Cover Story

First Men

Aditya Iyer is the sports editor at Open
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The future of Test cricket is in safer hands now

HAD THEY BEEN ON THE FIELD, that vast swathe of grass that is the Sydney Cricket Ground, there would have been a scramble for stumps and souvenirs. Had rain not disallowed play on the final day of the Test series, Virat Kohli would’ve spiked into the air and punched it like it was his nemesis, his mouth wide and letting off compliments, steam and curses all at the same time like only his mouth can. Before the handshakes, there would’ve been a huddle not far away from the pitch; and on their backs and eardrums would’ve fallen applause and whistles and the wail of a conch shell even, these mighty sounds triangulating their targets from the beer-soaked stands. But there was rain, plenty of it. The Indians weren’t on the field, none of them, and the drenched seats were stripped off spectators when Indian cricket’s finest hour in the finest form of the game blew in with the wet winds.

They were in slippers and shorts, vests and aviators—some lazing in the balcony, others lounging inside the dressing room, all under a corrugated shelter—when the umpires confirmed in an official capacity what everyone concerned, the players and the pundits and the public, knew already: the inevitability of the series result. This, we had known since the end of second day of the Sydney Test when India declared for a score of over 600 runs (a position from which Kohli’s side couldn’t possibly lose the match). And this, we had confirmed by the fourth day, whenever play was possible between showers, after Australia were made to endure the humiliation of a follow-on on home soil after a gap of years greater than the average age of the players on both sides (a position from which this Australia would’ve surely lost, if not for that pesky and persistent drizzle).

So, when the authorities put an end to the obsequious wait—the twiddling thumbs, the endless cups of tea, the general sense of incarceration—the Indian team were declared conquerors of an unconquerable land (thus far), and within the claustrophobic confines of four walls they celebrated. They drummed on tables and danced around stools, an emotional army of players and coaches and support staff gravitating towards one another to share a smile and a hug. It had the look and feel of the arrival of midnight at a New Year party. But this Indian team wasn’t bothered about new calendars; they had turned the page on an era.

In a way, this was an apt setting. Great Test teams are forged in dressing rooms, around notepads and whiteboards and now laptops, one tweak and stitch at a time, not so much to their techniques (at the international level, every player knows how to play), but to their mindset, their culture. Mike Tyson claims that the fights he won even before stepping into the ring are too many to count. The West Indies of the 70s and 80s had that effect on Test cricket, and so did the Australia of the late 90s and 2000s. Kohli’s side had threatened to take that culture, that legacy forward more than any other Test team in the world today, and certainly more than any other Test team that ever represented India in the past. That threat turned into an oath at 2:30 pm AEDT in the Sydney dressing room. As coach Ravi Shastri put it: “This team now has an identity to look at any other Indian team from the past in the eye and say, ‘We play proper Test match cricket’.”

As a team, and at its best, the India of yesterday were good, never great. They had great individuals, sure; maybe even a handful of the all-time greats. But as a team, the label of ‘great’ never did apply to the lot when they tested themselves as a unit, as a team, outside of the Subcontinent, especially in Australia. In 2011- 12, a line-up embedded with Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Kohli and Dhoni lost a four-match Test series 4-0 on these shores. Indian cricket fans are also acutely aware of all the hopes that have been martyred on this very ground at the SCG; they sighed when Steve Waugh, in his final Test innings in 2004, saved a series for Australia; they wept when Ricky Ponting forced a spineless umpire to raise his finger to deny India a draw in 2008; and there were no more tears to shed by 2015, when MS Dhoni permanently handed over a young and fractured Test side to Virat Kohli in the SCG dressing room.

Seventy-one years is a long time. Children became adults and adults became grandparents and grandparents dragged grandchildren out of beds on purple winter mornings and together they shivered and frowned by television sets as yet another Test series in Australia was surrendered while hope and dawn broke simultaneously in India. But when the wait ends, its worth always seems proportional to the time invested. Last week, a new dawn broke in India and on Indian cricket. Kohli descended the dressing room stairs and ascended the presentation podium and collected the Border- Gavaskar trophy, a roadmap for prospective conquests. It was an image steeped in symbolism: At India’s yesterday (the SCG, a graveyard of India’s past), India’s emblem of today (Kohli) had peered into a reflection of India’s tomorrow.

