimidated, and not lose heart in adverse situations playing overseas.
Kohli was the most impressive, as captain and player. He wielded the bat like a broad sword, and in every format. By the end of the tour, it appeared he could be dismissed only owing to his own lapses: The bowlers had been reduced to haplessness.
But Kohli is already among the most accomplished cricketers of this generation. It was the rapid progress made by Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah—in all formats—and Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal—in limited-overs cricket—that saw the real gains for India on this tour.
With his ability to swing the ball late—and at some pace now—Kumar was the pick of the fast bowlers. Bumrah’s control (given his awkward action) and variety (given his inexperience) was remarkable for somebody in his debut series.
Wrist spinners Chahal and Yadav had the batsmen flummoxed for the most part. Both are naturally aggressive, putting wickets ahead of economy rate, and were splendidly supported by the captain.
However, there weren’t too many other successes on the tour, which will put the captain, coach and selectors under some duress for the assignments ahead—this year, and leading into the World Cup in 2019.
Barring one ODI century, Rohit Sharma had a dreadful time. Shikhar Dhawan came into his own in limited-overs contests, but was a disappointment in the Tests. So too was K. L. Rahul, who squandered the opportunities that came his way.
Of the other front-liners, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay (in Tests) and M. S. Dhoni (ODIs and T20s) had modest success. Ajinkya Rahane, kept out of two Tests, made an impact in the third without quite looking the batsman we know him to be.
Mohammed Shami had a bagful of wickets but looked dangerous only in patches, which is not quite what is expected from a spearhead. Ravichandran Ashwin had limited success (admittedly on unhelpful pitches) while Ravindra Jadeja remained a passenger.
This shows that both Test and limited-overs combinations are still unsettled when it comes to playing overseas. Competition for places will hot up again among regulars, but this also means selectors must keep hunting for fresh faces.
With Kohli, Dhoni, Kumar and Bumrah deservedly rested for the tri-series in Sri Lanka, there was scope for experimentation. For instance, a place could surely have been found for Mayank Agarwal, this season’s most prolific batsman.
There is not much more to be learnt about Dhawan, who would have been looking forward to a break in any case.
In that context, the selectors have been strangely defensive and pedestrian.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.