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Are the India of 2021 better than the India of 2018?

Three years ago, Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri were worried about the side's inability to seize key moments. Have they improved on that front?

Nagraj Gollapudi
Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane walk off for bad light, India vs New Zealand, World Test Championship (WTC) final, 2nd day, Southampton, June 19, 2021

Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane will want to make a statement with the bat during their third - and potentially final - tour of England  •  ICC/Getty Images

Few can match Ravi Shastri for hyperbole. Just as few can match the India head coach for his bluntness. In 2014, when he was appointed as the team's director of cricket for the ODI leg of the England series, Shastri said MS Dhoni's India lost the Pataudi Trophy 3-1 because they played "spineless" cricket. Labelling the Indian players as "glam boys", Shastri singled out Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara, calling them out for repeating the same mistakes against the moving ball.
By 2018 Shastri was completely in charge as coach when India lost another five-Test series in England 4-1. But everyone agreed India were more competitive, and, as Shastri summed up, they created opportunities but were unable to "close it the way we would have like it."
The one thing Shastri wanted was for India to improve on what they had done on that tours. Have they, three years on?
On the one hand, you would say yes. India have won back-to-back Test series in Australia, finished runners-up in the inaugural World Test Championship, beat England 3-1 in a home series earlier this year, and could be said to begin a new Test series in England as favourites, against a weakened home team that is without Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes.
India have had an unprecedented length of time to bed into English conditions, having arrived in the UK on June 2. After the WTC final against New Zealand, they dispersed to spend three weeks with their families, a much-needed break for all the players during the Covid-19 pandemic. Mentally and physically the Indians couldn't be better prepared ahead of the first Test at Trent Bridge, which begins on Thursday.
On the other hand, India haven't entirely overcome the issues that troubled them on their 2018 tour of England: a shaky top order, and a mismatch between their lower order and those of their oppositions. The same issues have haunted them on other vital occasions since then, notably during the WTC final.
Since the start of 2020, India have suffered four overseas defeats: a 2-0 series defeat in New Zealand, a decimation in the day-night Test in Adelaide, and the WTC final. A common factor in all these defeats has been the inconsistency of India's three senior-most batters: Kohli, Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Since the start of 2020, all three average under 30. In contrast, from the end of the 2018 England tour to the end of 2019, Kohli averaged 62.05, Rahane 56.58, and Pujara 49.00.
Kohli last scored a century during the pink-ball Test in Kolkata against Bangladesh in November 2019. Since then, he has gone 14 Tests and 46 international innings without a hundred. The drought won't bother Kohli, but what will bother him might be the manner of his dismissal on the final morning of the WTC final, when he went chasing at a wide-ish delivery from Kyle Jamieson. It was the kind of delivery that he kept getting out to, especially against James Anderson, during his wretched 2014 tour of England when he averaged in the early teens.
On the 2018 England tour, Kohli was far more disciplined outside off stump, and finished the five-Test series as the highest run-getter on both sides and the only batter to cross the 500-run mark. There's no reason that he can't enjoy that sort of success this time around, especially since he's played plenty of outstanding knocks in Test cricket of late without quite getting to three figures, such as his first-innings 74 in Adelaide, the second-innings 72 against England in Chennai and the first-innings 44 in difficult conditions during the WTC final.
More concerning for India will be Pujara's form. Since scoring three hundreds during the 2018-19 tour of Australia, he has averaged 28.03 in 18 Test matches. He's made nine fifties, none more valuable than his stonewalling fourth-innings efforts in Sydney and Brisbane earlier this year, but in seaming conditions against quality pace attacks, he might come under pressure to score runs more quickly before the wicket ball arrives.
Rahane, meanwhile, faces a familiar issue: his shot selection often gets him out just when he's beginning to look fluent. He averages 28.15 since the start of 2020, and outside the match-winning hundred he scored at the MCG, he's only made one fifty in 19 innings.
With Rohit Sharma opening for the first time in England, and with India having lost Shubman Gill for the entire series and Mayank Agarwal for the first Test, Pujara, Kohli and Rahane have to be the guardsmen for India's batting. This is the trio's third full tour of the country, and potentially their last one, and there's no doubt each of them will want to leave a big footprint on this one.
On the bowling front, India primarily have the same fast-bowling attack that prospered three years ago, with Ishant Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Mohammed Shami set to present England's fragile top order with a stern test on helpful pitches, and with Mohammed Siraj also in the mix as a young, exciting quick with skill and nous. But whatever combination the team management goes for, they'll hope they can resolve an issue that's dogged them constantly: an inability to polish off the opposition tail.
On the 2018 England trip, Indian bowlers had England reeling at 87 for 7 in the second innings of first Test at Edgbaston, and at 86 for 6 in the first innings in Southampton, only for Sam Curran to lead lower-order fightbacks that eventually built towards England wins. In the WTC final, New Zealand went from 162 for 6 to 249 in their first innings, and gained a vital lead, courtesy the lower-order efforts of Jamieson and Tim Southee.
Those are the sorts of moments Shastri wants India to seize.
While the fast bowlers will be key to India's fortunes R Ashwin will be an equally important catalyst. Since the start of the Australia tour, Ashwin has enjoyed probably the happiest phase of his career, rediscovering his batting ability to go with improved bowling performances in all conditions. But the burden of being a master craftsman is that quality is expected at all times.
On the 2018 tour he bowled with an injury that left him lacking bite on a spin-friendly pitch in Southampton where Moeen Ali outbowled him. This time he is fit and in a happy space mentally with his family in tow, and he even picked up a six-for in the one-off county match he played for Surrey at The Oval, the venue for the fourth Test. While he played a major role in India's series win in Australia, Ashwin is yet to completely dominate an opposition away from Asia and the West Indies, which would kill the debate over whether he can be classed as an all-time great.
As much as it is about skill, willpower and temperament, luck also plays a key role in series between evenly-matched teams. You could argue that it certainly did in 2018, when Kohli didn't win a single toss on the tour. As much as he would hope for the coin to fall in India's favour, Kohli and the coaches will need to get the balance of their XIs right. India raised the eyebrows by picking two spinners for the WTC final despite the forecast clearly indicating overcast conditions through the match. India clearly value Ravindra Jadeja's batting, but did they in hindsight rue not picking a fourth seamer?
Ever since they won the final Test of their 2017-18 tour of South Africa, Shastri and Kohli have been belligerent in their belief that India can dominate overseas and win series consistently. But while they've won series in Australia, they have come up short on their tours of England and New Zealand. This England tour, which will be followed by a three-Test series in South Africa in December-January, will serve as a litmus test for India.
Even in 2018 India were rated as equal favorites to win the Pataudi Trophy. But they were thwarted by the all-round capabilities of Curran, Stokes and Woakes, which gave England supreme depth of resources in seam-friendly conditions. This time India will go in with even more belief, having grown in experience and know-how, and having added to their line-up two sources of positivity in Rohit and Rishabh Pant.
Kohli has recently spoken about how his team pursues excellence rather than focus merely on results. But victories are the ultimate emblems of excellence. Kohli's India have a golden opportunity to win a series in England. If they can achieve it, Shastri will take care of the hyperbole.

Nagraj Gollapudi is news editor at ESPNcricinfo