Skipper Virat Kohli and chief coach Ravi Shastri were highly optimistic about India’s chances on the eve of the team’s departure to England. Both were emphatic that the Indian cricket team was in a very good space, and that while the upcoming assignments posed a challenge, these were not a worry.
In their early years together, Kohli and Shastri did not exactly endear themselves to the media, indeed even fans, with their bombast and sometimes even over the top statements.
However, in the last couple of years, especially with series wins over Australia in Australia in 2018 and 2020 (where Ajinkya Rahane captained in three Tests), their chutzpah has found grudging acceptance.
Until 2018, for 70 years starting with Lala Amarnath’s men playing Don Bradman’s legendary Australian team in 1948, India had never won a series Down Under. They finally won their first series in 2018 against an Australian team that was missing Steve Smith and David Warner.
But India’s performance early this year was remarkable as they managed to turn the tables on the Aussies with a platoon of newcomers supporting a few seniors.
This series had the entire cricket world riveted, watching in amazement as rookies Mohammed Siraj, T Natarajan, Shardul Thakur, Washington Sundar, Shubman Gill and the prodigious Rishabh Pant, almost on the verge of losing his Test place, performed in stellar fashion against all odds. There could have been no better advertisement for preserving the longest format.
The series win also helped India qualify for the World Test Championship final. This is to be played against New Zealand in Southampton (June 18-22), the first of India’s two major assignments in England, the second being a five-Test series against the home team in the latter half of the summer.
Both are massive assignments. While Kohli and Shastri were characteristically full of optimism, they would surely know there is considerable hardship quotient to overcome in the two contests. These are very strong opponents. Success won’t come on a platter.
New Zealand were a trifle lucky to reach the WTC final after Australia defaulted on their tour of South Africa. But if India have been the most consistent side across formats in the last four-five years, New Zealand have undoubtedly been the most improved. And who knows this better than Kohli and Shastri?
In the 2019 World Cup, India were favourites and looked good for a place in the final until New Zealand upstaged them in the semifinal. In the two-match Test series in New Zealand the next season, India were whipped 2-0.
In the WTC final, India start favourites. Kohli leads a team loaded with talent and experience. The batting (top, middle and lower order) and bowling (pacers and spinners) have been in magnificent form recently – especially against Australia (away) and England (at home) recently. But this should not obscure New Zealand’s prospects.
Their bowling attack, especially their pacers in helpful English conditions, is as good as India’s. The top order, barring Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, looks wobbly. But Devon Conway’s double century on debut against England should remove any doubt that the other batsmen in the squad are going to be easy meat.
As underdogs, New Zealand will be under far less pressure than India. They also have the advantage of two Tests against England leading into the WTC final, while India’s players will be spending all their time in quarantine and internecine practice matches, never a substitute for competitive play.
India will retain their no.1 status according to the ICC Test rankings. But this will be pyrrhic achievement if they lose the WTC final. More so for the captain, still seeking his first ICC trophy.
The Test series against England comes with a different set of challenges. The last time India won a series there was in 2007, under Rahul Dravid’s captaincy. Since then, it’s been an unending sequence of setbacks.
In 2011, India were the no. 1 Test team and had also won the World Cup a few weeks earlier. As it happened, MS Dhoni’s team finished in the trash can, losing all four Tests. In 2014, under Dhoni again, the team floundered after going one up, eventually losing 3-1.
Kohli was the captain in 2018. The team held out rich promise, which fizzled out rather soon and the result was a 4-1 rout, the redeeming feature being the captain’s magnificent form in scoring over 500 runs.
India thumped England 3-1in the last series at home. But this is no indication of how the five-Test series this summer will pan out.
Joe Root and his team are thirsting for revenge. Pitches and weather conditions will help his team. He’ll also have Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer back from injury.
The stiffest test of players and teams is how they perform in England. Kohli and Co have the gauntlet thrown at them to prove they are indeed the best in the world.