India are still the best side in the world. This will come across as a controversial statement to angry fans. Despite the 4-1 defeat, despite the agony of failing to convert their best chance of winning in England - you will strain to remember a more unreliable England batting unit - India are still the best side in the world.
If you're not convinced by their 10-point lead over the second-placed team in the ICC rankings - these rankings are skewed because of lopsided calendars - look at how close India's fast bowlers have come to matching the home bowlers in both South Africa and England, and compare it to how visiting spinners fall woefully short of India's in India. New Zealand and Pakistan have the potential to challenge India, but they don't get the exposure India do.
Contrary to popular opinion, India's batting didn't fail in England. It is nice to be nostalgic about Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman, but they will be the first ones to tell you they hardly ever went through eight successive away Tests in conditions as difficult for batting as they have been for India this year. Since we don't have seam and swing data for that era, a good measure is to compare the performance of India's batsmen in alien conditions against those of the home batsmen.
In this series, India's specialist batsmen consistently and comfortably outperformed England's specialist batsmen. There are two ways to measure it. India's top five averaged 32.95 against England's 28.55. In the first four Tests, Shikhar Dhawan was the best of the five openers in the series.
Luck is an often underappreciated factor in cricket. ESPNcricinfo's control numbers give you a bit of an insight into it, if not a perfect picture. The larger the sample size, the more accurate the picture it paints. So it is an elegant measure for teams rather than particular batsmen, and over a series rather than in a match. India's overall control percentage in the series was 78.35, England's 76.86. England managed to take a wicket every 10.41 times they bowled a ball the batsman was not in control of; India had to wait for 13.23.
This wasn't a series won or lost by the top-order batsmen. The series was won by England's depth both in bowling and batting. The so-called big moments where Virat Kohli asked for "fearless" cricket are the kind of moments when the main bowlers are past their best spells, and when the lower-order batsmen start taking a few risks and batting with freer minds. This is when England had extra resources, both with bat and ball.
Home lower orders tend to do better in such situations: cast your minds back to the number of times India were 120 for 6 against South Africa at home, and how Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin rescued them. Jayant Yadav scored a century in the home series against England, and Wriddhiman Saha made one against Australia; like Sam Curran's efforts in this series, they moved India from positions of relative parity to positions of strength.
The argument that the batsmen could have done more when it was close in the fourth innings is flawed. On paper it looks pretty to say India competed in three innings in Cape Town, Centurion, Birmingham and Southampton but the batsmen failed "when it mattered" to chase targets that ranged between 194 and 287. The fact is, these Tests were lost by the time each of these chases began.
The shooter that KL Rahul got in the Southampton Test was extremely unlucky for the batsman, but that is a fact of life in fourth innings in Test cricket. The pressure and the conditions are just too much to overcome when chasing anything around 200 on most fourth-innings pitches. In India's eight away Tests this year, there have been five "small" chases, and in each of them the side chasing has lost. VVS Laxman pulling off heists with a crooked back and with tailenders for company is a miracle. You can't chide batsmen for failing to perform miracles. That is too much to expect.
That India were at the receiving end of four of these five chases was in part down to the toss. Statistically, only once in 32 times should a side lose all five tosses in a five-match series. The last time it happened in Test cricket was 20 years ago. Back then, the toss wasn't so pivotal that the ICC Cricket Committee thought about doing away with it. Here, India might have given up the advantage in Birmingham had they won the toss, going by Kohli's comment that he would have bowled first anyway, just like England did in Nottingham, the Test India won.
Time after time, scoreboard pressure met good bowling and became irresistible. It is difficult to say how the series would have gone had India won more tosses, but it was definitely help they could have used as Nottingham showed.
Now for an assessment that will read as controversial to the team management. India stand in their own way of becoming the best team they can be. The whole world envies India's batting. Steven Smith and David Warner are out. AB de Villiers is retired, and Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis are struggling against spin. Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq and Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor again suffer from the lack of exposure in Test cricket. Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane are the best batting core in Test cricket at the moment, except that the team management doesn't seem to know it. The last two tours began without at least one of them in the XI.
The team management continues to misread conditions. At Lord's, even if India had won the toss, they would have had Hardik Pandya as their third seamer because they picked two spinners in a four-day match played on a seamer's dream of a pitch. Pandya got a lot of undeserved stick because the team management kept putting him in situations he wasn't suited for. Ravindra Jadeja was forgotten as a bits-and-pieces allrounder; he would have been of more value in Birmingham and Southampton. You can get away with poor selections at home where Ashwin and Jadeja will wheel away all day, but while playing in alien conditions you need every player to be in a position to contribute. In at least three of the five Tests, India sacrificed depth in their batting without actually adding much to their bowling depth.
Selection problems began even before the series began. An injured Bhuvneshwar Kumar was risked for the ODI series decider, a huge miss in the Test series. Ashwin was not at full fitness when he failed to make impact in the third innings in Southampton.
Kohli is the best batsman in the world right now. His leadership has vigour, and he clearly cares deeply for Test cricket, but his on-field tactics have always been the same when faced with third-innings resistance. In Centurion, with South Africa effectively 195 for 5 at the start of the middle session on day four, quick wickets was the only way India could have escaped defeat. India had to keep the target under 250. Mohammed Shami and Ashwin were the bowlers likely to take wickets. They bowled Pandya and Ishant Sharma for most of the session, looking to keep runs down. South Africa set India 287. Observers said the batsmen failed in the fourth innings. No, the game was over before the fourth innings began.
"You can get away with poor selections at home where Ashwin and Jadeja will wheel away all day, but while playing in alien conditions you need every player to be in a position to contribute. In at least three of the five Tests, India sacrificed depth in their batting without actually adding much to their bowling depth."
In Birmingham, Ashwin was taken off the moment Curran took a chance and hit him for a four over the infield, with the score effectively 104 for 7. India backed off, trying to restrict the scoring rate.
In Southampton, India backed off twice. At times they didn't even bring the field up for the fifth ball when Jos Buttler was farming the strike with the tail. You can't keep persisting with the same strategy in every tight turn and expect the results to be different. At times you have to gamble to take wickets as opposed to keeping the scoring down. There is no guarantee it will work, but it still gives you a chance. The risk is that the opposition can score 100 quick runs but these were situations where there was no real difference between chasing 250 and 300. Neither would have been gettable barring a miracle. Wouldn't you rather risk chasing 300 in an attempt to restrict the target to 200 than losing anyway when chasing 250?
Kohli and Ravi Shastri have been generous with their praise for Curran. They have emphasised his "fearlessness". Perhaps that fearlessness can be countered with fearlessness in the field. Don't go by much else of what Shastri said. His words running down India teams of the last 15 years were those of a beleaguered and cornered coach in the face of criticism that has not always been fair. It was either a shrewd attempt to distract everybody from the real issues with the team - just take a look at what the media is discussing - or a comment he didn't think through.
The real shortcomings of the team are in the selection of the XI, the reading of the conditions, the lack of flexibility, the constant chopping and changing possibly leading to lack of confidence among some players, and dubious injury management. Wholesale changes in the squad - well, Shastri got this job because of a 3-1 scoreline in England four years ago - are not the solution. The anger among the fans is understandable. India has the biggest pool of human resources, the best facilities and exposure, the ability to dictate schedules, and they talk a big game. Fans expect wins everywhere; not 4-1 defeats. That domination in all conditions in this highly professional era is as much of a pipe dream as chasing 250 in fourth innings is, but asking the team to not unintentionally come in its own way is not unrealistic at all.