India will feel immensely proud of their massive victory over South Africa in the final Test on Monday. It not just helped them wrap up the series 3-0 against the world No 1 side, but also showed that they are combining as a unit, a side that shows intent and character.
The victory helped India jump two spots and rise to second in the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings, but the biggest satisfaction will be winning the war of attrition that the Ferozeshah Kotla match turned out to be.
Although it was clear who the superior team were in the series, India were hurt by criticism of the rank turners in Mohali and Nagpur where the hosts wrapped up victories inside three days. Skipper Virat Kohli felt it was belittling the performances of his players, arguing that similar questions are not asked when teams fold up on seaming tracks abroad.
Although the argument didn’t get overwhelming endorsement, India had to win on a Kotla pitch that was far from treacherous for batsmen, to prove a point. The bounce was low, and the pitch got uneven on the final day but it still played slow. If a batsmen chose to purely defend, as South Africa did, it became difficult to dislodge them.
South Africa’s all-out defending in the fourth innings did catch India by some surprise, after they had repeatedly caved in during the series. In the past, India have been frustrated by the tail, and also could not force victory on a docile Johannesburg pitch in 2013 by bowling out South Africa.
Allowing South Africa to get away with a draw thus would have been a setback. In Delhi, with Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers playing marathon knocks and blocking everything, the decision to keep attacking and constantly probe paid off. Two decisions made the difference between victory and South Africa holding out for a draw.
The first was handing the spinners the second new ball on the final morning. Ravindra Jadeja joined R Ashwin to bowl four maiden overs and then got the hard ball to grip and turn to breach Amla’s defence. The other big move was to straightaway bring Umesh Yadav on after tea with South Africa still having five wickets in hand.
Although Ishant Sharma is the local bowler and is known to reverse swing the older ball, Yadav’s pace, ability to swing the ball and the way his deliveries were skidding through or exploding off the pitch were taken into account in the attacking move. And he delivered, taking three wickets in successive overs, and with Ashwin ran through the lower order.
Since Kohli took over as captain in Australia early this year, the focus has been picking the personnel the team management thinks will deliver. That meant leg-spinner Amit Mishra had to sit out for this Test, with Yadav justifying his selection by bagging five crucial wickets.
And every contribution is appreciated, helping players to stop worrying about individual performances but pull together as a team. This was also a priority in the preceding series win in Sri Lanka, where India came back from losing the first Test to win the series 2-1, overcoming a spate of injuries.
This series did show that Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara and Rohit Sharma all need to work on aspects of technique and temperament, and in that sense the squad is still a work in progress. And overseas tours, where India failed to win in the last two years, will be the yardstick in Test cricket.
But it is apparent that the young side is making progress, and staying focused on improving and competing will only help.