In sport, teams that compete hardest and longest win most often. This is not a matter of "heart" or "courage" or "fighting spirit"; it is about technical quality. Better teams tend to win more because they have fewer average players. Players and teams covet results in Test cricket and consider it the most challenging format precisely because the length of the contest more or less guarantees that the better team wins. In football, clubs covet league titles because it is hard to win a league simply by having a handful of good days.
Nevertheless, public perception of sporting teams is largely about moments. Teams are remembered for the memories they create. The eve of the 2019 World Cup final marked an anniversary of a famous Indian win in a triangular tournament in England featuring England and Sri Lanka in 2002. That was the only final Sourav Ganguly's team won out of 15 (they lost ten). And yet, if you took a poll to find out which image from that era lingers in the public memory, Ganguly's shirtless celebration on the Lord's balcony on that July evening 17 years ago will be a popular answer.
That Indian team, which came together after the match-fixing scandal of the late 1990s, is credited with restoring the faith of Indian fans in the game. It was also the first team of the mass cable-television era in India. The first glimpses of the enormous potential of TV revenue, and the subsequent shift in power in the world game to the subcontinent, came about in that era. Ganguly's Indian team remains a popular side.
Performance in knockout matches is an imperfect measure of a team's quality, but these games are a good place to begin, because on average in any tournament, the quality of opponent is likely to be better in the knockout games than in the preliminary ones. The table below provides a snapshot of the Indian ODI side in knockout games. It illustrates the distance between public perception and the cricketing record.
In defence of the public perception about the Ganguly-era India side, one should note that the Indian team of the 1980s played before the majority of Indians who are alive today were born; and the team of the 1990s played in an era when the majority of Indians who are alive today were in primary school.
A more systematic approach would have to take into account the quality of opposition with exhaustive rigour. The nature of the cricketing contest, in which each delivery involves essentially one major protagonist from each team, means that the composition of the XI is vital in assessing the quality of any team. It is difficult to make such assessments in international Test and ODI cricket because playing XIs change so frequently. The largest number of Tests in which the same 11 players have made up a team is 11. The corresponding figure for ODIs is ten. For the Indian Test and ODI teams the figures are four and eight respectively.
I have previously described in these pages a method to evaluate individual matches based on the margin of victory. This method gives each team a share of a point based on the outcome (win, loss, draw, tie or no-result) and the margin of that result. The rating for and against each team is also assigned to each player in the team. In this way, for any match, a player has a set of match ratings dating up to the last match he was involved in. The rating for an XI is the average of the ratings for all players in that XI for all previous matches they played. This method of calculating the rating for a team ensures that the rating represents the collective prior record of the 11 players. (If it is a player's debut match, the player is assigned a rating of 0.5.)
The graph below shows the rating for the Australian ODI side over the years, as calculated using this method. The black line plots all ODIs Australia have played; the grey line only those ODIs in which Australia faced Test-quality opposition. (For the purposes of the current discussion, Test-quality opposition includes Australia, England, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.)
A team with a rating of 0.5 or better is one that has won more than it has lost, while a team with a rating below 0.5 has lost more than it has won. As expected, the record against Test-quality opposition (grey) shows a lower success rate than the record against all opposition (black).
The table below gives the number of ODIs in which each Test-playing nation fielded a team with a rating of at least 0.5 as calculated using the method described above. These teams can be safely considered to be high-quality opposition, and a rigorous way to examine the quality of an ODI side would be to look at how well it does against these teams. This is an improvement on the standard approach used in such records, which excludes the "minnow" teams. It shows that not all South Africa or Australia XIs were strong teams, and that not all Sri Lankan or West Indian teams are weak teams.
The table below shows the record of the Indian ODI side, organised by captain, against opposition with a rating of at least 0.5. It illustrates the quantum increase in the quality of the Indian team during the past decade. The captains are used here to represent the team of their day; this table is not a reflection on "captaincy" or "leadership", or any other such quality that is commonly attributed to captains.
The singular reason for the steady improvement in the quality of the Indian ODI side in the 21st century has been the improvement in the quality of bowling. It is not a coincidence that the Indian team under Mohammad Azharuddin that had Anil Kumble in his limited-overs prime did better than the team of the late '90s, when Kumble's approach to limited-overs bowling was influenced by injuries and the changes he had made to his game to make it more suitable to Test cricket. Quality bowlers give a team control in the field, and make the runs scored by the batsmen more effective.
This improvement in the bowling can be illustrated in the table below. It illustrated a tactical shift by the Indian team management after the 2017 Champions Trophy. In the first four years of their careers, Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin took a wicket every 40 balls. In the period from 2014 to 2017, this went up to 50 balls per wicket, and it made the Indian team less capable of taking wickets in the latter overs. After 2017, India decided to invest in wristspin. Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav have taken a wicket every five overs between them. This, the emergence of Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar's becoming skilled at bowling in the late overs, has given India wicket-taking potency.
If the same method is applied to all teams, one can see how the Virat Kohli-era India side ranks among the best ODI teams of all time. However, it is still early in the life of the team. It's one thing to achieve the record they have over 39 games and another to maintain it over 80 games.
As we have seen, the turnover of personnel in international ODI sides is significant. It takes quality and depth to sustain the kind of success rate Kohli's team has enjoyed in the relatively injury-free run they have had over the last three years. The effect of injuries can be seen in the disruption to India's World Cup campaign by the loss of Shikhar Dhawan and Vijay Shankar. It upset the balance of the side. Eoin Morgan's team is England's best ODI side yet, but even they suffered when they lost Jason Roy for a few games during the league stage. Over a longer run, it becomes difficult to sustain success because new players don't always work out as well as expected. Injuries also take their toll.
The current Indian ODI side is the best Indian limited-overs team ever. They may not have had their iconic shirtless moment yet, but they have played limited-overs cricket of a quality that none of their predecessors approached. With bat and ball, their cricket is of a standard that teams around the world have found difficult to cope with. Whether or not it is led by Kohli or coached by Ravi Shastri, this current group of players is the best India has ever seen. The challenge remains to add their number.