TO GET A GRIP ON THE FUTURE, ONE must understand why the present has ceased dictation from the past. On the surface, there is nothing sexy about this Indian team. Even Kohli, the country’s best batsman (from his batting technique to his leadership style) and Jasprit Bumrah, the country’s best bowler (whose bowling action has the rigidity of a GI Joe toy) are acquired tastes. What they lack in flamboyance, though, Kohli and his like-minded teammates make up for with their cold and steely desire to contribute to the team’s cause. This isn’t to say that their predecessors cared less about victories. But it was rather easy for the yesteryear hero (and, hence, his follower) to settle for personal takeaways in the face of defeat. Sachin Tendulkar’s 50th Test hundred and his 100th international century were both struck in losing causes. Which, of course, went to show that right until the end of his career, Tendulkar could score runs in situations no one else could. But on both occasions his feat dwarfed the defeat in festive press conferences attended by Tendulkar.

Pujara, a rare Indian test specialist, has an insatiable appetite for battling. With him at the crease, he makes it easier for his partners to pile on the runs

Kohli may well feel for his landmark knocks as much as Tendulkar did, but this is not what he tells you and neither does he wear the care on his sleeve; so you believe him. In the first of India’s three overseas Test assignments in 2018, Kohli struck a terrific hundred-and-a-half against South Africa in the second Test match in Centurion; 156 runs when no other Indian could register a fifty. Then India lost and Kohli was asked about his innings during the presentation and he quickly interjected and said: “[My hundred] means nothing now that we’ve lost the series… personal milestones do not matter at all.” Similar words were spoken half-a-year later in August, after Kohli had notched a maiden hundred in England, a country in which he had severely struggled to put bat on ball previously. But that Test in Birmingham too was lost and Kohli’s words massaged 149 top-quality runs into irrelevance.

For better or worse, vanished from the Indian dressing room was also the culture of picking players on reputation. During Kohli’s baby steps into leadership itself, every sacred cow was sent to the slaughterhouse; every player who has played under him has been dropped at one point or the other. Every. In the 31 Test matches that he had led India in before 2018 (and the onset of his greatest challenges: South Africa, England and then Australia, all in the same year), Kohli had changed his playing eleven in every match. Every. Match. When that trend continued in South Africa in January last year, and India ended up losing the series before the final Test, there was, and understandably so, an uproar by the conscience-keepers: the media.

But in the face of criticism, the captain remained adamant on his vision; and with every public spat with journalists he was in fact laying, brick by brick, the foundations to a new culture—whether anyone outside the team set-up liked it or not. With each brick, the team became more insular than ever (a bubble Kohli was and is proud of), and with each brick the dressing room turned into Kohli’s den. The high wall constructed was now his echo chamber.

Kohli began strumming to a metronome that only his loyals could hear. Anil Kumble couldn’t hear it during his tenure as coach, so he was out. But Shastri could nod to its beat, all the way to the commentary box, so he was in.

The musical chairs applied to the players too. Ajinkya Rahane, India’s finest batsman in overseas conditions, was left in the cold for the first two Tests in South Africa, both of which India lost. And on his return in the final Test in Johannesburg, Rahane promptly played a crucial role in the team’s consolation win. Similarly, Cheteshwar Pujara, a top-order bedrock in Test cricket during the Dhoni era, was dropped immediately after Dhoni’s retirement during the Sydney Test of 2015 (Kohli’s first match as full-time captain) and for the fourth time of Kohli’s rule during the first Test in England last year in Birmingham. India lost this match by 31 runs; Pujara was instantly summoned back into the eleven; and two Tests later in Southampton, he had hit his first non- subcontinental hundred in half a decade.

Bumrah, who made his debut only in 2018, is already counted among the finest Test pacers in the world today. No Indian quick has been faster, or more lethal

Maybe Rahane and Pujara read the writing on the Kohli-constructed wall and accepted it—to stay, they needed to be more consistent. Or, maybe Kohli learnt from his hasty chopping-changing mistakes—to be more consistent with results, they needed to stay. But neither Rahane nor Pujara was uncertain about his place during the series in Australia. And for this sense of security, one of them would pay back in kind. Still, the leadership is repulsed by the idea of repeating the same playing eleven twice (in 45 Tests as captain, Kohli has done so just once: in Southampton last year, after the win in Nottingham) and by the third Test in Australia, two men who had never opened the innings in Test cricket were doing so at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. One of them was Hanuma Vihari, playing in only his third Test match. And the other was Mayank Agarwal, making his international debut.

