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India will look back on this season with tremendous fondness, feels VVS Laxman © IANS

There was an appropriate finish to the home season that included a near-unprecedented 13 Tests as India completed an excellent eight-wicket victory in Dharamsala. It was a significant victory for more reasons than one, but most notably for the fact that it helped India regain the Border-Gavaskar Trophy following their 2-1 series victory against an Australian team that played extremely competitive cricket all through the four matches.

I was delighted at the turnout in Dharamsala for the final match of the series and the season. It is a venue that has played host to 50-over and T20 cricket in the past, but its Test debut was memorable as well, on an excellent surface that threw up an intriguing and fascinating contest.

Virat Kohli and his men have come to be accepted as trendsetters, and whatever format they do well in will automatically mean the popularity and acceptance of that format by young kids aspiring to make a name for themselves as cricketers. I am sure that at the end of this season, we have a lot more young cricketers who are willing to play in white clothes and with a red ball than we might have had in, say, September, and that is great credit to Virat’s team for the vitality and vigour they have shown throughout the last six months.

India will look back on this season with tremendous fondness. The 333-run defeat against Australia in Pune was an aberration; of the other 12 Tests, India won 10 and drew the other 2. There had been hushed whispers when the season started that India would win all four series, and against four different teams posing different challenges, that was never going to be easy. To India’s credit, however, not only did they defeat all four opponents but also by convincing, comprehensive margins.

As hard as New Zealand, England and Bangladesh tried; it was Australia who pushed India all the way towards the very end of a long, tiring season. I was not among those who believed Australia would be easy meat, though I was always confident that India was the stronger of the two sides. To Australia’s great credit, they showed the character and attitude of champion Australian teams of the past. They were aggressive and unrelenting, and they believed that they could compete with India. It was just that they were conquered by an Indian team that, however tired, knew how to win.

India had so many gains from this bouquet of home Tests. Cheteshwar Pujara continued to be the rock around which India’s Test batting revolves, while Virat was brilliant up until the Australia Tests when the Midas touch deserted him. Murali Vijay was consistent as ever and the biggest positive from the batting point of view was the consistency of KL Rahul.

Even from our days with Sunrisers Hyderabad a couple of seasons back, it was clear that Rahul was a gifted batsman, and while he has exposed the world to his prowess at the highest level across formats, he took consistency to a new level against the Aussies. Six half-centuries in seven innings in different conditions is a special achievement. Rahul will of course be a little disappointed that he could not convert even one of those fifties into a hundred, but it is only a matter of time before he scores his fifth Test century. This series, to me, is when Rahul discovered within himself the potential of the Test batsman, and that can only be excellent news for the Indians who will spend much time on the road in the next couple of years.

Wriddhiman Saha underlined his value to the team with consistently crucial knocks in front of the stumps and impeccable glove work behind it, while Ashwin and Jadeja were simply outstanding as a spinning entity. I am particularly delighted for Jadeja, who has had to operate in Ashwin’s giant shadow for so long. Jadeja is no longer just a support bowler. He has made a few tiny technical adjustments that have made him that much more dangerous, and he is now a true wicket-taker in his own right.

Jadeja’s 71 wickets in these 13 Tests were second only to Ashwin’s 82, the most wickets any bowler has taken in a single season. Ashwin will be the first to admit that as the season drew to a close, he was not at his very best, but despite grappling with an injury niggle, he still was good enough to take 21 wickets in 4 matches against Australia. He and Jadeja complement each other superbly. They have an excellent understanding and they know when to attack and when to hold back. They are also past masters at building and sustaining pressure for long periods, and against that stranglehold, Australia faltered despite their best efforts.

But both from an immediate and long-term perspective, what thrilled me no end was the massive strides taken by Umesh Yadav, specifically. Once Mohammed Shami injured his knee towards the end of November, Umesh assumed the role of the lead pacer for the remaining 7 home Tests with great relish, reiterating that each member of this team is happy to take responsibility, and to respond positively to a new challenge.

Umesh might have lost a little bit of pace but he has added and refined other attributes that have made him a more complete bowler. To see him and Bhuvneshwar Kumar rock Australia’s batsmen in Dharamsala was a treat for any Indian fan. The bounce they were able to generate was remarkable. For about half an hour on the third afternoon, when they demolished the Australia top order in the second innings, it was exhilarating stuff. To see two Indian pacemen making visiting batsmen hop and swivel like that in India is not a sight I thought I would ever be seeing!

With Shami’s return imminent and the experience of Ishant around, I expect India to remain competitive even when they travel overseas. The batting group has already proved itself in alien conditions, and now that there is a crop of pacemen who are not just quick but also smart, adaptable and intelligent to go with two fantastic spinners, India have all the trappings of an excellent unit. As I have said a couple of times in the past, Virat’s team can become the New Invincibles, not just at home but also overseas because of the resources and the bench personnel that they can summon.

It was great to see Ajinkya Rahane go through the captaincy task in Dharamsala. He has the reputation of being an excellent student of the game, and he did that reputation no harm whatsoever. Ajinkya has not had the most fruitful of seasons, but captaincy in Virat’s absence seemed to bring the best out of him. He was very proactive, his field placements were innovative and well thought out, and he led from the front, particularly with the bat in the second innings with what I thought was a memorable onslaught against Pat Cummins.

He showed that he could veer from the beaten path by plumping for a rookie in Kuldeep Yadav for such a crucial game. Kuldeep did not disappoint either Rahane or Anil Kumble, another influential figure throughout the season in his first year as the head coach of the national team, with a brilliant spell that broke the final Test open on the first afternoon itself. And Rahane then had the courage to bring Kuldeep on before Ashwin and Jadeja in the second innings, only to quickly shelve that plan when he realised that the left-arm wrist spinner was not having the same impact as he did in the first innings.

The sign of a great side is when the players look out for each other, and are not unduly worried by changes in personnel due to injury, even if the change is at the very top. When Ajinkya looked a little shaky in the first innings, Pujara did an excellent job of shielding his captain from the fast bowlers at the start of his innings. Batting in partnerships does not just mean scoring runs in each other’s company. It is also about how you move forward and how you plan your partnership, and no one has been a greater partnership-builder with multiple partners than Pujara.

The Dharamsala victory was also significant because it was achieved without the leader, without the regular skipper. Virat’s excellence with the bat had given the impression that the team was over-reliant on the captain, but in conditions that would have delighted the Australians more than the home side, India showed that even without Virat, they had what it took to remain on top. It was wonderful to see the other players put their hand up and rise to the challenge by embracing extra responsibility in the absence of their captain. Virat himself was a constantly encouraging presence from the sidelines, egging his team on constantly.

The one jarring note, however, was India’s close-in catching, and especially behind the stumps to the fast bowlers. Catches will go down because that is the nature of the beast, but India put down far too many for my comfort. Especially when you travel overseas, every half-chance must be snapped up, every regulation catch accepted gleefully. Catching is as much about habit as it is about practice. India must have at least six specialist slip catchers in their ranks to make sure they have all bases covered during their away campaigns. There can be no compromise on that as they target becoming an all-weather world-beater.

It has been a very long and tiring season, as we have said earlier, but it is far from over. IPL is less than a week away, and some ten days after the end of the IPL comes the Champions Trophy in England where India will look to defend their crown. At least seven or eight players from the Test squad are first-choice candidates for that 50-over tournament, so it will be important for the franchises to manage the workloads of these players. It is a delicate task because everyone wants the best players to be playing all the time and everyone wants to win. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. It is just that we need to handle the already tired players with care so that they are fresh and hungry for the final international battle of the season, coming up in June.