It has taken 71 years for India – or any team from the subcontinent for that matter – to win a test series in Australia. When the Sydney test match was called off on Monday due to rain, the Indian team made history by sealing a well-deserved 2-1 win. If the weather had not intervened, it might as well have won 3-1.
Ironically, the Indian cricket team’s first overseas tour after independence was to Australia. The team, led by Lala Amarnath, was lauded more for its diversity than its performance on the field.
In a preview of the 1947-48 tour, which began just two months after the Partition, a journalist noted:
“On India’s sports fields, we still find Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Scheduled Classes, Christians, all brushing shoulders playing in the happiest spirit of amity, knowing no distinction of class or creed..”
This amity did not, however, produce results on the field against the Australian “Invincibles” led by Don Bradman. As Wisden reported of the tour:
“India cannot have happy memories of their tour in Australia during 1947/48… In the Test matches they were outclassed… such was the superiority of the Australians that except in one instance the result looked a foregone conclusion before the end of the first day.”
That it took over seven decades to redress India’s poor record in Australia is somewhat surprising. India has registered overseas series victories against England and West Indies as far back as 1971 – a year which is often seen, along with 1983 when India first won its World Cup, as Indian cricket’s coming of age. India ran Australia close in the late 1970s and again in the 1980s with two drawn series and a narrow loss.
More recently, during the 2003-04 tour, India – with the ‘Fab Four‘, Virender Sehwag and Anil Kumble – nearly pulled off a series victory against a side led by the great Steve Waugh.
This time around, the Indian victory was made possible not only by some resolute batting by the likes of Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli, but more so by the pace bowling attack, possibly the finest that India has ever had.
At this euphoric moment, it would be churlish to find faults. But some perspective is also needed in the wake of India’s victory. First, of the teams that India played overseas in 2018-19, Australia was the weakest. Not only were England and South Africa stronger than Australia, but the latter was also without Steve Smith, its best batsman and former captain who is serving a ban for ball tampering.
Though India has no hand in the make-up of the opposition’s team, Smith’s absence, as has been noted by many, was akin to India playing without its talismanic captain, Kohli. Besides, this Australian team – particularly in terms of batting – is nowhere near some of the sides that India has played against in the recent past.
Second, India suffered in England and South Africa due to poor team selection and questionable tactics. Particularly, India’s decision to play two spinners at Lord’s after a complete day had been washed out due to rain – and the conditions were ideal for swing. In the same series, at the Southampton Test, India chose Ravichandran Ashwin – who was not fully fit – over Ravindra Jadeja and decided not to play Pujara in the first Test.
There were several other misses, such as not playing a spinner at Perth, where Nathan Lyon got the most number of wickets, or dropping Bhuvneshwar Kumar for the second Test in South Africa after being the best bowler on show in the first.
The blame for these tactical errors lies squarely with the team’s management and coach Ravi Shastri in particular. Shastri, at the beginning of India’s tour of England, had claimed that this was the best travelling team in the last two decades. The eventual scoreline of 3-1 in favour of England made a mockery of Shastri’s predictions.
Unsurprisingly, Shastri has now gone over the top in proclaiming that India’s win in Australia is bigger than the 1983 World Cup victory. He has also brushed aside any criticism of the team’s tactics.
However, this does not diminish the magnitude of India’s victory. It took 11 tours for India to register its first-ever series win in Australia. For a generation which was so used to heartbreaks in Australia, this is indeed a moment to savour. Let’s not allow Shastri’s unfortunate bombast to take away from that.
Ronojoy Sen is with the National University of Singapore.