Rain ensured no play on the second day in Centurion. As is often the case with such disruptions, there was a team happier with the overs lost. For an Indian cricket fan, it was absurd to be on the other side. It was absurd to feel dejected and not relieved at a loss of day’s play in SENA country. Like it was at Trent Bridge earlier this year. A feeling of rain robbing the side of a Test win and a deserving one at that.
The seeds of this absurdity were sown in Johannesburg in 2018. India had ended yet another home season with supreme numbers. It was not a surprise then and continues to be trivial now. For since 2013 India has won every series at home and have lost only two Tests.
The transition period was over, the captain and the coach were aligned on prioritizing Test cricket and making this current Indian side world-beaters. The middle-order included legends to be, there was variety in the spin department and for the first time in recent memory a bouquet of pace bowling options. While being on the road, 2018 was when the promise of the current lot was to bear fruit
But India’s batting failed to turn up and they were 2-0 down by the second Test in South Africa. It was the usual rhetoric on tough away tours of seizing to grab the initiative and batters failing to turn up.
The third Test in Johannesburg turned out to be unscripted. On the toughest wicket of the tour, India came out triumphant to win a Test outside the subcontinent after four years. The celebrations suggested that India had already moved on from the two defeats. For them, the journey to greatness began then.
It was not to be. At least not with the authority fitting to everyone’s desire but limited to their fantasies. A 4-1 score-line in England later that year did not paint a clear picture of the contest but was a deflating result nonetheless. That year though ended on a high. The current lot tasted blood for the first time with a first-ever series win in Australia. But an asterisk of it being achieved in the absence of Australia’s batting stalwarts hung over the momentous occasion. India ended 2018 with a record four Test wins in the SENA nations.
India have equalled the number of wins in 2021. And with better overall reading. While the win-loss ratio in these Tests read 4:7 in 2018, they read 4:2 this year. This win to loss ratio of two outside the subcontinent in 2021 is the best for India in a year ever.
2021 started off with the situation for Australia and India reversed from three years ago. The hosts were all beefed up with the missing duo from then and a little something extra with Marnus Labuschagne. While India had players falling off like flies and were one more injury away from having the support staff taking the field.
The year began with the defiance of the ages in Sydney. Then came the finishing touch at Brisbane to wipe off the asterisk from 2018. India became the first Asian team to win a Test at the Gabba and the first visitors to win there since 1986. This was from an XI that included a few players who might never play a Test for India again.
India followed this up with a win against England at home that saw them qualify for the World Test Championship (WTC) final. Though India won after the defeat in the first Test, this was at home. The result was expected.
Perhaps the only team that stands in the way of India being unanimously agreed upon as the best Test side in the world right now are New Zealand. For officially they are the World Test Champions beating India in the cynosure event for Test cricket this year.
While the Kiwis have not won in Australia in ages and have never won in India and South Africa ever. The commerce of the game does not allow them to go through the hard grind of a long Test series with its set of challenges with form and fitness. But hey! The one who has the trophy gets to dance in glory.
India, though, avenged the WTC defeat with a series win against New Zealand later in the year. But that was at home. And it doesn’t count.
In between the two events was a series against England. After spending a good month acclimatizing themselves to the conditions, India were dominant from the opening day. They needed 150-odd on the final day of the first Test with nine wickets in the bag when rain left the Indian fans with that absurd feeling yet again. 60 overs of hell at Lord’s and a comeback at the Oval after a defeat in Headingley meant India were 2-1 ahead before the series was cut short due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
From 2018 to now, India had ironed out all their wrinkles. In the period between 2015 and 2019, there were 11 instances of Indian openers facing 100+ balls in a Test outside the subcontinent. In 2021, Indian openers did so on 12 occasions. While India spent these years finding the best-suited openers, Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul emerged as their leading run-scorers away from home in 2021, shielding a rather porous middle-order.
In 2018, India’s lower-order failed to contribute. In 2021, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah made a mockery of England’s bodyline tactics in a match-defining ninth-wicket stand at Lords. Furthermore, Shardul Thakur emerged as the pace-bowling all-rounder India were desperate for and contributed to victories while batting at number eight at the Gabba and the Oval. All this while pacers remained India’s main weapon overseas and further reinforced by the energy of Mohammed Siraj.
If anything, India’s fortunes overseas turned inside out from 2018 to 2021. Back then, Virat Kohli carried the team alone looking around for players who can stand up. Now, his form is perhaps India’s biggest headache while others collectively rise to the occasion. The results that followed encapsulate the “team is bigger than an individual” aspect of cricket. Doubters can check with Joe Root who might be feeling it a thousand times over what Kohli did in 2018.
When India lost to South Africa four years ago, fingers were pointed at the absence of practice games. By 2021, India’s game in Tests has become so tight that never once did South Africa find themselves ahead at Centurion despite no practice games for India yet again.
What started with a breach of an opposition fortress ended the same way as India became the first Asian side to win in Centurion. The class of 1971 might object, but on numbers, results and sheer authority, 2021 is by far India’s best in Test cricket. It is the home team that are happier with the rain when they face India nowadays.