<
>

How significant are India's gains this season?

Jadeja: now with added effectiveness, courtesy a retooled line of attack AFP

India put on a grand show in their grand home season. Especially in the last Test match, in Dharamsala, which produced a home win on an overseas-style pitch - one with bounce and lateral movement but no prodigious turn.

There is so much to talk about India's performance, because there was so much cricket. Why don't I do it by picking out the players who were especially good and were able to keep their standards high through the long season?

Ravindra Jadeja. He just got better as the season went on. The humongous number of overs he bowled seemed to take absolutely no toll. This is where his supreme fitness came into play. His bowling in his last innings of the season had the same energy as his first. But to put his success all down to his fitness would be wrong, and unfair to him.

Jadeja has made some changes to his bowling - most notably to his line. He now bowls mostly outside the off stump - the "overseas line" - as opposed to the traditional "Indian-pitches line" that most Indian left-arm spinners use, where you go wide of the crease and fire the ball onto the middle stump, letting the pitch get the ball to turn across the face of the bat. When there is no "Indian turn", as these left-arm spinners found out when they went overseas, that line becomes too easy for batsmen to deal with.

The sweep is the main shot used to dominate against such a line. The ball is basically coming into the batsman from a wide angle on the crease and pitching on middle, and he just needs to help it on its way for runs.

With no batsman in the world able to pick which of Jadeja's deliveries will turn and which won't, his outside-off-stump line has become a nightmare for those facing him. They are forced to play at balls pitching outside off too, worried that those might come back in with the arm and knock the stumps over. This has opened up more wicket-taking modes for Jadeja. He also took a few wickets where he got the batsmen to drive. There is some guile and deception in his bowling now.

R Ashwin made this change in his line a couple of seasons ago. India now have two spinners bowling the overseas line, which holds promise for when they next travel after this long spell at home.

"We know Umesh Yadav always had the talent, but under Virat Kohli, his doubts have vanished; he knows his captain backs him, come what may, and this has done wonders for his state of mind"

KL Rahul was not as prolific as Cheteshwar Pujara, and he also missed a few games because of injury, but come the Australia series, he progressed from being a good batsman to a class one. That he is an opener who is comfortable against pace and bounce will be a great bonus for India when they play overseas.

I have always felt, having watched Rahul in Under-19 cricket, that he over-attacked at the international level. Remember his Test debut, in Melbourne, and his effort to try and dominate? He played two expansive shots to get out early in both innings. Similarly, his dismissal in Pune in this series got some flak for the way he got out at a crucial time and because of what followed - India losing seven wickets for 11 runs.

It proved to be a blessing in disguise in two ways. First, he realised how a match can change dramatically when a set batsman gets out. Second, he injured his shoulder playing that lofted shot, and he said later how that prevented him from playing shots of that sort. Boom! In comes consistency.

Now he does not hit the ball in the air as much or over-attack as much. He has found the right balance of attack and defence to suit his temperament.

Rahul at the Under-19 level was not a dasher, like, say, Virender Sehwag, who was always an "attack first, defend second" batsman. Rahul has become defence-first now, which is in sync with his temperament.

Umesh Yadav. Like with Jadeja, Umesh's natural fitness and easy bowling action enabled him to perform superbly through the long season. Like with Jadeja, his potency was the same from the first game to the last.

What has changed with him? My reading is: his self-belief. We know he always had the talent, but under Virat Kohli, his doubts have vanished; he knows his captain backs him, come what may, and this has done wonders for his state of mind. We see the effects of this on the field, especially in his accuracy.

How will he do overseas? Many Asian bowlers before him, similar in style, have had better records on the dead, low-bounce subcontinental pitches than on overseas pitches. Let's hope he can be an exception.

Virat Kohli had a quiet series against Australia, but in the two series that preceded it, he showed that he is a batsman in a different league. There is a big distance between him and the rest of India's batsmen these days.

Cheteshwar Pujara took his application to the next level, showing great mental reserves to play tough "buckle-down" innings one after the other. Even after 11 hours at the crease in Ranchi, he was ready to put his head down for another big one in Dharamsala.

He was hit on the helmet three times against England in Rajkot, but that discomfort was not seen again after that, nor his vulnerability against the middle-stump line.

His keenness to get onto the front foot to everything is less pronounced now. That habit, formed among many Indian batsmen in the Duncan Fletcher era, seems to be waning. Good sign.

There were others, like Wriddhiman Saha, who grew in stature as the season went on. Ashwin produced a match-winning spell in Bengaluru to prove that a match-winning impact from him is never too far away.

Overall, there were clearly more gains than losses for India. The bowling seems to have more depth now; there aren't just one or two wicket-takers, as has been the case with India forever. When Rahul Dravid retired, people were crying out for a good No. 3 to fill his big boots. I wrote at the time that India needed to find three world-class bowlers instead, who could win matches for the team all over the world. In Mohammed Shami, Jadeja, and Ashwin, India now have three potential world-class performers with the ball for all conditions.

Home dominance is not a new thing in Indian cricket, but has Indian cricket evolved and reached new heights this season? We will know only after trips to England, South Africa and Australia. There is some promise, though.