What was a distraction ended up being an inspiration and a motivation. For the Indian team, getting to the final of the World Test Championship was a byproduct of playing the brand of cricket they have over the last few years. And yet, when the first Test against England was lost, the World Test Championship came into focus.
After all, this team has shown remarkable resilience home and away in the recent past. In Australia, they came back not just from being 0-1 down, but from being bowled out for 36. Here too, against England, in more familiar conditions, it was certain the team would bounce back. But, to qualify for the World Test Championship final, merely winning the series would not be enough. Rather, they had to win each of the remaining three Test matches.
In home conditions, giving the Indian team that kind of a target, that kind of a goal, is a dangerous one. The team is highly motivated and driven to begin with, Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri being the kind of personalities they are. But, it’s not only in thought and intent that these things are achieved. For the team to pull off their stated ambition, different parts had to click into place.
The first major one was Rohit Sharma. The manner in which he batted, always looking like he was playing on a different surface to the batsmen on either team, was a massive difference between India and England. Kohli acknowledged as much, saying that the innings Rohit played in the second Test, on a challenging pitch in Chennai, began the turnaround for India. Without Rohit’s runs, and his mastery of the crease, there was every chance that England could take the opportunities they created, ensuring that India could not dominate passages of play.
If Rohit was the spark, R Ashwin and Axar Patel were the fire. Ashwin, who Kohli referred to as a “banker” was relied upon, and he delivered a 32-wicket series, and took away his eighth Player of the Series award. For Ashwin, the last few months have been like a second wind. Although not old, at 34, he is no spring chicken. And, as Ashwin himself conceded, when he arrived on Australia’s shores, he was not a sure starter in the playing eleven.
But, just as Ashwin figured out ways to crack the Australia question, and his strength and passion came to the fore, his batting returned. It was not as though Ashwin had lost it with the bat, but the runs that should have been scored just weren’t forthcoming. When that aspect of his game returned, he looked like a younger, stronger man, and this was evident in the England series.
While the Test matches may not have gone the difference, it was still not a question of simply turning up and winning games. And, at no stage did Ashwin the spinner look like he was out of puff or that the zip was waning from his shoulder and fingers. Add to this the century he scored in Chennai, and you can understand why the off spinner describes this phase as one of the happiest in his cricketing career.
With Ravindra Jadeja out of the picture, the Indian team needed someone to play a double role. Keep the runs down and take wickets. Axar responded with a smile and a bagful of wickets. The tall left-arm spinner, long considered a short-format player, proved that the selectors and the team management were not wrong to repose their faith in him. The manner in which he picked up wickets early in his spell meant that the pressure on Ashwin eased. While Ashwin was plotting and planning the biggest wickets, twice flummoxing Joe Root, Axar was going at the rest of the batting with unrelenting accuracy and aggression.
The reaffirmation of two left-handers completed the perfect home script for India. Rishabh Pant, long under pressure for not having the same soft touch behind the stumps as Wriddhiman Saha, proved that he was improving fast enough to be in the team for his wicketkeeping and not despite it. Decisive footwork, smart anticipation, visibly improved fitness and a general sense of enjoying playing and succeeding made him irresistible.
As for his batting, this was never in doubt, but the manner in which he curbed his natural instincts in the final Test, buckling down and batting India out of trouble because creating a world of pain for England, was just remarkable. Pant had Washington Sundar for company and just when it was needed Sundar showed once more that he can play at the highest level purely as a batsman.
Just because he darts the ball in during power plays and death overs in Twenty20 cricket, the wider cricket watching world had been lulled into believing he is a bowling allrounder. The composure he showed in defence, and the panache he displayed when cracking the ball through the off side or swivelling on one leg to pull was a sight to behold.
India now have such a package of player, a pack of hunters numbering twenty-plus, that they will always be able to put a strong eleven on the park, irrespective of who was injured at any given time. The versatility and variation in the mix ensures that they will never be beaten by conditions alone. Here is a team that not only deserved to be in the final of the World Test Championship, but had earned it as well.