To win from very comfortable positions is important too, but hardly noteworthy.
Ravi Shastri and Virat Kohli.
Why is the current Indian team so good? The answer perhaps is not so much in the talent available, rather the mindset in refusing to be daunted by adverse conditions or match situations.
Back-to-back victories in the Super Over against New Zealand in the third and fourth T20s highlight this. The crucial aspect was not in the Super Over in both matches, where New Zealand obviously lost their nerve, but in the final over of these matches.
Both times, defeat looked inevitable, but India managed to turn the tables.
In the third match, Mohamed Shami got to defend only nine runs in the 20th over, with Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor, New Zealand’s two best batsmen, at the crease. In the fourth match, Shardul Thakur defended even fewer, seven runs, with New Zealand having seven wickets remaining when he came on to bowl the final over.
These stats only accentuate how well India responded to the excruciating situations.
To win from very comfortable positions is important too, but hardly noteworthy. To snatch victory from the jaws of defeat — not as an isolated instance, but fairly regularly — suggests an admirable never-say-die attitude.
Remember, in Test rankings, India has been no. 1 for over 36 months consecutively, in ODIs, it has hovered between no. 1 and 2 for a fair while, and while not in the top 3 in T20s, isn’t too far behind on points. An upheaval is possible in the near future if the current form holds.
What’s contributing to India’s prowess across formats in the past few years?
There are three reasons I see: High quality talent (particularly in fast bowling), aggressive leadership which pursues success relentlessly, and not the least, intense competition among players for places in the squad/playing side. Since talent is abundant for decades now, the second and third aspects are the more important in the context.
Kohli’s influence today stretches way past his brilliant batting. He’s reshaped the ethos of the dressing room, providing no scope for defeatism or even defensiveness.
He may still be on a learning curve tactically, as Ravi Shastri has pointed out a few times. But where team performance is concerned, Kohli sets exacting benchmarks.
If a player’s fitness and attitude is not geared towards optimizing team success, he is a liability. This has sent a strong missive in Indian cricket about the kind of players needed and has increased competition among players for making it in the team. The most mentally tough, physically fittest and with high ability can survive.
Manish Pandey, who held the Indian innings together in the fourth match, was to spotlight this after the fourth match. In domestic cricket, Pandey bats 3 or 4, but in the Indian team he is slotted no. 6. “There is no place open in the top 4, so I have to wait for my turn and make the most at this position.”
A lesson there somewhere for youngsters like Rishabh Pant and Sanju Samson, who have squandered hard-to-get opportunities.
It could legitimately be asked why the Indian team, if indeed it is so good, could not beat the same New Zealand in the ODI World Cup just over six months back. The only cogent answer to that the Kiwis were the better side that day, India messing it up in the last 25-30 minutes.
To extend the explanation further laterally, invincibility in sport is a chimera. Even the best teams/sportspersons can for whatever reason be below par on a day and come to grief. The great West Indies team under Clive Lloyd in 1983 had one such day in the World Cup final that India memorably won.
This is not to say the current Indian team is in the same league as West Indies between 1975 and 1990, or Australia from the early-1990s and to 2007-8. The hallmark of champions — individual or team — is how few times they lose over an extended period of time against all kinds of opponents in all kinds of conditions.
Kohli’s team is still some way off from being in this elite category just yet. But if the deep desire to win is sustained — and is obviously ratified by results — it might be impossible to keep it out.