India's bumper season

India's bumper season

Cricket: There were achievers aplenty as Virat Kohli and his men conquered all comers in style at home

India's bumper season
The Indian Premier League fever is on, and India’s incredible home season of 13 Tests already seems to have happened ages ago though it ended only last week with Virat Kohli and his boys annexing the Border-Gavaskar Trophy against Australia.

Several factors went into making India’s marathon season – 13 Tests, eight ODIs and three T20Is – a successful one.  Save for some poor close-in catching, there wasn’t a single department in the team’s set-up that was found lacking in any aspect. The batsmen stacked up runs by hundreds with India unearthing different heroes on different occasions; bowlers remained prolific throughout with spinners doing bulk of the damage but with more than a handy support from the pacers; the contribition from the lower-order batsmen was invaluable as was the role of almost all the replacements who admirably filled in the void left by the injured regulars; Kohli led by example and head coach Anil Kumble’s calming influence proved to be an ideal foil for captain’s passion and aggression. Here is a breakdown of each feature of India’s game that led to their unprecedented success.

 Until the low of Australia series, when he aggregated no more than 46 runs from five innings, Virat Kohli was India’s undisputed No 1 batsman. He scored a record four double hundreds in four consecutive Test series, starting from the away series against the West Indies to the one-off Test against Bangladesh. His batting was Bradmanesque as he stacked up 1206 in just nine home Tests at a scarcely believable average of over 86 runs per innings prior to Aussies’ visit. He was the fulcrum around which India’s batting flourished during this phase.

Another batsman who matched Kohli in deeds without the same flourish was Cheteshwar Pujara. He eventually ended up topping Kohli’s tally (1316 @ 57.21) for the season and that says a lot about Pujara’s rise in stature in the space of about nine months. Besides these two, at various stages of this home stretch, Ajinkya Rahane, M Vijay, the injured Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul played vital roles with crucial contributions against New Zealand.

While Kohli was in top-form against England, Vijay and Rahul made telling contributions at various stages of the series. While everyone made hay against the lowly Bangladesh, their biggest test came against Australia. Barring the match in Ranchi, run-making was a hazardous occupation on difficult pitches and hence the value of those runs were perhaps more than those in the previous series. Pujara was top-notch again but it was Rahul who stood out with his consistency without a 100. His six half-centuries in seven innings were worth their weight in gold and were as crucial to India’s 2-1 series win as were the contributions from R Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja.

Spinners have always been India’s biggest match winners, and the script has continued under Kohli. Jadeja and Ashwin, the No 1 and 2 Test bowlers respectively in the world, picked up a whopping 153 wickets (@ 24.14) between them to become the most successful bowling pair ever in a season. Both the spinners bowled over 700 overs each spread over 13 home Tests, also holding testimony to their physical and mental fitness. Ashwin, in the process, also became the highest wicket-taker in a season with 82 scalps. Declared the ICC Cricketer and Test Cricketer of the Year for the period 2015-2016, he emerged as India’s biggest match winner. A recurring sports hernia appeared to have blunted his sharpness to an extent towards the end of the season, a period when Jadeja emerged out of his shadows. Chinaman Kuldeep Yadav turned out to be a valuable addition to the spin arsenal, surprising the Aussies with his novelty and guile in Dharamsala.  
In a land of spin, here and there, India have managed to produce some real quality fast bowlers – from Kapil Dev to Javagal Srinath to Zaheer Khan to name a few. But never in the past had India witnessed such big quantity of quality fast bowlers at the same time as now -- Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma besides several other fringe bowlers. Shami, whenever he was injury-free, and Umesh, easily one of the fittest players in the world, have been particularly impressive giving crucial breakthroughs and opening up rivals’ innings. They both operate at high speeds and are adept at both conventional and reverse swing bowling.

On pitches where spinners generally have a major say, these two have managed to make a great impact. While Shami has always been a smart operator, Umesh has come a long way from the uncut diamond that he was. This home season saw him mature as a fast bowler and he ended up producing his best in the last series – 17 wickets at an average of 23.41. While Ishant’s inability to take wickets despite bowling well remains a mystery, Bhuvneshwar didn’t disappoint whenever he got his chances. 

With India opting to adopt a bold strat    egy of playing with five bowlers to force wins in their favour, the responsibility to score runs on the lower order increased manifold. And the likes of Ashwin, Wriddhiman Saha, Jadeja and rookie Jayant Yadav, who even struck a century batting at No 9 in Mumbai against England, more than held their own with the bat to make a big difference between winning and losing a match.

In the event of top-orders from either side failing to perform, it was the Indian ‘tail’ that stung the opposition. Ashwin notched up four half-centuries (besides two 100s in West Indies) against England while Saha scored two tons and as many fifties this home season (besides his maiden ton in West Indies). Jadeja has been consistent with the bat, often helping India to set-up the game with his brisk scoring. The left-hander registered five half-centuries, including a 90, this home season.
Two replacements stood out this season – Parthiv Patel and Karun Nair. While Parthiv, filling in for the injured Saha, made decent contributions both in the middle and at the top of the tree with the bat, Nair put on show his precocious talent with a triple hundred in only his third Test against England in Chennai. He has gone off the boil since then but he is a batsman worth heavy investment. Similarly Jayant, Kuldeep and Bhuvneshwar – though not replacements in the strictest sense – discharged their duties with great efficiency.

Kohli’s brand of captaincy splits opinions vertically. He is aggressive and is always in your face. He cares two hoots to what people think or say about his style but he is willing to get himself painted dirty to win a match. He has his own style of motivating players and his intensity on the field is infectious. He is perhaps the first Indian captain to demand 100 percent commitment in keeping oneself fit and he leads by example in that aspect. And he has a coach to complement. Kumble, given his standing in the game, is an inspirational figure. Having made players feel secure about their careers, Kumble has been more of an elder brother to his wards than a tough task master that he comes across as. The fiery nature of Kohli and the ice-cool approach of Kumble have blended nicely in India’s march towards glory. Kumble was perhaps as aggressive in his attitude but he knew how to channelise it in the right direction, a fact not lost on Kohli.