Kumble plays down talk of unbeaten home season
When India's current home season was announced - 13 Tests over four series - there was a feeling they might be onto something special. Some of that feeling came from the pitches last season against South Africa. It seemed India had decided to play their home Tests on rank turners, giving their spinners an edge, and winning all 13 was not really a fantasy. There could be the odd Test where they could give the opposition spinners a chance, but it was clear it would take something special to beat India at home.
The pitches slowly changed, though, ranging from typical Indian tracks to ones that began to turn on day two. There were two really flat ones. There was one that brought the New Zealand quicks into the game. India kept losing players to injuries.They kept losing tosses against England. Yet after three series and nine Tests, India are yet to be defeated and have failed to win only one Test.
When speaking publicly, India's leadership and other players have steered clear of putting themselves under possible pressure by setting their sights on an undefeated season. Two days before the series opener against Australia, the feeling cannot be escaped. Especially when India know that if they can repeat what they did against England, a similar series result against Australia is not really a fantasy. It is at this time that coach Anil Kumble said they are reinforcing the need to stay in the moment.
"Of course, those things [feeling of being on the cusp of something special] are there, but we don't want to look too far ahead," Kumble said. "We certainly take it one game at a time. Before the NZ series as well, we looked at the entire series, but it was important to start every Test with the first session of the game. We'd like to keep it that way rather than look at the series. We want to start off on a good note here.
"Yes in all those matches that we have played and all those situations that we were in, each one has come up and found a solution to it. Be it the top order or the lower order, the contributions have been really good. And with the bowling it's not just spinners, but the faster bowlers as well who have stood up in key moments. That's what will hold us in good stead. There will be some tough moments in the series, but I'm sure the squad is capable of coming up with solutions."
India are now unbeaten for 19 Tests starting with the second Test in the series in Sri Lanka in 2015. At home, their unbeaten streak goes all the way back to 2012-13 since when they have played 20 Tests, won 17 and drawn three. The only other time India have come close to showing such dominance in Test cricket was when they went unbeaten for 10 straight home Tests at the start of 1990s, Kumble was central to the dominance. He was asked to compare the confidence this team carries as compared to that team, if this team is aware of how good it is.
"Of course [ they are aware]," Kumble said. "They're all fantastic players. The things that they have been able to achieve in their careers, some of them have played 40-45 Tests, Virat [Kohli] has played 50. The kind of achievements people have had, there's not many who we can draw parallels with. So that way they've all achieved quite a bit. Someone like [R] Ashwin has been the fastest to 250 wickets in Test history. That's amazing. Those kind of performers are really good to have in a squad."
How is this domination - more certain and inevitable perhaps - different to the one in the 1990s? "You can't compare my playing days to now," Kumble said. "Things have changed. I'm really privileged that I've had a chance to work with this young lot over the last 10 months, to see them grow, understand and come up with solutions. At the end of the day, you want the team to be self-sufficient, you don't want people to keep looking behind their shoulder for advice. That's what I'm trying to create, an environment where each one learns from the other and then tries to find a solution on the field and off it as well.
"That's what has been really encouraging for me as a coach, and that's what I have seen over the last 10 months with this group of players. I don't think any two Test matches has had the same playing XI. And that's been the beauty of this team. It doesn't matter who is playing, at the end of the day whoever is part of the XI has contributed. And whoever is not and is a part of the squad, he has also contributed."
There are so many things that can go wrong over 13 Tests in one season. It takes a physical toll for starters, especially because Tests in India are almost always back-to-back, which has shown in the injuries. One thing India have done well is to play on good pitches, which rules out ordinary spinners from becoming effective. At times you lose the toss and find yourself chasing 500; India have done well in those situations too. As Kumble said, they have kept finding solutions to all the situations that have come up. Perhaps he will sit and rejoice once the series is over and if it has gone the same way as the earlier ones, but - challenges of playing in England, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia notwithstanding - they really are on the cusp of something truly special.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo