Sambit Bal

Celebrate the historic moment, but don't ignore history, India

To become the first Asian team to win a series in Australia is fantastic, but it's a win that has been two decades in the making

Sambit Bal
Sambit Bal
Behind this "first-ever", there have been a series of milestones that all together make up Indian cricket history  •  David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

Behind this "first-ever", there have been a series of milestones that all together make up Indian cricket history  •  David Gray/AFP/Getty Images

There are no inevitabilities in sports, only probabilities. Every run, every wicket and every win must be earned, and there should be no asterisk against Virat Kohli's men achieving what no Indian team has managed to do before. Why only India? For 71 years, no other Asian team won a series in Australia, even during the Packer years.
In 1977-78, India's greatest spin attack couldn't conquer the weakest Australian Test batting line-up in history, and in 2003-04, India's greatest-ever batting order conceded a Test in Melbourne to an Australian bowling attack missing its biggest match-winners. It's true that circumstances granted India a substantial advantage this time, but sports wouldn't be what they are if they followed a script. That India were expected to win should take nothing away from the taste of their success.
To use that caveat would also be selling short the greatest series-defining performance by an Indian batsman in an overseas series. The Indian bowlers did what they had done all year by bowling the opponents out. It was Cheteshwar Pujara's batting that finally tipped the scales in India's favour. Australia came into the series with the most versatile attack in contemporary cricket, and by the time the fourth Test ended, Pujara had singlehandedly ground it into the dust.
The third day of the final Test, in Sydney, looked vastly different from the first morning in Adelaide, when India stood on the brink of implosion at 41 for 4 in the 21st over, with Kohli having gone in the 11th. In between those days, Pujara batted 1258 balls, first absorbing the sting of the Australian attack, and then gradually, over after over, turning it fangless. Only weather denied him the opportunity to end with three match-winning hundreds in a series - an unprecedented feat, at home or away, in Indian cricket history. In fact, it would have been only the third instance, and first since 1968 outside the subcontinent, of India winning three Tests in an overseas series.
But it is as much a tribute to Kohli's team as it is to the ones whose footsteps they have followed in that this win also feels not like an outlier event but a natural progression. Whereas Indian fans only dared to hope all through the '70s, '80s and '90s, in this century, they have come to expect. And this normalisation of overseas victories has come over nearly two decades.
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In 1971, India's wins over West Indies and England would have felt straight out of fantasy, and given what preceded them, they must together count as India's greatest Test victories.
And it was a sign of the times that once that win was achieved in Port-of-Spain, Indian fans prayed and cheered for every subsequent draw. Later that year in England, India were saved by rain in the first Test, and hung on to draw in the second, before Bhagwath Chandrasekhar turned the third with a magical performance. For both romance and significance there can be no parallel. As an aside, India played eight tour matches before the first Test, and stayed on for four more after the last.
It was in 1986 that India turned in what must still rank as their most dominating series performance outside the subcontinent. They drew the ODIs in England 1-1 and won the first two Tests with their bowlers out-dibbly-dobbling England in proper English conditions. Dilip Vengsarkar scored consecutive hundreds. They were even in a position to win the third one. Only a few months earlier, at the MCG, India had missed out on the chance to win their first series in Australia because of Allan Border (who added 103 runs for the last two wickets), rain, and their own diffidence - they plodded to 59 for 2 in 25 overs, chasing 126, when rain was forecast. Would Ravi Shastri's mind have veered to that day as India waited through the rain in Sydney this week to collect the trophy? With eight wickets, he was India's most successful bowler in that MCG Test.
But the path to overseas success was paved when India emerged from the bleak '90s, a decade in which they drew blanks everywhere outside the subcontinent, even losing a Test to Zimbabwe. In the 2000s, series were won in Pakistan, England, West Indies (who were not yet so abysmal) and New Zealand, and drawn in South Africa (where they won Tests on successive tours) and Australia. To fans familiar with history and previous sufferings, the wins in Multan, Rawalpindi, Adelaide, Nottingham, Johannesburg and Perth were each a heady moment, markers of continuous progress, and signs of a coming of age as a Test nation.
Like with Kohli's team last year, vital mistakes (a batting meltdown from 286 for 2 in Melbourne and a slow-down that led to a collapse in Cape Town) cost them series wins in Australia and South Africa, but through that decade, India competed like never before outside familiar shores, and their rise to the top of the Test rankings in 2009 was reward for cumulative excellence.
What that batting line-up could have achieved with the current crop of fast bowlers is only a matter of conjecture, and ultimately an exercise in futility. Teams must be judged as a whole and in their own circumstances. Which is why Shastri's ranking of this history-making moment as greater than India's World Cup win in 1983, even while dismissing the past as irrelevant, rankled with so many. Even by his own standards, it was an outrageous piece of grandstanding.
Truth, as ever, can be located at a safe distance from hyperbole. The 1983 World Cup was an epochal and breakthrough moment in the history of Indian cricket, and for what it engendered, a ground-shifting moment in cricket overall. Finally getting over the line in Australia marks a crowning moment for the team that has fought relentlessly and bruisingly over the toughest year for batting in Test cricket in recent memory; a team that seems primed to retain India's rightful place, given its size, wealth and passion for the game, at the top.
For Indian fans, this is a win to celebrate. But for all those who regard Test cricket as the supreme form of the game and worry about its future, it's as worthy of celebration that in Virat Kohli cricket not only has a champion batsman but a fierce, passionate and persuasive champion of the five-day format.

Sambit Bal is editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo @sambitbal