"At times, in the subcontinent the toss becomes vital. The only way to take the toss out of the equation is to have pitches that turn right from the start. The game may end in three and a half days, but both teams will have an equal opportunity to win the game."
This was the then India captain MS Dhoni in 2012, openly calling for spin-friendly tracks to mitigate the effect of toss. Dhoni was speaking after a victory over England in Ahmedabad on a 'typical' Indian track, so it wasn't like he was seeking extreme home advantage.
As luck may have it, India did get a rank turner in the next Test of that series in Mumbai, won the toss, and ended up being spinned out by Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann. India went on to lose the next Test in Kolkata too, and eventually the series.
But India didn't change their approach. Dhoni stuck to his position, and India got turning tracks in the subsequent series against Australia. This time, India emerged victorious, sweeping Australia 4-0. The visitors had won the toss in each of the four matches and batted first, but ended up losing all four.(AFP)
A similar theme followed in the initial days of Virat Kohli's captaincy. His first home series as captain was against South Africa in 2015, and India rolled out pitches that turned square from the outset. Batsmen from both teams struggled, with 334 in Delhi being the highest score of the series. India's spinners proved to be the better ones, giving the hosts a 3-0 win.
Somewhere along the road, India realised two things. One, they don't need to rely on such spin-friendly wickets - although it's not wrong to enjoy home advantage - for victories. Two, such wickets are a bit of a gamble, as it gives the opposition a bigger chance as well. There's a thin line between spin-friendly pitches and dust-bowls, and the latter could cost India too.
India found that out the hard way in Mumbai 2012 against England, Pune 2017 against Australia, and even Galle 2015 against Sri Lanka. Thus, the trend changed beginning the home stretch in 2016-17, barring the Pune game against Australia. India were back to more placid tracks, the ones that wear down gradually with time and break open on Days 4 and 5. The ones that make the toss great again!
However, the toss wasn't going to affect India on such tracks as much as it affected visiting sides. Nothing proved that better than the 2016 series against England; India laid out perfectly 'sporting' tracks, lost the toss in four matches, conceded more than 400 thrice, and yet won the five-match series 4-0.
India won 10 of their 13 Tests in that home season, losing one and drawing the other two. The dominance was evidence and a message to themselves that they could win on any surface.
Coincidentally or not, this was the time India also began to develop the bunch of pacers they currently have. The spinners - R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja - have been a constant but since the 2016-17 season, the pacers have played key roles too. Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami in particular had plenty to do, often being the underappreciated heroes. Even Kohli made it a point to talk about such contributions from the pacers each time he had a chance.
Now, the pacers have graduated from 'small but significant roles' to playing main leads. The series against South Africa is one where the spotlight had firmly been on Shami and Umesh; India's pacers have picked 26 wickets in three matches. For comparison for how far they've come, India's pacers accounted for only 8 wickets in the four-match series against South Africa in 2015.
India have now got an attack that can win with pace and spin, on spinning and non-spinning pitches. They won the toss in all three games of this series, but they don't entirely depend on it; India have lost the toss 10 times in the last five years at home, and won six of those while drawing three.
It really is hard to see how and when a visiting team will beat India in India, in the near future. Ironically, the only slim chance, it would seem, is to hope for one of those extreme pitches. The next time a visiting team sees a pitch like Mumbai 2012 or Pune 2017, they shouldn't complain; they should see it as a rare opportunity. For on any other track, India are close to unbeatable, irrespective of the fortunes at the toss.