After the whitewash in the ODI series in New Zealand, India captain Virat Kohli said one-day cricket this calendar year is not as relevant as T20Is and Tests. India who is currently leading the World Test Championship points table and lost points for the first time, would need to rethink. Prior to the two-Test series in New Zealand, team India coach Ravi Shastri told the objective is to “play like the world's No. 1 Test team" and collect full points - 120 of them - "to be in contention to play at Lord's".
The World Test Championship now provides a context to every Test match. No Test match is a pointless exercise if it is part of the Championship schedule. So far India has played 9 Test matches collecting 360 points. Scratching the surface reveals that India beat the number 8 ranked West Indies in their home, defeated a flagging South Africa and number 9 ranked Bangladesh side at home. For the first time India is facing a strong opposition, number 4 in the ICC Test Team Ranking, in their backyard.
India’s Test ascendancy
Since 1980 to the start of 2000 – India played 150 Test matches, won 29 of them (Win % of 19.33). In the next 20 years since 1st Jan 2000 - India have played 210 Test matches winning 96 of them (Win% of 45.71).
One of the foremost reason why India started doing well in Test cricket was the appointment of Sourav Ganguly as the Test captain in early 2000 after a tumultuous phase it went through because of the match fixing scandals. Ganguly’s appointment also coincided with a golden generation of players in Indian cricket. He had the services of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag, VVS Laxman, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan among others – one of the largest concentration of cricketing talent in a team in India in a certain period. Not only were they part of the team but their peak performances also came under Ganguly. Under the Prince of Kolkata and to some extent Dravid, India demonstrated their killer instinct and started winning matches in overseas conditions. The month of December in 2003 and 2006 provided two landmark victories for India at Adelaide and Johannesburg respectively against two strong Test sides. In 2007, India won a Test series in England after 21 years.
The baton was passed on to MS Dhoni after Ganguly and Dravid’s reign in 2008. Dhoni had taken the limited-overs team to greater heights with his astute leadership. Nothing less was expected from him in the Test format too. But his captaincy in red-ball cricket failed to meet expectations. Though, under Dhoni, India dominated the Test arena at home losing just 3 Tests out of 30 played, his team struggled to emulate that success in overseas conditions losing half of the matches (15 loses from 30) and winning just 6. Also, the manner in which India capitulated most of the times, did incriminate Dhoni’s defensive leadership. One of the most glaring examples was when 86 runs were needed from 90 balls with 7 wickets in hand, India called off the game in front of a full house at Windsor Park, Dominica in 2011. During their tour of New Zealand in 2014, Sunil Gavaskar on TV jokingly made a comment on Dhoni’s defensive field placement saying - "This one takes the cake. No, this one takes the whole bakery." India, who gained the Number 1 Test Ranking in the 9th match under Dhoni in December 2009, had slipped to Number 7 in December 2014 when Dhoni abruptly ended his Test career midway through the tour of Australia.
Kohli’s leadership style is a complete departure from the defensive Dhoni’s. In his 1st Test as the stand-in captain, Kohli showed the “intent” to dominate and win at any cost which was missing in the previous dispensation. Kohli set out to chase an arduous target of 364 at Adelaide and nearly made it. Had Wriddhiman Saha not played one shot too many or had Kohli not miscued Nathan Lyon the result could have been different.
Kohli’s dominating intent of playing to win also coincided with the slow decline of Australia and South Africa as dominant forces in the Test firmament. In the last 4 years Australia have lost to India and South Africa at home. In the same time they have played 7 overseas series winning just one against New Zealand. Two of their star players (David Warner and Steve Smith) were out of the team when India beat them for the first time in Australia in 2018-19. Similarly the South African Test side have lost some of their best players for various reasons. Conversely, India’s seam bowling pack is one of the best now and is performing in all conditions. Consequently, India have climbed to the Number 1 position again in a matter of two years.
While ICC provide a team ranking, it lacks a proper historical benchmark to show the relative strength of a side. Devashish Fuloria, a cricket writer and researcher, has trained the Elo algorithm on all Test results since 1877. Each side starts off with an average rating (usually 1,500 points), and exchanges points with their opponents after every match. More points are awarded to the winners if they defeat a team regarded as much stronger. According to his system, India’s highest rating points in the past decade came in October 2010, when they defeated Ricky Ponting’s Australia 2-0 in a home series. India’s Test fortune fluctuates between their home and away Test cycle. As the away series cycle started India suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of Andrew Strauss’ England (4-0) and Michael Clarke’s Australia (4-0) in a span of 6 months. In the following home season too, India conceded (2-1) a series to England.
The degree of home dominance is directly proportional to the format (length) of the game in cricket. Of late every team is hard to beat in their backyard in Test Cricket. In the last 5 years, Bangladesh an emerging Test side have played South Africa, England, and Australia among others at home and have conceded just 1 Test series (min. 2 matches) to Sri Lanka.
India have won every single home series under Kohli. On the away front, other than England and South Africa, India have defeated Australia, Sri Lanka and West Indies in their backyard. India will play Australia next after the New Zealand series in December 2020 and England at home in January 2021. Though India’s entry into the World Test Championship is almost certain, their Test dominance à la Australia in 1990s and 2000s is a long shot away. The away series have been India’s ‘Achilles Heel’ in the past. Though India have done reasonably well of late in away conditions, they need to re-engineer their strategies to arrest the slide as soon as possible. While it is expected that India will do well if not dominate against England next year, India need to do well in the next match (2nd Test in Christchurch) and in the following Australia series to keep their dominance intact.