Laxman

One could not have asked for a more grand finish to a Test series that was comprehensively dominated by Virat Kohli’s India. Sometimes the score line can be flattering and not necessarily reflective of the quality of cricket portrayed by the two teams. It is safe to say that India’s 4-0 victory is not one of those cases. India were ahead of England in every department, both skills-wise and in terms of preparation, attitude and hunger, and Virat and his men can allow themselves a pat on the back for a task brilliantly executed.

To me, the Chennai victory will remain the sweetest of the four wins in the series. The icing on the cake was Karun Nair’s brilliant triple century which enabled India post 759 for 7, their highest score in Test cricket. Agreed, it was a dead rubber and the series had already been won. But it is precisely for that reason that I was delighted with India’s approach. Even at their peak, Steve Waugh’s Australians were afflicted by the dead-rubber syndrome when, after sewing up the series, they would slacken in the last Test. India were mindful of the pitfalls of relaxing mentally, and the intensity they carried into the contest was breathtaking.

When we talk intensity, we cannot but not talk Virat. The difference he has made to the culture and thinking of the set-up is there for all to see. In terms of aggression, drive, the quest for excellence, the ambition and the undying hunger, Virat is in a league of his own. It is no dramatic accident that he is where he is today. He has worked extremely hard — on his cricket, on his fitness, on his mind, on his diet, on his consistency. That is pretty remarkable given that he is still a young man. He is obsessed with cricket and with playing the game to the best of his ability every single moment.

He approaches every task with an intensity that can be frightening if you do not bargain for the mature, level head on broad shoulders. And in the manner in which he has effortlessly set the benchmark, he has left his troops with no option but to follow suit. They say of a leader that he will ask nothing of his men that he himself will not do. Virat is not really asking anything of his team; he is just doing his thing, and the others are extremely happy following suit and trying to match up to the high standards their inspirational captain has set.

The Virat influence is most obvious from the manner in which KL Rahul has come on as an international cricketer. During his days with Sunrisers Hyderabad, one could see that Rahul was a gifted batsman, but the one thing that seemed apparent was that he tried to overreach himself and do things that did not come naturally to him.

Since his move to Royal Challengers Bangalore, he has benefitted immensely from interacting closely with Virat. He has watched how Virat prepares, how he approaches each practice session with a specific goal in mind. He has seen the discipline the captain brings when it comes to cricket, and he has also seen firsthand how it is possible to score, and score quickly, even in T20 cricket, without compromising on the basics and without seeking recourse to the crude and the unorthodox. Rahul is younger to Virat, and plays the reverse sweep which Virat seldom does, but Rahul’s strength lies in his correctness, as he has shown more than once this year. His maiden T20I century against West Indies was an absolute peach, and one’s heart went out to him for being dismissed on 199 in Chennai.

During that knock, Rahul showed that like his captain, he is a very quick learner. On his return from injury in Visakhapatnam, he had been sucked into playing at balls outside off-stump by Stuart Broad. In the last game in Mumbai, he was bowled through the gate reaching out to drive Moeen Ali when the ball turned back in from the rough. He corrected both anomalies in Chennai, playing very close to his body to pace and spin alike and not driving Moeen through the covers unless he got to the pitch of the ball so that he was not leaving a big gap between bat and front pad. There is much to admire about Rahul, and I am sure he is on the way to achieving greater things.

But as impressive as Rahul was, it was Nair who shone the brightest. I have followed the young man’s progress in domestic cricket with great interest, and I must say I am pleasantly surprised at how beautifully he batted in only his third Test innings. I do not mean just his correctness and his compactness or his wide range of strokes off either foot on both sides of the wicket. His calmness and strength of mind was unbelievable. If you did not know, you would not have guessed that this pocket-sized dynamo was just three Tests young.

Karun has been in the reckoning for a while now, called up to join the Test team in Sri Lanka last year and also spending time in the changing-room during the Indore Test against New Zealand. He came to Chennai with, I am sure, a few doubts surrounding his immediate future. He had not made many runs in his two previous innings, this was the last match of the series, and Ajinkya Rahane and Rohit Sharma could be fit and back in the reckoning for India’s next Test, against Bangladesh in Hyderabad.

