REVIEW – India rediscover their winning ways in style

  With the Border-Gavaskar Trophy safely regained after their victory in the third Test, India rubbed further salt into the Australian wounds by completing a 6-wicket win at the Ferozshah Kotla in Delhi a few hours ago, in the process achieving a historic 4-0 whitewash for the first time ever. This Australian team might have been the weakest to visit India, but given India’s Test troubles over the last two seasons, this victory could not have come at a better time. By doing so, MS Dhoni’s men have at least partially exorcised the ghosts of the twin overseas disasters of 2011-12.

Cricket - India v Australia 4th Test Day 3   The smile is back – M.S Dhoni with the Border-Gavaskar Trophy after India completed a historic 4-0 whitewash of Australia (source – espncricinfo.com)

  What makes this win even more special is the fact that it were the youngsters who were at the forefront. The series was touted by many to be a close battle between two inexperienced ‘in-transition’ teams, but the Australians were simply no match for the hosts, and as the series panned out, their contrast with the great Australian sides of yore became more and more difficult to comprehend. With this milestone victory, India have stretched their undefeated streak in home Tests against Australia to 11 matches, winning 9 of them, the last seven consecutively.

  The Indian think-tank were highly criticised for their tendency to persist with under-performing seniors after the home loss to England in December, but the selectors got their judgement right this time around. A home Test series against a weak Australian side presented the perfect opportunity to give the young players the confidence and match experience ahead of the tough South African tour, and the results are here to be seen. 

  The biggest positive from the series for India was the emergence of a settled top-order. The team suffered quite often against England due to the openers’ inability to provide sound starts, and this had a contagious effect on the rest of the batsmen. However, the selectors finally lost patience with the long-time duo of Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag – the former ignored for the series altogether, while the latter axed after the first two Tests – and re-invested their faith in the talented Murali Vijay.

  Vijay has the Irani Cup to thank, for it were his two hundreds in the two Irani matches that made the selectors overlook his ordinary Ranji Trophy season and include him in the Test squad at the expense of Gambhir. A month later, not only has Vijay leapfrogged both Gambhir and Sehwag to become India’s first-choice opening option, but he also finished the series as the leading run-scorer, logging 430 runs at 61.42, with two classy hundreds to boot. If Vijay successfully curbed his natural style of stroke-play to become a more responsible batsman, fellow opener Shikhar Dhawan had the most sensational of Test debuts known in recent times.

Murali-Vijay-Shikhar-Dhawan     India’s new opening duo of Murali Vijay (left) and Shikhar Dhawan gave a lesson in batting in Indian conditions to the Aussies (source – zimbio.com)

  27 year-old Dhawan had been quietly accumulating runs for Delhi even as his state-mates Gambhir and Sehwag blossomed into a fine opening pair over the past four years. But with the opening slot up for grabs like never before, Dhawan seized the opportunity by the scruff of the neck and bludgeoned the Australian bowlers into submission en route to a memorable 187 off just 174 balls, scoring the fastest ton by a debutant (85 balls) and also claiming the record for the highest score by an Indian on debut, and the 6th highest overall.

  Rarely in the last two years have we seen an Indian batsman bat with so much freedom and confidence as Dhawan did on that Saturday afternoon. He was flawless on the off-side, and each of  his shots had an air of authority and substance in them. His injury, which kept him out of the fourth Test did not put the Indians into a quandary, because the highly dependable and increasingly wonderful Cheteshwar Pujara duly opened for India in his absence, and returned with twin half centuries on the treacherous Delhi wicket.

  Pujara, who was the second highest run scorer in the series forms the backbone of the middle-order along with Virat Kohli, and these two fine batsmen are the leaders of India’s new group of Test batsmen. Once the great Sachin Tendulkar calls it quits, Ajinkya Rahane should be an apt replacement. True, Rahane looked very nervous on his Test debut at Delhi, amply proved by an unbelievable shot he played in the second innings to get out, but this Mumbai lad should be defintely looked at as a long-term middle order prospect. In a few months time, with the possible first-choice batting line-up reading Vijay, Dhawan, Pujara, Kohli and Rahane, India will have reason to believe that the transition period is over; however the tour of South Africa in December will be a different ball game altogether, and the young crop will face the sternest test of their temperament there. 

