A massive defeat in the first Test leaves South Africa gasping for survival in this series. India’s ruthless performance at Visakhapatnam suggests there will be no let up in intensity and aggression in the second match at Pune.
Some solace for the South Africans may be that the last time India lost a Test at home was on this very ground, in the 2016-17 season. Left-arm spinner Steve O’Keefe had then bowled Australia to an unexpected win.
India ultimately went on to win the bitterly fought series, but some questions about the frailty of the batting in home conditions had been raised. The stereotype of Indian batsmen being masters against spin had been challenged.
Mind you, this was not the only time India had been humbled by slow bowling this millenium. In 2012-13, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar had caused even more damage, pulling England from a 0-1 deficit to win the series 2-1—the last time India lost a rubber at home.
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Whether South Africa’s spin resources are good enough to produce such a dramatic turnaround is moot. In the first Test, they played three spinners anticipating a rank turner. All three were clobbered by the rampaging Indian top order even with the pitch affording enough assistance.
More problematic for the South Africans will be that, unlike earlier, it is not just India’s spinners that are a serious threat to visiting teams now. Mohammed Shami’s five-wicket haul at Visakhapatnam showed India’s attack has become well rounded and penetrative in all conditions.
The charm and intrigue of sport, however, lies in its unpredictability. To predict a winner in the second Test or the series would be to ignore lessons from history—thoroughly imprudent and perilous.
So far though, this season’s been very productive for India.
A weak West Indies overwhelmed, the home contests now should boost India’s tally in the World Test Championship points table. The real test, however, begins with the tour of New Zealand in early 2020.
Winning the Test series against Australia last season—for the first time ever—reversed a longish trend of defeats outside the sub-continent. A major psychological hurdle overcome, how to build and sustain momentum is now the crux.
After experimentations and punts, the team now seems to have a solid and stable batting line-up, a bowling attack with multiple match-winners (though injuries to Bumrah and Pandya are a concern) and impressive bench strength.
Yet, true excellence has to be ratified by consistency of performance everywhere. Availability of good talent and frequent expressions of intent need to be aligned to a sense of purpose that is sustained over a long period in which winning is second nature, in fact a habit. That is what defines a great team.
Mind you, India’s intimidating domestic record can’t be glossed over. Since the start of this decade, 33 of 46 Tests played at home have been won and only four lost. Not since the West Indies were a dominant force in the 1970s and 80s (under Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards) has a team been so good over such a length of time.
Of course, West Indies in that period were also staggeringly successful wherever they played, so any further comparison would be puerile, if not outright nonsensical, even if India have been able to hold on to the No.1 ranking longer than any other side this decade.
Rankings, while strongly indicative of how a team is faring at a point in time, may still be illusory of a team’s actual strength in different conditions. For instance, in this same span, India have played 57 Tests overseas and lost 25.
This telling stat shows up the stark contrast in the team’s prowess home and away. It also highlights the challenge going ahead for Virat Kohli and his team as the World Test Championship gathers steam before culminating in the final in 2021.
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