The promotional advert for India’s long-pending fifth Test against England is a weird one. For some reason, the ad agency and the broadcaster both decided to deem it a “historic Test”. That is a fallacy, by definition.
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In sporting terms at least, you can only deem something historic once it has come to pass, and you can measure its significance in lasting terms, unlike the real-world scenario. For example, if you are Robert Oppenheimer and about to test detonate the first-ever atomic bomb, then, in that scenario you already know it is a historic moment. The differentiation, in the context of this Test series, is clear on its own.
In simpler terms, if India wins this game, and takes the series 3-1, then yes, it will be deemed a historic Test. It will only be their 10th Test victory on English soil, and only the fourth-ever Test series win since 1971. Historic indeed, but again, not until the last ball has been bowled. Meanwhile, for England to draw this series 2-2, that won’t have any historic significance whatsoever.
Even so, it doesn’t mean that this fifth Test doesn’t hold any significance for Indian cricket. Beyond the aforementioned statistics, or the small matter of World Test Championship points, this Test comes as a fork in the road for Indian cricket. In particular, for this current bunch of senior players in the Indian team.
Why? Well, India only has six other Tests remaining in this current FTP cycle. Two of those will be played away in Bangladesh (December, 2022) and four more at home against Australia (February-March, 2023). Unless India qualifies for the WTC Final (to be hosted in England) again, this fifth Test will mark the last proper overseas (SENA) challenge for a number of senior players in the current Indian set-up. And, who knows how this Indian Test team will look like in 2024?
It is a journey that began back in 2014-15, when Virat Kohli assumed Test captaincy. What was a stand-in role at Adelaide, quickly transformed into a full-time capacity at the Sydney Test, and the change in India’s approach towards the longer format was almost instantly visible. 16 out of 40 wins under Kohli’s leadership came in overseas conditions. Winning on tours like West Indies and Sri Lanka became a walk-in-the-park.
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Of course, that wasn’t enough, and armed with a lethal pace attack, India took the next step. Two series wins in Australia, winning Tests in South Africa and England, it became the norm. You expected India to win in overseas conditions, a far cry from the last decade. Go back further, and even with Sourav Ganguly’s Golden Team, the expectation was to fight and maybe win, and not to just win.
New Zealand is the one place that flummoxed this Indian team, and even the pacers couldn’t work out the winning formula there. It brings back the aforementioned point – will Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Mohammed Shami and company get to revisit New Zealand and make amends? Perhaps not, and it brings further spotlight onto this impending fifth Test against England.
Roll back four years, and sitting at the post-series press conference at The Oval in 2018, Kohli was in a belligerent mood. Both he and then coach Ravi Shastri were keen to profess how that 4-1 score-line didn’t really tell the tale of their English tour. Truth told, it didn’t – for all their bluster in many other press conferences, Kohli-Shastri were right to fight their cause. India had played well for most part of the series, and lost by the minimum margins at crucial junctures.
The problem with score-lines though is they never tell an iota of the tale, leave alone a full one. Only those who were there will remember that 2018 series for what it was, and when Kohli-Shastri reached the English shores in 2021, they knew it well. To put it simply, India needed to win the Test series in England last year, and they almost did. 2-1 in four Tests – India put on a masterclass of pace bowling, of seizing moments when they mattered, and despite a few batting hiccups, they were poised to win the series in Manchester.
And then, Covid-19 intervened. Should that fifth Test had gone ahead? It is a disputable topic, and one that has been put to rest. Yet, there is this desolate feeling about it all. Team India was so close to capping off a summit it had tried hard to scale four years prior. Winning in England, after two Test series wins in Australia, would have given Kohli-Shastri the ultimate prop-up in their last Test series together.
None of it transpired, and just look how things have changed now. Shastri is not on the scene. Kohli is fighting a lonesome battle against his past glorious self, far away from the spotlight of captaincy. Rohit is in-charge, but fate has played a cruel hand and India’s most impressive batter from last summer will miss this crucial fifth Test. Rahul Dravid is the coach now, but his team couldn’t get past an ordinary South Africa in January. Jasprit Bumrah is the new (stand-in) Test captain in a must-not-lose game.
To say, India is undercooked going into this fifth Test against Brendon McCullum’s spirited England would be an understatement. Yet, it isn’t far away from the truth. From the outside, it seems a disjointed patched-up squad. The batting is in transition with the likes of Hanuma Vihari and Shreyas Iyer looking to impress. And yet, with Rohit missing, India must rely on Cheteshwar Pujara once again. Kohli needs to be the star man and find his mettle against James Anderson – one last time.
It is that key last phrase. Kohli marking his guard, as Anderson gets ready to bowl, four slips in place – a sight for the ages. Surely, it is the last bout for these two heavyweights. How will we remember it, by measures of runs and wickets, or wins and losses? How will Anderson remember it – that he helped England make it 2-2? How will Kohli remember it – will he be able to get across his arch nemesis and help India scale its most-wanted frontier? He may not be captain, but he is still very much the fulcrum of this Test side, more so in Rohit’s absence.
For Kohli and the likes of Rohit, Pujara, R Ashwin (who surprisingly didn’t play a single Test last summer), Ravindra Jadeja, Shami and Umesh Yadav, this is the final step of a long, arduous overseas journey. One, which has seen many ups and downs, some disappointing moments (South Africa 2018 anyone?) and some glorious wonders (Gabba 2021 ahoy!).
It is a journey they would want to finish on a winning note – a historic one.
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