The three-day, innings victory in Ahmedabad on Saturday formalised India’s date with New Zealand in the final of the World Test Championship in June and propelled Virat Kohli’s men to a 3-1 thumping of England. It was India’s 10th successive series win at home under Kohli, and an unprecedented 13th in a row, dating back to 2013 when, under Mahendra Singh Dhoni, they swept Australia 4-0.
India’s last home series loss was in December 2012 when, under Alastair Cook, England rallied for a 2-1 miracle; subsequently, all-comers have found India in India an invincible force that guards a proud record with fierce zeal.
Of the top cricket-playing nations, no one wears the cloak of home dominance with as much authority. Most teams are beaten even before they set foot in India; they fear an examination by spin they are ill-equipped to handle, but to put India’s extraordinary run of successes to spin alone will be doing other contributing factors grave disservice.
Historically, India have challenged the best in the world to match, and beat, them on their own patch. Not since Bill Lawry’s team in 1969 had an Australian team triumphed here, so much so that the acclaimed Steve Waugh was driven to calling India the Final Frontier. His designs at a conquest of India, as player and captain, were comprehensively nullified, most notably in 2001 when the hosts staged the mother of all fightbacks to resuscitate the series in Kolkata and complete a remarkable comeback in Chennai. It wasn’t until a year and a half after his retirement that, in late 2004, the Aussies managed to lay India low in India. That 2-1 victory remains their only success in this nation for the last five decades.
So, what is it about India that sends shivers down the spines of some of the greatest cricketers in the history of the game? If it was just a question of tracks assisting spin, why is it that Test cricket’s top two wicket-takers, Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne respectively, didn’t taste the same success as they did elsewhere?
As is generally the case with these questions, there is no one single answer. The challenges India poses are multifarious, unique and unparalleled. Even in these times, when teams no longer import food and water, fearful of what might lay in store. Even when the IPL has taken away much of the intrigue and mystery surrounding the land and the people, even when increased ‘A’ tours have allowed overseas players to cut their teeth against quality oppositions, insulated from the pressures of international cricket.
Primary in the list of challenges is spin. For as long as India have played Test cricket, they have had the luxury of falling back on wonderful practitioners of this great art. That, allied with their own batsmen playing such high-class spin on a regular basis in domestic cricket, gave them a massive edge even before a ball was bowled. The tradition has continued, and in the period spanning these 13 series wins, the prime driver has been R Ashwin, the master off-spinner who was named the Player of the Series for the eighth time for his exploits against the English.
Gradually, though, India have added excellent pace bowling resources to their arsenal, which means even if spinners sometimes have the odd bad run, the quicks are able to capitalise on reverse-swing which generally is a consequence of abrasive surfaces.
Throw in formidable top-orders – the England series was an aberration with Shubman Gill, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane all failing to get going – and you get a more complete sense of what travelling outfits are up against. No matter the quality of the opposition bowling, India have invariably piled up massive first-innings totals, taking their mantra of ‘bat once, bat big’ to heart. What adds greater lustre to the all-conquering march under Kohli is that India have lost significantly more tosses at home than they have won, comprehensively exploding the ‘win-toss, win-match’ myth.
A massive but perhaps underplayed factor is the SG ball used in India. The rest of the cricket world – Bangladesh did go with the SG when Sunil Joshi was their spin consultant – prefers either the Kookaburra or the Duke’s, which might lose their seam with time but retain their basic shape because of a highly compressed core. Already not accustomed to bowling regularly with the SG, bowlers from abroad find its ‘bloating’ an almost insurmountable setback.
Such virtuosos as Warne and Murali, both wrist-spinners – Murali is classified an offie but used his wrist much more than he did the fingers of his right hand – have spoken of their struggles with gripping a ‘bigger ball’ when the SG gets older. With ageing, the SG is no longer the perfect sphere as when it’s new and hard, so for the wrist-spinners especially to get the same revs on the ball, and purchase off decks, becomes extremely difficult.
The weather is another massive influencer, but not as big as India’s unofficial 12th man, the crowd. The noise and energy at a ground in India is unlike any other. Even in this series, where the last three Tests were played with only 50% allowed attendance, the buzz was unmistakable. Kohli, more than anyone else, knows the power of a screaming, appreciative crowd; he understands that batsmen, already under pressure with Ashwin and Axar Patel bearing down, will be further rattled by whatever is happening in the stands, no matter how experienced they might be. That’s why he makes it a point to egg the crowd on whenever possible. Even for IPL regulars, boisterous crowds in country vs country contests can be daunting. And, let’s face it, only a handful in the current English and Australian Test teams are IPL-rich in experience.
With sinuous skills at the forefront, other significant contributors ally to make India well nigh unbeatable at home. Cracking the Indian code is far from easy; that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.