India vs South Africa – why the fans are not ecstatic

Virat Kohli, the captain of India’s Test side, has expressed displeasure at how critics (including former cricketers) have reacted to India’s series win over South Africa in the recently-concluded tour. Perhaps he expected more showering of praise, more appreciation for the achievement of defeating the world’s top-ranked Test team. Instead, there has been more talk about spinning tracks than about the performances, and a general sense that India has done, at best, what it was expected to do.

Perhaps Kohli needs to realise that when we talk about Indian youth today, we generally mean the post-liberalisation generation – people who were born or grew up in the nineties and the new millennium. For most of us, all we know is home victories for India. With rare exceptions – South Africa under Cronje, England under Alistair Cook – India has not lost too many series at home. That India should win at home is not just expected, it is taken as a given.

This was, surprisingly for many, not always the case. While my own first memories of Indian cricket are overwhelmingly positive, in the eighties and before, a home victory for India was not a foregone conclusion. The mighty West Indies team of the time, with four fearsome fast bowlers, completely negated any advantage that might be derived from a spinning track. Batsmen like Viv Richards, Rohan Kanhai and Clive Lloyd could clobber any bowler to the stands, and often did. Australia and England too often had the better of such contests with India, and batsmen like Greg Chappell, Alan Border, Ted Dexter and David Gower could play spin with felicity. If anything, the emergence of a world-class fast bowler like Kapil Dev is what transformed India from being pushovers to a team that earned more than a measure of respect.

Perhaps the most telling period in Indian cricket history though, was the phase from 1990 to 1992. India, under Mohd Azharuddin, toured first England (losing a 5 test series 1-0) and then Australia (losing a 5 test series 4-0). But after the disastrous World Cup of 1992, England came to India, captained by Graham Gooch. What followed was a 3-0 drubbing, inflicted by an Indian team playing no less than four spinners. For Azharuddin and the team management, it was like discovering a wondrous new formula. West Indies no longer had a gauntlet of batting stars, English cricket was reeling under the onslaught of the money unleashed on football, and South Africa was famously poor against spin bowling even then. Even mighty Australia could not handle quality spinners like Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh (and others before him), when they bowled from both ends and kept the pressure on constantly. At the same time, success abroad was non-existent. Azharuddin was inconsistent, Manjrekar flattered to deceive and only Tendulkar could be relied upon to play well outside India.

Throughout the nineties, India continued to be ‘lions at home, kittens abroad’, losing series to Australia, West Indies, South Africa, New Zealand and even Sri Lanka, while maintaining an unbeaten run at home.

For Indian cricket, ‘liberalisation’ arrived 10 years after it did for the Indian economy. Under Saurav Ganguly, India began to play competitive cricket abroad. He encouraged emerging seam bowlers, stewarded the development of a motley group of talented batsmen and suddenly India was as dangerous abroad as it was in India. Most importantly, for the first time in its history, India could boast of no less than 5 world-class batsmen playing side-by-side. Series wins in England and West Indies followed, and even a series in Australia was hard-fought to a draw.

The Indian cricket fan had changed. No longer was every victory to be seen as a miracle. Like the economy and like India’s own brand on the world stage, Indian cricket too was something that could hold its head high.

But it was a phase that did not last forever. From 2010 onwards, the sheen has faded. Humiliating losses in Australia and England, losses in New Zealand and even Bangladesh have followed. True, this has been at a time when the decline of Australia as a Test side has meant that no team has travelled well, but the manner of India’s losses has been abject. Batsmen have too often seemed clueless – as clueless as the South Africans have seemed against Indian spin – and bowlers have been models of ineffectiveness. A surprise spell of brilliance by an Ishant Sharma or R Ashwin has led to stray test wins, but the gap in quality between this team and the team of a decade ago has been painfully obvious.

And that, ultimately, is why it will take some time for Virat Kohli to get the sort of respect and praise that Saurav Ganguly had earned during his captaincy stint. The modern Indian fan – and his proxy, the modern Indian press – is no longer happy with a brave performance or two abroad, or a pyrrhic victory on tailor-made surfaces at home.

This is a country that wants to be the best in the world, and its team to be the best in the world, any anything less will only evoke a tepid applause.

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Kunal is an ex-banker with a (largely self-proclaimed) flair for writing. He is an associate member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India and an MBA from Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies (NMIMS), Mumbai.

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