3 years


India’s Unbeaten Test Streak: The Winning Run

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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India’s unbeaten Test streak may be over, but it was as good as it got while it lasted

CATCH VIRAT KOHLI in a press conference, any press conference, and you will see him glow. Maybe it has something to do with the lights in the room. Maybe it is due to his earnest answers— the man with a fierce reputation for his near negligible fuse now has a remarkably high tolerance for bullshit questions. Maybe he is aware of the fact that his metamorphosis from brat-who- can-bat to legend-who-levitates is complete. It could well be that his incredible stack of runs over the past year has made us all believers; phantasmal even, who knows. But in press conferences, it is quite easy to imagine Kohli sitting behind that table cross-legged, perched above four feet of thin air.

Kohli is glowing in this press conference as well, a presser organised at the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium in Pune, minutes after India’s calamitous 333-run loss to Australia within three days of the first Test. The statistical nuts and bolts of the defeat only get worse. It was India’s second biggest thrashing at home. The 212 runs the team scored over two innings (105 and 107) was their lowest match aggregate ever on these shores.

In the first innings, India lost their last seven wickets for just 11 runs, again, their most embarrassing collapse in this format. In all, the side was bowled out twice in 74 overs, the least number of balls faced to lose all 20 wickets by an Indian team at home. Twelve of those wickets were taken by Steve O’Keefe, a left-arm spinner playing only his fifth Test. A left-arm spinner who had never taken more than three wickets in an innings or four wickets in a match before.

The match was a nightmare for Kohli the batsman too. In the first innings, he was dismissed for a two-ball zero—his first duck in three years. Mathematically impossible, but it only got more embarrassing in his second attempt. Batting on 13, Kohli shouldered arms to an O’Keefe ball that pitched outside his off-stump, him perhaps expecting it to spin away towards first slip. When it didn’t, the ball promptly crashed into the stumps, making the best batsman in the game today blush under his beard. Whatever colour he may have turned then, it had faded by the time he arrived at the post-mortem with the press. Now he was almost luminous.

Reporter: “Do you think we picked the wrong combination for a turning wicket? Maybe an extra batsman...”

Kohli: “If we get bowled out, losing seven wickets for 11 runs, there’s nothing an extra batsman can do. Talking of combinations... I’m sure you wouldn’t have asked me this question had we won.”

Reporter: “Was this loss due to the pitch?”

Kohli: “I don’t think it was any different from the turners that we played on in the past. We just didn’t play good cricket. You can twist the questions any way you like, the fact will remain that we played bad cricket and that’s why we lost. When we played good cricket, we won.”

Kohli has wide eyes, bracketed by charming caterpillars for eyebrows. The slightest furrow on these bristles would be enough to give away his truest emotion; not even his resting poker face would stand a chance. But those brows are loopy, the caterpillars at rest. His pupils are calm, only his tongue flickers often against his lower lip, moistening it before he speaks. And he speaks with an easy assurance, ready to engage the journalist in conversation and not an argument—the polar opposite of any other Indian captain who has sat behind a clutch of microphones in the past 30 years.

As a rule of thumb, sportspersons have a severe dislike of press conferences. Indian cricket captains turn up the knob on that sentiment—they’re downright allergic. Sometimes, it’s easy to see why. First his views on the match are wrung out by a commentator at the post-match presentation. Then he is expected, thanks to a clause in his contract, to deal with a room full of reporters eager to share their varied opinions on why the game was won, or, God forbid, lost.

Between India’s Test match losses in Galle and Pune, 18 months apart, Kohli’s team won six back-to-back long-format series’, against Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, England and Bangladesh

Hence, over time, Azharuddin turned stoic, Ganguly aggressive and Dravid defensive (his fans fear that he will perhaps never smile again whilst leaning over a table). Dhoni, on the other hand, spoke a lot without saying anything at all, readily fanning out his tiring pack of cliches. Not Kohli. He answers with thought and clarity, even when the questions are redundant.

Reporter: “Can India bounce back in this series? And what is the mood in the dressing room?”

Kohli: “I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t catch the first part of your question... Ah, okay, it’s just another international game. It’s no big deal. It’s how you should stay calm and composed when you win, how you shouldn’t get overexcited. The same way you [must] react when you lose, something that you take on the chin...”

The journalist had his answer, but Kohli wasn’t finished. “I would say that we needed something like this for us to get a reality check,” he says. “The last time we had a performance like this, we had the most outstanding run after that.”

A subtle way of putting it. The loss Kohli is referring to came in Galle against Sri Lanka in August 2015, in just the man’s third game as India’s full-time skipper. After that, for 18 months and 19 matches, Kohli didn’t lose—the longest ever unbeaten streak in the history of Indian cricket. In that period, India won six consecutive Test series’, against Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, England and Bangladesh. Back-to-back- to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back.

The streak is now finite, bracketed by two grizzly losses. This is how it glowed.

BETWEEN AUTUMN of 85 and summer of 87, Kapil Dev’s India went on a run of 17 unbeaten matches, a record that stood for nearly three decades. But there are a few stark differences between Kapil’s streak and that of Kohli’s. For starters, captain Kapil won four Tests, drew 12 and tied one match. Captain Kohli won 15 and drew four. Both these streaks spread over six Test series’ each. Kapil’s team won two, lost two and drew two. Kohli’s won all six.

There’s another less numerical distinction. While Kapil inherited his pool of players from Sunil Gavaskar, Kohli was forced to build at least half his side from scratch. When he took over in 2015, the last of the stalwarts from the 2000s, his leader Dhoni, had just retired. Here Kohli was perhaps faced with a young leader’s dilemma. Should he scan the past, recall experienced- but-sidelined players (Harbhajan Singh, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Ashish Nehra) and hope they give his squad depth? Or should he look ahead, blooding and grooming greenhorns instead? You, of course, know the path he took.

In less than two years as captain, Kohli has handed out as many as five caps to debutants. Three of them have formed a regolith above the team’s bedrock. In KL Rahul, he has discovered a stable opener with an appetite for hundreds. Rahul has already collected four centuries. In Karun Nair, India unearthed only its second Test triple centurion. And Jayant Yadav has shown all the makings of a genuine all- rounder. In just four matches so far, the off-spinner has already struck a fifty and a hundred when batting isn’t even considered his core competency.

Such was Kohli’s resolve that despite going 1-0 down in Sri Lanka in a three match-series, he backed both his instinct and the youngsters. So much so that when the side completed the turnaround at the Sinhalese Sports Club a few weeks later, only one player in the playing eleven was over thirty—Amit Mishra. The trophy was Kohli’s first as a Test captain, and India’s first away from home in the format since 2011.

For that series win, Kohli will be indebted to Ravichandran Ashwin, who took 21 wickets (more than a third of all Sri Lankan dismissals) and ended up with the Man of the Series. The off-spinner would go on to claim three more successive Man of the Series awards—against South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand. In all, during the streak, Ashwin scalped 130 batsmen. 130! Many of them, he claimed in bunches, with 14 five-wicket hauls.

“Let’s leave Ash out of this,” Kohli said after the New Zealand series when he was asked to analyse Ashwin’s contribution to the team (he had taken 27 wickets, the second best tally by a spinner in a three match series in Test cricket). “He’s from another planet.” Kohli knows what he’s talking about. He too has visited the said planet on numerous occasions during the streak, scoring 1,890 runs and six centuries—four of which were double hundreds.

Until July last year, Kohli hadn’t crossed the 200-run barrier in any level of the game. Not even in school cricket. Then he brought one up against the West Indies in Antigua (200)—his first as batsman. And captain. In the next Test series against New Zealand, he repeated the feat (211) in Indore. And then in the next one in Mumbai (235) against England, a series in which Kohli scored 655 runs in five Tests, at a Bradmanesque average of 109 runs per innings. The fourth double century in as many consecutive series’ unfolded against Bangladesh (204) in Hyderabad. Even Bradman didn’t have as many in a row. Since his maiden double hundred, Kohli’s lowest score after crossing the three-figure threshold has been 167.

Kohli and Ashwin. Ashwin and Kohli. Brick and mortar. Architects of India’s modern game. They laid the foundations, placed the pillars and constructed a fortress. Then, once the reporters took their seats in one its halls, Kohli turned the lights on.