Test series review: Not all gloom for Virat Kohli’s India, but hard questions must be asked
Virat Kohli’s Indian cricket team, ranked No 1 in Tests, landed in England in June with genuine aspirations of being England, ranked fifth. @Getty

“Vision without execution,” said Thomas Edison, “is just hallucination.” There is some debate as to whether the American genius credited with inventing the light bulb was the first to coin the phrase, but you get the point.

Virat Kohli’s Indian cricket team, ranked No 1 in Tests, landed in England in June with genuine aspirations of being England, ranked fifth. Joe Root’s team had lost the Ashes 0-4, 0-1 to New Zealand and tied 1-1 with Pakistan. India boasted a very good bowling attack, having taken 20 wickets in each Test in South Africa. England had batting woes, and a few players on the verge of being dropped. Their captain had not scored a Test century since August 2017.

And yet England won the series 4-1. Few can dispute the England were the better side, but not by much. Their brittle batting struggled more than it clicked. On day two at Lord’s and day four at Kia Oval, primarily, but both days proved seminal. They dropped far more than India did. Their specialist spinner, Adil Rashid, would struggle to make most Indian domestic teams. Their skipper had a poor series, only scoring a century – his first in over a year – when the series was won, and on the best batting track. They had injury woes (Chris Woakes) and lost Ben Stokes for one Test due to his court case.

It was their bowling that bailed them out, closed out matches and made the difference. James Anderson bossed England on a damp Lord’s surface and struck crucial early blows at Kia Oval. Stuart Broad didn’t produce a Stuart Broad spell but still did the job in small bursts of magic, notably at Lord’s where he took seven wickets and then at Southampton where he got India’s openers after both had made starts.

Sam Curran's three-wicket burst in the first Test highlighted what was in store for India.
Sam Curran’s three-wicket burst in the first Test highlighted what was in store for India. @Getty

What Sam Curran lacked in pace he made up for with crippling swing, most tellingly in two overs at Edgbaston when he ripped out three wickets in eight balls, and when he bowled Pujara at Kia Oval. Woakes took out Kohli in both Tests he played. Stokes, the weakest link given he was never 100% fit, also had his moment under the sun at Edgbaston when he grabbed four wickets to seal a 31-run victory. Moeen Ali returned to Test cricket with nine wickets at Southampton and then made a mark at Kia Oval.

All of this stacked up, and England out-bowled India across five Test matches. Cliched though it may sound, they won the critical moments. And that, as far as winning games of cricket go, is what matters.

When you lose to No 5, who were in danger of slipping to sixth behind Sri Lanka had they lost the series, something is amiss. India’s series defeat leaves Kohli and Ravi Shastri some tough questions to answer.

Firstly, the batting needs to be addressed. Shikhar Dhawan’s abilities outside Asia are limited, and after averaging 20.25 in four Tests the team needs to look elsewhere. Murali Vijay reached his nadir as a Test batsman this series and was axed for the last two Tests. KL Rahul averaged 14.12 before a fighting but ultimately pointless 149 lifted his series average of 29.90. That was the only 50-plus score by an Indian opener in five Tests. Until Alastair Cook got past the 50-mark at Kia Oval it was the same case for England, but the difference was that they had wrapped up the series 3-1 by then.

Ajinkya Rahane’s reputation has declined sharply during these five Tests. India’s vice-captain is a confidence player, and after the series in South Africa where he was dropped for the first two Tests, he needed the team’s backing in England. He got it, but averaged 25.70 with just two fifties in 10 innings. That is not good enough for a batsman of Rahane’s calibre.

Ajinkya Rahane’s reputation has declined sharply during these five Tests.
Ajinkya Rahane’s reputation has declined sharply during these five Tests. @Getty

Cheteshwar Pujara made 278 runs in four Tests and scored a very fine 132 not out at Southampton, but threw away starts and ended the series with a whimper. Hardik Pandya made one breezy fifty. Rishabh Pant has a bright future ahead, having become the first Indian wicketkeeper to score a Test century in England. It would be harsh to say that his century, like Rahul’s, came on the flattest track and with the series already lost, but it is the truth.