In 2018 alone, as many as four players made their debut across the Tests in South Africa (Bumrah), England (Vihari and Rishabh Pant) and Australia (Agarwal). This, too, stems from the new mindset in the dressing room. No other Indian captain-coach combination have shown as much courage, especially during a period when their combined leadership skills were questioned by the media on an almost daily basis. But a culture, and not precedence, was now firmly in command. And in a short space of time, Agarwal, Vihari, Pant and Bumrah established themselves in key positions and are now indispensable members of the core Test unit; that final name already counted amongst the best in the world. “This is not a team of gods or demigods, seniors or juniors,” Shastri boomed at the press conference. “This is an Indian cricket team that will jump over a cliff to win a match for the country. And that’s the determination, that’s the ruthlessness, that’s the mindset with which this team went to play in this series.”

Pant, just 21 years of age, is India's most exciting recent find. He is already heralded as the most potent ‘keeper-batsman the country has seen, even more so than Dhoni

SINCE 1971, WHEN THE LATE AJIT Wadekar’s team won maiden Test series’ in both the West Indies and England, India had achieved only one first in a country outside the Subcontinent—Zimbabwe, in 2005. In those 48 years, with rapid escalation in the last decade, India, as a nation, took control over their coloniser’s game; but over its purse and surpluses, not its pulse and soul. For, somewhere in that head-spinning theatre with newer and newer acts—first ODIs and then T20s—the oldest and purest performer, Test cricket, didn’t quite make heads turn anymore. Why waste time watching a tiger snoozing by a drinking hole in his natural habitat when we can watch his cousin leap through fire-hoops in a circus?

But something strange occurred once the Indian Test side was taken over by boys bred in the IPL. Somewhere along the line, perhaps after the last and longest- lasting legend of the previous era— Tendulkar— retired in 2013, the fast-food generation realised that the most nourishing meals were slow-cooked. To be respected like their predecessors, to be respected as cricketers, they would have to excel in the original format. Possibly by design, the hungriest for recognition among the new bunch, Kohli, chose the toughest land of them all as his playground, Australia. On his first visit Down Under as a Test cricketer in 2011-12, he was the only Indian to hit a hundred; his maiden hundred. Thus began his tryst with Adelaide. His teammates on that tour, Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, never played Test cricket in Australia again.

Then, in 2014, in his first stint as Test captain, Kohli, with a hundred in each innings in Adelaide, singlehandedly and nearly won India the opening Test. Nearly, though, is never registered on scoreboards and an unenviable record stood: no Indian team had won the first Test of a series in Australia and no Indian team had yet won a Test series in Australia and somewhere in there was an unmistakeable correlation. Adelaide was the venue for the opening game of this Test series as well and, understandably, all eyes were on Kohli to rewrite history. He was dismissed for three runs and soon, India were reduced to 41 for 4 in under a session; and never before had India won an overseas game after losing their first four batsmen for less than 50 runs.

During the mayhem, however, Pujara remained undismissed. In a world of smartwatches, he is akin to a sundial. Incorruptible, timeless. And when all the others refused to synchronise with the times, the sundial ticked on; unfailingly, minute after soothing minute. Day after soothing day. Match after soothing match. In Adelaide, he scored 123 and 71. And India won. In Melbourne, he struck another hundred, 106. Again, India won. Then in Sydney, he scored his third century of the series, this knock amounting to nearly two centuries in one. Pujara’s 193 will grudgingly be remembered longer in Australia than in India; it, after all, made Australia follow-on in Australia for the first time in 31 years.

Agarwal had to knock down the Test team door with a mountain of runs in Ranji Trophy. When he did, he was an instant success

The only time Pujara failed to score big runs, in Perth (24 and 4), India lost a Test. But as much as this narrative begs to single Pujara out as the difference between the two sides, he wasn’t the only hero. Kohli, with a hundred in Perth that kept India in the game till the final day and an 82 in Melbourne, was a hero. Wicketkeeper Pant, with his record 11 catches in Adelaide and five scores of over 25, including a breakneck 159 in Sydney, was a hero. Ravichandran Ashwin, with six wickets in his only appearance at the Adelaide Test, was a hero. Kuldeep Yadav, with a five-for in his only appearance at the Sydney Test, was a hero. And the pace triumvirate of Bumrah, Ishant Sharma and Mohammed Shami, with 51 wickets between them; well, they were super heroes.

