Year-Ender 2019: Comebacks strong theme in Test show
That may sound like a rebel statement in these times, but consider one such game India played to a draw in the first flush of 2019. It almost tasted of victory. Arguably, it was the biggest high this year for India’s Test squad.
That draw at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January, after ruling with the bat, wrapped up a historic first Test series win for India. It was the first time Australia had lost a Test series at home to an Asian team. It set the tone for the rest of the year. India continued on cruise mode as the world’s top Test team, without conceding a single match through 2019.
It holds the kind of potential that enabled West Indies of the 1980s, and Australia across the next two decades, to rule the world. The manner in which Virat Kohli’s side swept to victory in the next seven Tests of 2019 didn’t just underline that key players had found their best, it also showed the depth in two critical areas that will be the envy of other teams.
Has the Test opening slot in India ever enjoyed such riches?
Rohit Sharma passed in flying colours his conversion into an opener after all those years of hand-wringing as a failed Test batsman. The big test in the new year will be New Zealand, but he won’t be short of confidence. Mayank Agarwal’s success as his opening partner showed the hunger of a newcomer as well as the skill of a player who had proved his talent in first-class cricket.
With Shikhar Dhawan, the back-in-form KL Rahul and young Prithvi Shaw waiting in the wings—and Shaw’s U-19 World Cup teammate Shubman Gill piling on first-class runs—it will be a pleasant problem of plenty for the opener’s positions going into 2020 and beyond.
If last year was about India establishing themselves as a pace powerhouse—Jasprit Bumrah’s Test debut heralding their arrival—2019 asked questions of its versatility and depth all over again. A stress fracture of the back sidelined Bumrah, raising concerns whether he can continue to keep his unorthodox bowling action without breaking down, and also be as effective as he has been. However, the absence of the man widely seen as one of the best fast bowlers in the world right now, if not the best, challenged the others to re-group, which they did in style.
No set of players underlined Kohli’s accent on fitness better. While Umesh Yadav eased into the slot of Bumrah, Ishant Sharma enjoyed great rhythm and wicket-taking consistency. It was barely believable that he was in his 13th season as a Test paceman. A 100th Test—he is four games away—beckons the tall bowler the next year.
When Kohli described 2019 as one of India’s finest, it was genuine assessment and motivational talk rolled into one. He, as always, led from the front. For the fourth year in a row, he ended as the leading run-scorer across formats in international cricket. New personal highs kept rolling in. The 2-0 series win in the West Indies in August made Kohli the most successful Indian Test skipper. He went past MS Dhoni’s Indian record of 27, and had taken the tally to 33 by the year-end.
An unbeaten 254 in the second Test against South Africa at Pune was Kohli’s career-best, and there was a gem on a tricky Eden Gardens pitch, a 136 to mark India’s first pink-ball Test, against Bangladesh, with a win.
It was not just Kohli; the entire batting line-up stood up to be counted. Cheteshwar Pujara’s rise marked the Australia victory; his grand domination of the series, with 521 runs at an average of 73.4, was capped with 193 at SCG. Ajinkya Rahane’s turnaround began in Australia too, and further evidence that he had shaken off the doubts that had kept him back came when he ended a two-year wait for a Test century with a crucial 102 in Antigua, before adding another against South Africa at Ranchi.
ASHWIN SPINS BACK
The allure of Ravichandran Ashwin’s off-spin is less about flight and more about an air of defiance. He has never shed the tag of non-conformist that came with his early rise as a T20 star. However, fitness had not been his ally in 2018. Breaking down in two successive big tours, in England and then early in Australia, raised questions about his future and dented Kohli’s trust in him.
However, Ashwin demonstrated his class on his comeback this year, which also proved India were an all-weather unit, a team no longer requiring the crutches of designer slow tracks to win at home. India’s leading current spinner had to sit out in the West Indies on his return to fitness as Ravindra Jadeja was chosen as the lone specialist spinner. But even in a home run where the pacers rose to a new level, his 15 wickets in the 3-0 rout of South Africa came on good pitches, much like how the fast bowlers struck with pure skill.
New Zealand will provide a challenge early in 2020 with two Tests as India look to build on their substantial lead in the Test Championship Table, after a year of so of many comeback stories.