Centurion: Consider these quotes from the press conference…
“The bowlers have done a pretty good job through the series and to miss out on the opportunity to win it is a little disappointing. I don't want to overstate things, but I think it's fair to say that our batting was disappointing in the last two Test matches.”
“We are just not getting enough consistent runs. We seem to be losing wickets in batches, which is something you try and avoid in international cricket, particularly in a Test match.”
“Looking at the tour as a whole, there are more questions than answers. There will be a few guys under a bit of pressure, there's no doubt.”
“It's very easy to look at things in hindsight and say what if, what if. We made the choices based on what we saw and what we had.”
These words didn’t come from Virat Kohli in January 2018. They were spoken by Greg Chappell in January 2007, after another ill-fated tour of South Africa. The similarity in the sentiments expressed, if not the tone, can be viewed in two ways. The pessimist or eternal cynic will say that nothing has changed in Indian cricket, that a team that routinely beats all-comers at home gets travel sickness once it passes emigration.
The glass-full types can look instead to what happened in the years that followed that South African tour. The same core of players went on to win Test series in England and New Zealand. They drew in South Africa, and might have done at least that much in Australia but for some truly abysmal umpiring.
As we pick through the wreckage of these two Tests, what solid planks of wood are there to cling to? There’s the bowling, for a start. Never as consistently brilliant or relentless as the South Africans, but far far better than we’d become accustomed to in the half decade since Zaheer Khan lost his mojo and Sreesanth chose outlaw over outswing.
Then, there was the Virat Kohli innings, and Hardik Pandya’s defiance in Cape Town. R Ashwin illustrating his value with both bat and ball. But that’s about it. At the press conference, before the questions/statements that irked him so, I asked Kohli about planning for the future to try and avoid such outcomes. After all, one of the strengths of the Gary Kirsten-coached side in South Africa was the manner in which young talent was carefully groomed.
Kohli and Ashwin were among those who won their first caps in that era, though they didn’t become Test regulars until after Kirsten left. In that context, I asked, was there a temptation to sit with Rahul Dravid, and assess the outstanding options at Under-19 or A team level?
“We will have to sit down and discuss those things,” said Kohli. “Look, it doesn’t feel nice that you come out and you feel good as a team and then you are not able to execute what you want to. It almost has to be a madness to be able to win away from home. And you have to live that every minute, every day of being on tour.
“I can’t speak on behalf of selectors as to what they are thinking. Obviously, the selectors will come into the conversation as well when we are looking at planning for future tours, because we have a lot of cricket away from home. This was not the only tour. We have to identify all the areas that need improvement. And accordingly act on those.”
The ‘guys under pressure’ in the Chappell era were far superior to Kohli’s support cast. If you look at matches in the SANE countries (South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and England), Rahul Dravid scored ten hundreds and 17 half-centuries. Only in South Africa did his average drop below 30. VVS Laxman averaged 34 in England, but over 40 everywhere else, while making 5 tons and 15 50s. As for Tendulkar, the master, there were 17 centuries and 23 scores over 50. His lowest average in those four countries was 46 in South Africa.
In 31 innings in the SANE nations, Cheteshwar Pujara averages 27.19. You take out the lone hundred, a 153 in Johannesburg on the last tour, and the numbers are dire. Every bit as bad as Rohit Sharma, who has 452 runs at 22.6. Shikhar Dhawan, dropped after Newlands, has 612 at 27.82. Between them, they have two centuries and seven 50s.
The averages for Kohli (48.73) and Ajinkya Rahane (48.59) are almost identical, though Kohli has scored eight hundreds to Rahane’s three while playing 13 more innings. As for Murali Vijay, his excellence in Australia and England has been offset by failures in New Zealand (only four innings) and South Africa. Across 32 innings, he averages 36.78. The sample size for KL Rahul, just six innings, eliminates him from the discussion.
So, there you have it. Three batsmen who can conceivably get the job done when the ride gets bumpy – one of them who hasn’t seen any action this series, thanks to a prolonged slump in home form – and three others whose continued selection is testament to the triumph of hope over logic.
Is Shreyas Iyer ready for Test cricket on speed? Can Prithvi Shaw take his stunning first-class form to the highest level? If we’re to find out the answers, it will only be once they’re thrown into the deep end. With the conveyer belt of home Tests now over, they would have to be blooded in England or Australia.
It could be the making of them, as it was for Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in the summer of 1996. Whether the selectors and team management take such left-field punts remains to be seen. What we can be almost sure of, however, is that the current bunch aren’t going to be able to turn around the grisly statistic that tells you India have lost 17 and won only one of their last 24 SANE Tests. The numbers, in this case, don’t lie.