Karun needed to make an impression to keep himself in contention. There was scoreboard pressure, and when he walked in, India had already lost their two highest scorers of the series, Pujara and Kohli. Fortunately for Karun, he was batting alongside his good friend from Karnataka with whom he has shared many big partnerships, including 386 in the Ranji Trophy final couple of seasons back. Karun was brilliant in his shot selection, placement and in the manner in which he changed gears with each passing milestone. He did not celebrate with any obvious gusto, which is a good sign because even for one so young, he is not easily satisfied. He played almost all shots in the book and his sweeps and reverse sweeps were impeccable. None deserved that triple century milestone more than Karun did at Chepauk.

India are extremely fortunate that like Virat with the bat, they have a clear and undisputed leader with the ball too. In many ways, Ravichandran Ashwin is extremely similar to Virat, even if he does not quite have the same physical attributes or the natural fitness. Ashwin is a committed student, always looking for ways to improve, extremely intelligent, in total command of his craft, and a quick learner who knows when to fall back on patience and set batsmen up.

Since the start of 2015, Ashwin has been a vastly different bowler in Test cricket, happy to trust his stock delivery which is his off-spinner but not afraid to pull out the variations from his vast bag of tricks when the situation so demands. Resulting from hours of diligent work in the nets, he has expanded his skills to take the pitch out of the equation and defeat batsmen in the air through drift and dip emanating from revolutions on the ball. Ashwin has graduated into a very dangerous bowler in all conditions. In a lot of ways, he is the trend-setter for the bowling group and the lower order, much like Virat is for batting group and the top order.

Ashwin is the role model for the likes of Ravindra Jadeja and Jayant Yadav, both with the ball and with the bat, and for men such as Wriddhiman Saha and Parthiv Patel when batting at 6 or 7. His century in St Lucia and his partnership with Saha in tricky circumstances defined the outcome of not that Test match but also of that series, and in keeping with his standing as a batsman who made his India debut — at the junior level — as an opening batsman, Ashwin has fused compact defence with silken strokeplay to spur the lower order into matching and sometimes outdoing the top order.

His contribution with the ball, of course, needs no reiteration. He is clearly the No. 1 bowler in the world, which is what ICC rankings tell us. Jadeja has moved up to No. 2 on that list, propelled by his final-day heroics in Chennai. Jadeja is one of the most astute bowlers I have seen; he instinctively knows what pace to bowl on what track, and while he may not have the same cunning of an Ashwin, he is one of those that knows his limitations and his strengths. He bowls well within his limitations and beautifully to his strengths, and that explains why he has 26 wickets in the series to Ashwin’s 28.

Jayant held his own in this elite company. Right from the time he made his debut in Visakhapatnam, it was obvious that he believed he belonged at the Test level. Often, it is self-doubt and a lack of self-belief that can pull an individual down, even if he walks into the most welcoming of team environments like it is in the Indian camp now. Jayant looked at home in everything he did, a mature, sensible cricketer with a steady head and a game awareness that was excellent. The ball he bowled to Ben Stokes in Visakhapatnam was an off-spinner’s delight, drifting in and then breaking away to hit off-stump, while his century in Mumbai on a difficult pitch showcased an all-round dimension to his cricket.

India are in a happy position where they have the luxury of falling back on two of the legends of the game. Rahul Dravid as India A coach has had a huge influence on the likes of Karun and Jayant, not so much from the cricket point of view alone but also on the mindset and on what it takes to succeed in international cricket, and how much mental resolve can work wonders. Rahul is one of the greatest batsmen to have played the game and his wisdom both from a batting perspective and mental toughness are simply awesome.

Once they do break into the Indian team, there is Anil Kumble, easily the greatest match-winner in the history of Indian cricket. There is a seamless transition from Rahul to Anil, both positive individuals who did not just play to win but also to win in the right manner. As role models, you cannot ask for two more qualified gentlemen than the current India coach and the India A coach.

India are the No. 1 Test side not by chance but through sheer dint of hard work and should soon embark on a conquest of lands that have not always been favourable hunting grounds. There is great depth in the squad, an overwhelming awareness of the virtues of physical fitness, a healthy competition for places and a distinct desire to not get easily satisfied. There are the qualities that first shape, and then drive, a world-beating side. These are the Invincibles in waiting in Test cricket, of that I have little doubt. Even if I may be repeating myself!