“I would love to win in India,” said Steve Smith in an online live session with Rajasthan Royals where he was joined by New Zealand spinner Ish Sodhi. “I think as an Australian cricketer we talk about Ashes, which is always big, the World Cup is big, but I think now India is the No.1 team in the world and it is a very difficult place to play Test cricket, so I would love to win a series there. Other than that I would not like to set too many goals, but take things day-by-day, series-by-series, just try to improve,” he went on to elaborate.
One of the most gifted batsmen of this generation, Smith was instrumental in the Border-Gavaskar series in 2017 in Asia where he ended up scoring three hundreds and 499 runs but failed to prevent a 2-1 series defeat at the hands of the home side in a series where both countries refused to slip up.
One look at the records book and suddenly the gravity of Steve Smith’s words become self-evident. Since 1947, when India attained formal independence, Australia have only managed to win 4 Test series’ on Indian soil.
The Men from Down Under toured India for the first time in 1956-57. Australia got off to a high flying 2-0 series win, which was spearheaded by Ray Lindwall. The next time Australia visited India was just three years later where the visitors came out on top once again. The next series victory in India would arrive a decade later when, powered by Graham McKenzie, Ian Chappell and Ashley Mallett, they recorded a 3-1 series win.
Australia had to wait 35 years to script another series victory in India but since, 2004, have remained winless in the country once again.
So what exactly makes India so good at home that winning Tests here is seen by many as one of cricket’s greatest challenges?
A hint to that could be found in Steve’s words himself when he went on to praise Ravindra Jadeja for his performances on Indian soil. “Jadeja in the sub-continent … why is he so good because, he hits that good length and one ball skids on and one spins, and it just looks all the same out of the hand. I think consistency in length is key and then having at least one variation. So, I think for a leg-spinner, having a good googly, or a slider is crucial and for fingers spinners, being able to change the pace without changing the arm speed too much [is important]. I reckon there are a few around the world who do that, Jadeja is one of them. He is very difficult to play,” Smith said.
When it comes to India, especially more so in the last decade and under Kohli’s captaincy where they have been on a fantastic streak in Test cricket, the side has a tried and tested formula that reigns true for them in one way or the other.
The first part of this comes at the toss. Though the toss might seem a game of chance, at the moment it is working well for the Men in Blue. India have a clear precedent after winning the toss- to bat first. This ensures that the team are in the best possible position to take advantage when the wicket is at its best. This is hardly an exception for India as the visitors opt to bat first more often than not. Only in three of the last 32 Tests in India has a team which has won the toss, opted to bowl first.
Electing to bat first sets up the star Indian batsmen including the likes of Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan and Test specialists like Cheteshwar Pujara where they try to establish dominant partnerships in the first innings. The top order rarely disappoints at home, as Kohli and Pujara average 68.44 and 60.04 in Tests and Rohit has enjoyed a particularly successful stint in recent years. His average after the monumental win against South Africa last year read 99.84. He hit three centuries including a double ton in that series.
The pattern in India has hardly allowed for the breakdown of opposition in the first innings itself, however. The wicket is flat in nature and it’s virtually impossible to bowl out the opposition. However, India’s tenacity to score big in the first innings usually ensures that they still have a mammoth first-innings lead as the opposition batting starts crumbling once the pitch starts to break up.
The first innings usually sets the tempo for what’s about to follow for the rest of the Test- a test of grit and persistence. Batsmen tend to stick around for a long time on the pitch in a game of one-upmanship and matches in India tend to go the distance. The Indian mentality and temperament which is spurred on by the home crowd are clear. Hold the guard and wait for the opposition to lose focus first.
The second innings becomes crucial in this regard, where India manage to put considerable distance between them and the visitors. What Steve Smith was talking about with Ravindra Jadeja turning influential and practically into a match-winner, happens primarily during this phase of the Test. The conditions make India unstoppable where the ball spins massively to the advantage of their star spinners Jadeja and Ashwin.
Jadeja, in particular, is indispensable at home. He has taken 154 wickets in 30 Tests at home at a spectacular average of 20.62 (compared to 35.06 away). Away from home, he has managed only 54 wickets in 15 Tests. Similarly, Ashwin has 248 wickets from 40 Tests played at home, averaging 22.62.
The duo turns out to be a complete package for India in the spin department, offering both the mystery and chaos and rigour and control with a textbook approach. Judging by the statistics, and stats rarely ever lie, both Jadeja and Ashwin are all time-greats at what they do and this has elevated India’s game in their own home to a different stature. At this point in their careers, despite Ashwin starting to fade away from the national scene, both have plenty of experience and know how to deal with every situation.
And it’s not just limited to the spinners. As far as fast bowling goes, India currently possesses the golden generation of seamers, who are experts at utilising the reverse swing as the ball starts to get old which becomes especially important here in India, where the tracks aren’t really suited to fast bowling. Therefore, making the most out of the old ball on these pitches has brought them considerable success.
Even without Jasprit Bumrah, who might as well be the best bowler across all formats in the world, India has a potent and deadly trio of fast bowlers in Mohammad Shami, Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma who know how to get their lines, lengths, pace and rhythm correct and have been extremely consistent, turning out to be a blessing for India.
This is the reason why Kohli, upon becoming the most successful captain of the country, after their tour of West Indies, showered a lot of praise on his bowlers. “Captaincy is just a ‘c’ in front of your name, honestly,” he told Ian Bishop at the presentation ceremony at Sabina Park. “It’s the collective effort that matters. It’s a byproduct of this quality team that we have here. If we didn’t have the bowlers that we have, I don’t think the results would have been possible.”
In the end, what truly sets India apart at home is the fact that they know how to consistently make the most out of conditions at home and have a clear formula for success that works for them almost every time. The same is imprinted on the back of the players’ minds like a blueprint in the head of an architect and despite the opposition feeling that they might overcome the record books, the sheer inertia of success already puts India ahead even before the first ball is played.
Therefore, it makes sense why Smith placed winning a Test series in India at the same tier as winning the World Cup or the Ashes. This is one of the strongest home teams Test cricket has ever seen but in order to be the defining team and a contender for the all-time greats, they need to translate that knowledge, ability and confidence abroad where it hasn’t really worked out well.
Only time will tell if the current unique Indian side will be able to do that.