  The remaining batting position remains a bit of a question mark, with Ravindra Jadeja not really in the team for his batting ability – although he did prove his detractors wrong to an extent with a crucial knock in the first innings of the Delhi Test. Whatever might be his shortcomings with the bat, he was a revelation with the ball. His left-arm spin fetched him no fewer than 24 wickets in the four Tests, and he was a major factor in India’s quick demolitions of the fragile Australian batsmen.

  Eyebrows were raised when India’s best left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha was left out in favour of Jadeja for the first Test, but the spunky all-rounder from Saurashtra grabbed his chance and did not look behind, reserving his best – a haul of 8 wickets – for the final Test. Jadeja has three first-class triple hundreds to his name in just over 45 matches, which means he can bat out the long hours. And if he manages to polish his batting skills a bit, India’s two-fold problem of the elusive No.6 (Dhoni at that position) and the search for an all-rounder (Jadeja at No.7) will be solved, also giving Dhoni an extra bowling option, both at home and overseas. 

jadeja and ashwin_0   India’s spin twins R. Ashwin (left) and Ravindra Jadeja tormented the Australians throughout, taking 29 and 24 wickets respectively (source – deccanchronicle.com)

  Jadeja’s partner-in-spin Ravichandran Ashwin is getting better and better by the day. The off-spinner, who was named Man of the Series for his bagful of wickets – 29 at 20.1 in four Tests – came into his own on the mouth-watering turners on offer. Ashwin was below-average in the home series against England, and was rightly criticised for trying too many variations. His defensive bowling approach and Dhoni’s similarly defensive field setting did not help his cause. However against Australia, Ashwin showed that he has ironed out his flaws, and with Dhoni again backing him with attacking fields, the  greenhorn Australians had no answer to his guile and accuracy. It is evident that Harbhajan Singh’s successful career is all but over, while Ashwin has established himself as India’s leading spinner – 92 wickets in 16 Tests justify that. But again, his biggest test will be to replicate his home successes overseas,, which I believe will happen sooner than later, as he is much more experienced bowler than when he toured Australia last season.

  The pace bowlers were expected to do precious little on the turning pitches, but another debutant Bhuvneshwar Kumar was one of the success stories of the series. It would not be an overstatement to say that this lanky medium fast bowler set up India’s wins at Hyderabad and Mohali – on both occasions he mopped up three top-order wickets each in the first and second innings respectively to help expose the Australian middle-order to spin.

  Kumar’s ability to swing the ball both ways and making it angle at just the right moment was highly valuable for the hosts, and gave them an added impetus in an already one-sided series. Though not one who can bowl at high speeds, Kumar can be deadly with the new ball, and hopefully will be a long-term pace prospect, an area which has been India’s Achilles heel since times immemorial. Ishant Sharma was not as effective, but played his part, particularly taking vital wickets with the old ball in the later stages of the innings.

bhuvneshwar_350_031713034145  Young rookie Bhuvneshwar Kumar regularly rattled Australia’s top-order to make things easier for the spinners (source – indiatoday.in)

  And finally we come to Dhoni, who became India’s most successful Test captain (in terms of number of wins) during the series. His very place in the Test team was a matter of debate following the home defeat to England, but his captaincy coupled with his batting – his stunning 224 at Chennai being the trendsetter for India’s dominance and also one of the highlights of the series – ensured that the critics were kept silent. Former players who were baying for his blood a few months ago, now suggested that he should be the Test captain for five more years – statements that reek of hypocrisy and the fickle-mindedness of our cricket experts – no wonder Dhoni once said that he avoids reading the sports pages. We should all know that this victory over Australia, though special, in no way suggests that things are alright following the struggles of recent times; for only consistent performances abroad will prove India’s true worth. 

  For the time being, India deserves every ounce of credit and applause for the milestone victory. Yes it came at home against a weaker team, but one must not forget that a such a Test victory against a top team like Australia takes a lot of hard work. And the way the team performed, with each and every member contributing, showed that they were determined to put back their earlier losses.

  It was indeed a fitting end to a long home season, a season which saw ten Test matches, and though India won of seven of them, their loss to England was a major disappointment. But looking at some of the performances of the new Indian brigade against Australia, India’s Test cricket future seems to be in safe hands. 

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