And so we go again. For the third time in the last seven years, the Indian team find themselves in the final of an ICC competition. And like each of the previous two occasions, they have reached the summit having absolutely dominated in lead-up, looking indomitable at times.
But will the domination mean much if they ultimately stammer before crossing the finish line and collapse with victory in sight?
It shouldn’t, and it might not. But if we’re to go by the stances taken in the past by skipper Virat Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri, it will. Since Kohli has taken over as skipper, India have squandered two golden opportunities to add to their ICC Title tally - Champions Trophy 2017 and World Cup 2019. And post both defeats, the skipper, though bitterly disappointed, stressed how a few minutes of bad cricket will not necessarily erase the fact that India were arguably still the best side in the world.
His ‘45 minutes of bad cricket’ statement, which he said after the Kiwis embarrassed them in Old Trafford, has in fact since become a running joke.
"Always feels disappointed when you play such good cricket and then 45 minutes of bad cricket puts you out of the tournament. It is difficult to accept and difficult to come to terms with,” Kohli had said post-India's defeat in the semi-finals in 2019, hinting that, barring 45 forgettable minutes, India dominated the competition.
We really do not know if his point of view has been influenced by India’s constant failure to win ICC trophies over the past decade, but the Indian skipper has seldom looked at the failure to win tournaments as an actual failure. Kohli’s reasoning has always been that it is not fair to judge a team by the number of trophies they win, and he is someone who instead takes pride in progress and domination over sustained periods, even if the two ultimately do not culminate in the team winning trophies.
Progress is important, and so is sustained success. And to Kohli’s credit, the Indian side has grown by leaps and bounds - across formats - under his leadership over the past half a decade, to the extent that they are considered favourites against every team they play in pretty much every format. But it is worth questioning at what point the narrative of trophies not being a measure of the team’s quality becomes mental gymnastics to mask and justify the team’s failure to excel in high-pressure moments; a mere masquerade.
In each of the last two ICC competitions that India bottled, they had not just been the best team in the competition in the lead-up to the match which they lost, but were also, at that particular point in time, the best team in the world. Yet despite blowing teams away in the round-robin stages, they ultimately dropped the ball when it really mattered, surrendering inexplicably, giving away the impression that they were a side that simply was hopeless under pressure.
In particular, the defeat in the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup against the Kiwis was damning as since post the defeat at the hands of Pakistan in the final of CT 2017, the team had made significant progress. Yet, ultimately, they had nothing to show for. In contrast, England, who’d subsequently endured failure themselves in the 2017 CT, where they crashed out in the semi-finals, went all the way in 2019 to prove to the world that they were indeed a champion side.
Kohli and his men will enter the World Test Championship final under not too dissimilar circumstances. They are the number two ranked team in the world, have most of their players playing as well as they ever have and have dominated the group stages. They have, remarkably, collected 100 more points than any other team and have lost a solitary series, pretty much steamrolling through the rest of the field across two years.
Yet will any of these achievements be of any significance should they ultimately lose the final? France dominated the entirety of Euro 2016, but ultimately their campaign was considered a failure despite them being minutes away from lifting the trophy. It was only after they made amends by subsequently winning the World Cup in 2018, that their progress was acknowledged.
Perhaps India could have been content with conquering Down Under and losing a solitary series in two years had there not been a one-off shootout to crown the best Test team in the world. But with the ICC now having introduced the World Test Championship format, anything other than victory should essentially be considered a failure on the Kohli-led side’s part. Dominance comes in many forms, but repeated failure to win silverware is not one.
And so, here we go again.