They became the first Indian team to win a Test series in Australia. They had an 87.5% success rate and did not lose even one Test, compared to Australia’s next-best 66.6%. This is the sort of consistency and clarity of purpose sports teams dream of.
The success bodes well for India’s ambitions in the World Test Championship, a nascent concept close to captain Virat Kohli’s heart. India, incidentally, boast the best win record (60.82%) of all teams this decade across formats, winning 281 out of 462 total games played.
Much of the credit goes to the pace unit. Their success this year was icing on the cake following half-a-decade spent reshaping India’s bowling ethos. The year also accelerated the steady evolution of the Test team’s character, a process which began with Virat Kohli taking over the captaincy in the middle of the decade.
A wary, diffident, safety-first bunch, with limited arsenal and perhaps a paucity of ideas, was steadily replaced by a bold pursuer of favourable tides. What is interesting is that not all the personnel was changed, though one new bowler – Jasprit Bumrah – played an important role in this transition in the last two years of the decade.
Since January 2018 – when Bumrah made his debut – India’s pacers have taken 274 wickets in 22 Tests at 20.74, the best among all teams. They also have the most five-wicket hauls (14), way above next best Australia (11). In wins, Bumrah has the best strike rate (30.4), best average (13.19) and best economy rate (2.59) among all bowlers since his debut. He has the most T20I wickets (51 from 42 games) and best ER (6.71), and in ODIs, the best average (21.88) and ER (4.49) of anyone since his debut.
Bumrah reshaped India’s cricket as the decade drew to a close. He is unique, inimitable, a man of infinite variety and wisdom beyond his years, with enviable pace to boot. For home cricket fans, he is almost too good to be true, so naturally there’s a catch. As predicted when he first burst on to the scene, Bumrah has a bowling action that makes him prone to serious injury, as we saw this year. The team management needs to handle him even more carefully than they might have thought.
Another fast bowler, Mohammad Shami, ended 2019 as the highest wicket-taker in two formats, the second time he has done so in his career. His high point was the hat-trick against Afghanistan in the World Cup, which tilted the scales in a tricky affair. Shami has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts in Test cricket under Kohli’s captaincy, taking the most wickets (137 from 37 Tests) and boasting the best strike rate (46.2) among all pacers in this period. He has been the most successful overseas too, with 86 wickets at 25.87.
Ishant Sharma, meanwhile, showed how veterans could reinvent themselves to suit the job requirement. Like Ishant, Umesh Yadav worked tirelessly on his lengths and pace till he got it right.
These individuals took the spotlight away from the traditional engine-drivers of India’s bowling, the spinners, and the time-honoured superstars, the batsmen. In five home Tests in 2019, the pacers took 59 wickets compared to just 37 for the spinners. The pacers averaged 15.25, compared to the spinners’ 28.23. The difference in strike rate too is surprising: spinners struck upon a wicket only every 60.6 balls, while pacers struck every 30.3 balls.
On the batting front, Rohit Sharma strode like a colossus across formats and showed that power-hitters can be silky too. Mayank Agarwal’s maiden hundred against South Africa and the double against Bangladesh raised India’s hopes of finding a reliable long-term opener.
Virat Kohli – the leading run-scorer in this decade across formats, and the third-best in Tests after Alastair Cook and Joe Root – marched inexorably towards Fortress Tendulkar’s records.
India also ended the decade with the best win-loss record in ICC tournaments, but they lost their way thrice in the semifinal stage, and choked twice in finals. In a World Cup year in which the term ‘boundary-countback’ showed up the game’s reliance on absurd laws and shaped cricketing discourse, India’s year – otherwise an excellent one across formats – came to be defined by what was not. ‘What was not’ was another World Cup trophy to round off the decade, which had started off well with MS Dhoni hitting that six at the Wankhede.
This year, it was Martin Guptill’s direct hit which shaped Dhoni’s fortunes. Dhoni ran hard, fell short and kept running, eventually grimacing and panting his way out of the ground. He hasn’t been seen on a cricket field since. ‘What was not’ was a face to the No. 4 ODI batsman. ‘What was not’ was the top three batsmen delivering when it mattered most, in a World Cup semifinal, shaping Virat Kohli’s “30 minutes” of disappointment. ‘What was not’ was more clarity over the exact fallout of the Lodha reforms.
These are questions the next year will answer.