But the real star of the historic series win in Australia, and the backbone of the team management’s whoever-it-takes, sink-or-swim philosophy, was the country’s first-class cricket system, the Ranji Trophy. It had begun producing, in vast numbers, Test-ready cricketers. Until December 17th, Mayank Agarwal was representing Karnataka in a Ranji game in Surat. That night he was informed that he would have to fly to Melbourne as a back- up opener to KL Rahul and Murali Vijay. A night before the Boxing Day Test, Agarwal was informed that he would make his Test debut. The next morning, December 26th, as he walked out to bat, the host broadcasters, Fox Cricket, displayed his domestic numbers—Matches: 46, Runs: 3,599, Highest score: 304.

Surprised by a debutant in possession of a triple-century, Fox commentator Kerry O’Keeffe, his tongue dripping with racism, wondered on-air if the triple hundred had been scored against “the Jalandhar Railways canteen staff”, against an attack made up of “chefs and waiters”. Agarwal didn’t have to tell him that it came against Maharashtra, who twice were bowled out for less than 250 on the same wicket in Pune, in the same match. He simply scored 76 assured runs against Australia’s better half, their bowling attack. In the second innings, he also propelled India’s lead with 42 runs, a tall and mighty innings in context, given Kohli, Pujara and Rahane punched out for a binary code of 0, 0 and 1. And then Agarwal finished off the tour in Sydney with a knock of 77 and finishing the series with an average of 65 in Test cricket.

Once the dust had settled, Kohli put a team game in perspective. At his coronation presser, he was asked to single out a moment that won India the series. “None,” he replied. “But if I have to single out a contribution, for me Vihari playing 70 balls against the new ball in MCG is as big as anyone getting a hundred or anyone scoring 70-80. That’s how we recognise contributions.” On the scoreboard, Vihari’s occupation of the crease was worth just eight runs. But the time he consumed along with Agarwal allowed the ball to lose its shine and wrath; which allowed Pujara and Kohli to add, in a partnership for the second wicket, 170 runs; which allowed India to keep the Aussies on the field for nearly two days and declare on a healthy 443 first innings runs; which allowed a fresh Bumrah to tear through a tired Australian line-up on Day Three; which in turn allowed Kohli to have the option of making Australia follow-on; which meant India had a great chance of taking the lead in the series; which they did.

“It was a team effort through and through. That’s what we strive for; we strive to play well as a team. Single spells and single innings don’t win games of cricket, especially Test matches. And this is a team that doesn’t play for single innings and single spells,” said Kohli. “If you want to win a series like this, you have to play well as a team, so that was a total team performance.” This, too, is a culture.

TEST CRICKET, in several startling ways, has long been fighting a losing war with relevance. The matches can, like in Sydney, go on for five days and not find a result. The days, with the rich stench of colonialism, are divided by breaks for lunch and tea (tea!), even after an entire session has been lost to rain (again, like in Sydney). When rain doesn’t put a halt to proceedings—because the equipment, the wicket, the outfield and the rule-makers are all, somehow, hydro-intolerant— poor visibility does; despite the advent of floodlights. But sometimes, on that rare occasion, a single series can make the oldest format hope again. India’s win in Australia (and the operative word is ‘win’) was that series; a strong dose of adrenaline, a defibrillator even, to Test cricket.

Allow me to explain.

Were the format to die in India, it would cause an epidemic—no matter how much the old guardians of the game cared for it. That, unfortunately, is the danger of one country controlling the purse- strings in a 10-nation sport. It is akin to that rich kid who owns the bat and ball on the street; without him no one plays. For Test cricket to survive, a strong Indian side is of paramount importance.

A historic win in Australia, then, helps immensely. For it lets Kohli, the most powerful man in the sport today, believe in his self-appointment as the format’s custodian and say: “In a world where a lot of people want the easy stuff, matches that finish in the evening, I think it’s important to spread the message [of Test cricket]. As long as the purest format stays alive, cricket will be healthy. To promote that, we have to play the kind of cricket we have played here… Because if the Indian team respects Test cricket, we know the fans are going to come and watch.”