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Did we just witness the greatest year in India’s Test history?

by Divy Tripathi 4 minute read

The year 2021, with an array of overseas assignments, was all set to be the litmus Test for the India Test setup.

And the Virat Kohli-led side came out with flying colours. They won eight out of 14 Tests, while drawing three Tests and losing three. These performances brought about three series victories, with India also leading in the suspended series in England. Four of these wins came away from home in three different countries, all places where India have traditionally struggled. There were heroics from a side which was reduced to its last man Down Under, put up a splendid fight in England, and ensured a dominant win in Centurion.

India are now the best side in the world, and are doing things no India team has done before. So does this year count as their greatest in Tests?

India took some time to get used to the rigours of Test cricket. Given the relative strength of other teams, and the fact that cricket wasn’t played as often, it took them several years, even decades to achieve their many ‘firsts’ in Test cricket. While they had a number of achievements before 1971, including an overseas series win, that year was special because not only did India win their first Tests in England and West Indies (this was also their first-ever win against the West Indies team), but also managed to win their maiden series in these nations. These two unexpected wins (out of the eight Tests they played that year) have the same relevance for the Test game in the country as the 1983 World Cup win had for the limited-overs game.

Though it was the very big ‘first’ for India, it didn’t propel them to immediate stardom as a cricketing side. In fact, their very next trip to England saw them tumble down to 42 all out at Lord’s in 1974. Still, India had managed to improve manifold. Another big year for them was 1979, when they managed series wins against West Indies, Australia, and Pakistan (this series finished in 1980) at home. In total they played 18 Tests, won four and lost only one game in the year.

With the addition of Kapil Dev & co., India were able to pack a punch away from home as well and this was best illustrated in their efforts in 1986, when they began the year with a drawn Test series (which they came very close to winning) against Australia, only to crush England away from home 2-0, defeating them by 279 runs at Leeds. Though they didn’t lose in the entire year, they still couldn’t manage success over Australia.

The same held true for their performances against West Indies through the 80s and 90s. Speaking of the 90s, the decade was a bit of Jekyll and Hyde affair for the India team. For at home, often propelled by their spinners and world-class batters, they were able to dominate the proceedings, with the peak arguably coming in 1993. They had a win percentage of 62.5 in eight Tests (four of the wins came at home). Away from home, they had a solitary win in the entire decade which came in this very year.

India finally looked like they could compete away from home under Sourav Ganguly and had India’s best run to date away from home in the 2003/04 season when they drew 1-1 against a strong Australia and won 2-1 in Pakistan. However, India weren’t able to keep the momentum up in 2004, and lost the home leg of Border-Gavaskar trophy 2004/05.

India kept improving and 2007 was a bright year in many respects, which saw India win Test series in Bangladesh, England, and against Pakistan at home. They won three out of ten Tests, but weren’t able to secure wins in South Africa or Australia despite coming mightily close to success.

Soon MS Dhoni took over, and led India for two and a half years without losing a single series. Dhoni’s side had its best year in 2010, getting the better of Bangladesh, Australia, New Zealand, and holding a rampant South Africa both home and away. In that year they won eight Tests out of 14, including a Test against Australia by the barest of margins.

Just when they were about to announce that they were the best to the world (capping off a brilliant home season with a World Cup win), they were eviscerated in 2011 against England and Australia. For a side whose success had largely, and often unfairly, been defined in the form of success away from home (given that India had historically not done well overseas) this was a big shock. They were never quite able to shrug off these defeats during the Dhoni era.

In 2014/15, India got a new aggressive skipper in Kohli, who sought to make India a strong Test side. There were immediate results, India were exemplary in their run (mostly played at home) in 2016. They played 12 Tests, and won nine Tests (including two wins in the Caribbean). India were absolutely able to crush their opponents at the back of their twin strengths – a strong middle-order and their bowling attack.

Naturally, the progressive question to be asked of Kohli’s men was if they could succeed away from home? They couldn’t, for various reasons, manage consistent success in 2018, but had answers to all the questions in 2021. The bounce of Australia and South Africa failed to deter them, while they successfully countered the swing in England, and their bowlers were ready to exploit even a hint of assistance that the wicket provided. Barring their defeat to New Zealand in the World Test Championship final, India looked like they were living their skipper’s dream –the conditions didn’t matter and every single squad member was ready to be counted.

There are difficulties in comparing eras, but 2021 showed what a strong India can do under a determined captain and his like-minded team-mates. These wins showed a kind of dominance that the cricketing world hadn’t seen since the great Australia of mid 90s to early 2000s, a side which not only believed in its capabilities but was hungry for success too.

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