Why India are the best home team in Test history

India captain Virat Kohli (l) celebrates after the review against Jonny Bairstow by bowler Mohammed Shami is given out during day one of the First Test Match between England nd India at Trent Bridge on August 04, 2021 in Nottingham, England
England have their work cut out to defeat India at home this winter - Getty Images/Stu Forster

It is more arduous than touring Steve Waugh’s Australia or Clive Lloyd’s West Indies: this is the challenge that awaits England in the weeks ahead.

During their magnificent era from 1980-95, West Indies played 48 Tests at home; they won 28 and lost only four. From 1995-2007, the years of their hegemony, Australia played 71 Tests at home, won 54 and lost six. Since 2013, India have won 36 Tests at home and lost just three – a better win/loss ratio than either the West Indies or Australia teams mustered in their glorious eras at home. Since England’s stunning victory in 2012, India have won 16 consecutive home series.

While West Indies’s 1980-95 team won 10 per cent of home Tests by an innings, and Australia’s 1995-07 side 23 per cent, India have won 33 per cent of their home Tests in this era by an innings. At home, India pummel all-comers with a regularity unmatched in Test history.

‌The ultimate cheat code

Assembling a cricket side is, essentially, an exercise in managing trade-offs. Pick the extra batsman or extra bowler? Have an attack built around seam or spin?

At home, with both Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, India are free from such unpalatable questions. The pair are among the finest spinners that India have ever produced and turn the ball in contrasting directions; Jadeja is easily good enough to bat in the top six and Ashwin has five Test hundreds. Were there an Indian Premier League-style Test franchise league based on the subcontinent, Ashwin and Jadeja might well be the two top picks, such are their skills and the balance they provide. Playing both together, India simultaneously have enviable batting and bowling depth.

India's Ravichandran Ashwin prepares to deliver a ball during the third day of the first cricket Test match between South Africa and India at SuperSport Park in Centurion on December 28, 2023
Ravichandran Ashwin could again be the tormentor of England batsmen - Getty Images/Phil Magakoe

Ashwin averages 28 with the bat at home and has taken 337 wickets at 20.9; Jadeja averages 39.8 with the bat and has 194 wickets at an average of 20.5. In their 40 Tests at home together, the two have taken 428 wickets – almost 11 a match – at 20.9 apiece. Little wonder that India have lost only two of these games.

Yet even a Jadeja injury would provide little relief; remarkably, India have stumbled upon a like-for-like replacement, who might well play as the third specialist spinner. Axar Patel, another tall left-arm spinner who bowls at good pace, took 27 wickets at 10.6 when England toured three years ago. He hit three half-centuries in five innings against Australia last year, though he struggled with the ball.

‌India’s mighty seam attack

When he was 15, in 1974, Kapil Dev attended an Indian coaching camp. At lunch, Kapil complained about being offered only two dry chapatis and a spoonful of vegetables for lunch: to bowl fast, he reasoned, a cricketer needed to be well-fed. “There are no fast bowlers in India,” the Indian board official at the camp said.

Now, India have among the most venomous pace attacks in the world, adept at exploiting any scintilla of seam movement. Consider what happened in their last Test match, in Cape Town three weeks ago. South Africa batted first on a wicket with ample grass; they were bowled out for 55 before lunch, then 176 in their second innings. Mohammed Siraj took six for 15 in the first innings, Jasprit Bumrah six for 61 in the second. England will meet both in Hyderabad. Later in the series, once he has recovered from injury, Mohammed Shami should join them: a master of bowling full and generating reverse swing with his upright seam, he averages 22.1 in home Tests.

‌Batsmen dominating at home

Rohit Sharma, of India, in action during the second day of the second test match between South Africa and India in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024
Rohit Sharma is a formidable talent, especially on home soil - AP/Halden Krog

While Test players are generally at their best in familiar conditions, India’s finest players have particularly extraordinary records at home. Both Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli (who will miss the first two Tests) average over 60 in Tests in India. Kohli’s record embodies how the challenge of facing India is magnified away. He averages 33.7 away to England, at times struggling against swing and seam movement. But against England in India, Kohli averages 56.4.

Opposing players underperform here

Naturally, given the challenges that they face, leading overseas players tend to perform significantly worse in India. For England, Ben Stokes averages four less in India than overall, Jonny Bairstow six less and Ollie Pope averaged only 19.1 in 2021, when England subsided on turning wickets in the last three Tests. Joe Root stands out as a rare batsman in world cricket who has maintained his overall average, 50, in India. Steve Smith, who scored three magisterial centuries in India in 2017, averages seven less in India than overall; Kane Williamson’s Test average of 54.4 falls to 33.5 in India.

The variety of conditions

For all the focus upon spin in India, the difficulty of touring the country is so great because of the variety of conditions that awaits: the pace, bounce and heat varies markedly between grounds. Altitude will create a new complication in the fifth Test in Dharamsala, a ground that is often more favourable to seam.

All of this means that visiting sides are prone to misreading conditions. Three years ago, in the day-night Test in Ahmedabad, England were seduced by the notion that the pink ball would assist seam; they picked four pace bowlers, but Joe Root got five for eight with his off-spin and India took 19 wickets with spin in their crushing 10-wicket victory. It was a repeat of England’s mistake in Kolkata in 1993, when they picked only a solitary specialist spinner in their mistaken trust in seam.

While seam can be crucial in India – James Anderson has 34 wickets at 29.32 here, including starring roles in three Test victories – touring teams are more likely to err by picking too much pace rather than too little. Such is the quality of India’s batting against spin that spinners can toil, too. Overseas leg spinners, even Shane Warne, have a poor record in India, where pitches tend to reward bowling a little quicker, as Rehan Ahmed can.

In their quest to balance their sides, touring sides are often lulled into picking utility players: men who can contribute a few overs and perhaps contribute lower-order runs, yet end up doing neither job well. When England lost 4-0 in 2016, Zafar Ansari and Chris Woakes both fit such a description.

One lesson from Australia’s tour this year, when they fought valiantly in a 2-1 defeat, is to trust in quality. Australia picked Todd Murphy, as second off-spinner alongside Nathan Lyon, instead of Ashton Agar, a far better batsman and a left-arm spinner but a less proficient bowler; Murphy took seven for 124 on debut and averaged 25.2 in the series. When Australia won at Indore, their fifth bowler bowled only two overs, and their numbers 8-11 made a combined six runs. But a lack of secondary skills did not matter because the batsmen and bowlers did their jobs.

Without the luxury of Ashwin and Jadeja, no side will have the depth in batting and bowling that they crave in India. Rather than make compromises in selection in search of a utopian balance that does not exist, touring sides would be wiser to embrace specialist skills.

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