The toughest question, however, concerns Kohli. You cannot fault him as a batsman. To put behind him the horrors of 2014 when he averaged 13.40 in 10 Tests with 593 this time is bordering on the sublime. But there are legitimate questions about his captaincy. For starters, is he a good judge of players and conditions? India left out Pujara at Edgbaston, picked Kuldeep Yadav at Lord’s and then played R Ashwin at Southampton.

It is a matter of conjecture, really, about what could have happened had Kohli chosen otherwise, and yet the matter remains that these appear odd calls. In the first innings at Edgbaston, India were given a 50-run opening stand but then lost three wickets in eight balls to Curran; in the second, chasing 194, they slipped to 46/3. Would a batsman of Pujara’s durability helped in this Test, where batting was easier than at Lord’s and Trent Bridge? Again, conjecture. But a question worth asking.

Lord’s was a damp and seaming surface, and day one was washed out. India still picked Kuldeep, who went wicketless, as did Ashwin. England played four pace bowlers and steamrolled India by an innings. They didn’t used Rashid for one over the entire match. Kohli and Shastri later admitted to getting the combinations wrong at Lord’s.

The evening before the fourth Test, Kohli spoke of how spin would have a big say at The Ageas Bowl – going as far as to speak of the footmarks assisting the spinners on day four, as witnessed by him in 20014. England played Moeen as their second spinner and he was Man of the Match for taking nine wickets, out-bowling Ashwin with his ability to hit the batsmen’s footmarks. India played Ashwin, who had pulled up stiff at Trent Bridge, and Pandya, who took five wickets in the same Test. In England’s first innings, Pandya conceded runs at over six an over and then was not introduced until very late in their second essay. Then he only bowled nine overs, after Kohli hesitated in opting for the new ball.

Had Kohli read the Ageas Bowl pitch better, he would have played Jadeja instead of Pandya or Ashwin, who was clearly not 100%. The same Ashwin was defended as being match fit by Kohli and Shastri after the loss, and then four days later was pronounce unfit for the fifth Test. Who is to blame for India knowing that the ball would spin out of the rough on day four and still not playing a second spinner?

Was R Ashwin 100% fit at The Ageas Bowl?
Was R Ashwin 100% fit at The Ageas Bowl? @AFP

A large part of captaincy is about reading your players’ fitness and the conditions. On this note Kohli was found wanting. Some of his on-field decisions were also muddled: his choice of referrals, his spreading the field on day three at Kia Oval to allow Jos Buttler and Broad score easy runs, delaying the new ball at Southampton.

From the time India wrapped up a facile Test series victory over Sri Lanka in December 2017, the focus shifted to a sequence of overseas engagements starting in January 2018 and running into the early part of 2019. The new year began with India playing South Africa for three Tests, then five against England and from December 6, a four-Test series in Australia will begin.

Shastri has repeatedly spoken about this team aspiring to be the best travelling unit. It is a noble and realistic goal, and one that India can still achieve, provided they sort out their batting. This is the best fast-bowling unit ever assembled by an Indian team. In Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah, Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami, with Pandya as back-up, India have a very fine attack. Throw in Bhuvneshwar Kumar when he’s fit, and it becomes sharper. The batting is what is holding India back.

India’s grip on the No 1 Test status is at risk if it keeps losing matches the way it did in South Africa and England. The next big challenge is four Tests in Australia starting December 6.

And so Kohli stands has now overseen six overseas defeats in 2018, out of eight Tests. Only twice has an Indian team lost more in a calendar year, in 1959 and 1983 when they lost seven. For the last year any Indian team lost six Tests, look at 2014 when MS Dhoni was in charge.

Australia looms large ahead, despite the absence of Steve Smith and David Warner. As Bob Dylan put it, its not dark yet but it’s getting there. India have discovered their light bulb under Kohli, but need to treat the illuminated path ahead with better precision and tact.