While the Test specialists of this Indian side have said the World Test Championship (WTC) is like a World Cup to them, the team's captain and coach have been disdainful of it, especially the change in the points system and cancellation of some series, both forced by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The root of the gripe is that the change in qualification criteria - based now on percentage of points contested as opposed to absolute points won - and a further postponement of Australia's tour of South Africa made India's road to the final tougher. This new system now assumes that New Zealand would have won 70% of the points on the tour of Bangladesh too, and Australia's tours of Bangladesh and South Africa are worth 69.2% of the total points up for grabs.
Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri are fierce competitors so it is understandable they were not happy with what Shastri described as the "shifting goal posts", but it is arguable these changes made their qualification difficult. New Zealand could well have beaten Bangladesh by the same 2-0 margin that a severely-depleted West Indies side attained recently, and gone past India. For Australia, the tours of Bangladesh and South Africa stood cancelled. It is not unimaginable for Australia to beat the current South Africa side comprehensively anywhere or beating Bangladesh in Bangladesh and thus go past India.
The Indian team leadership's gripe with "shifting goalposts" and the WTC being relevant only to those teams who are not motivated to play Test cricket betrays a lack of understanding of the bigger picture or even an awareness of the privilege of having the means to be able to prioritise Test cricket the way India do.
And yet, even if India had missed out on the final with New Zealand and Australia doing well in the tours that now stand cancelled, it can be said with fair certainty India would still have been the best Test team of this WTC cycle. They have been the best Test team in the world for quite a while longer than that.
If India had failed to make the final, it would have had to do with the schedule they got. At a time when - barring recent exceptions - home Test wins have almost been a given, India's WTC cycle featured relatively easier home series and two really tough away tours, of New Zealand and Australia. Within five days of play in New Zealand, India lost out on 120 possible points, which hurt their campaign. They compensated for it with their stupendous series win in Australia.
That is perhaps why India express their dissatisfaction: they know they have been the best team in the world, they have beaten Australia in Australia in successive series, and yet their participation in the WTC final came down to a last series during which the world turned on them for the pitches they rolled out. India's digs at the WTC might be questionable, but their Test supremacy isn't.
Since the start of the home Test series against South Africa in 2015-16, India hold a win-loss ratio of 3.2 in Tests; no other side comes remotely close. At home they have been near unbeatable, losing just two Tests out of 25 in the same period, but you could still question them and argue that it was just a finetuning of what sides before them used to do. But factor this: in close to six years, India have been blanked in only one away tour, a win-loss ratio of 1.3, which is superior to every team.
The single-biggest contributing factor to India's ascent has been the emergence of Jasprit Bumrah, the resurrection of Ishant Sharma and the refining of Mohammed Shami. Over the last few months we have seen the scary bench strength. At home, Umesh Yadav makes it a choice of two fast bowlers out of five. In conditions that aid seam bowling, Mohammed Siraj is as good a fourth bowler as you can get in the world today. What is taken for granted is two spinners in R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja who have legit claims to spots in an all-time India XI. Then they have Axar Patel, who made sure a player of the quality of Jadeja was not missed at home.
Because India have this bowling strength, they have been competitive in all conditions except in New Zealand, where swing works more than seam and where you often lose a series by the time you have acclimatised to the conditions. India's five toughest tours in this period have been the ones to New Zealand, South Africa and England, and two to Australia. Except for the New Zealand tour, India's bowlers have competed on each tour.
Look at the control numbers. India have been close enough to the hosts in terms of uncertainty created in batsmen's response in each of these tours barring South Africa. If you are that close, you allow luck to help you. By comparison, India drew 17.9% false shots when they played at home against South Africa, who could draw only 12.6%. When New Zealand got thrashed in Australia, they drew only 12.1% false responses as against Australia's 19%.
In England in 2018, India drew more false responses from the England batsmen, which is probably why pundits felt the 4-1 win flattered England. It was said if a few things had gone India's way here and there, they might even have won the series. That is exactly what happened in Australia in 2020-21 where Australia actually created more pressure with the ball but India were close enough to them to make that accompanying luck translate into a series win. This is the best you can hope for in an era when utter dominance - the kind West Indies and Australia enjoyed in their legendary runs - is near-impossible to attain.
No other side in recent times comes this close to competing so well on their bogey tours. New Zealand, the other finalists, got completely blanked in Australia and in India. Australia, who can consider themselves unfortunate to not be in the final, have had horror tours of Sri Lanka and South Africa.
All this while, at home, India have let an opposition come close to their numbers only once - Australia in 2016-17 - a dominance that can be put down to more than one exceptional spin bowler, a luxury no other team can replicate even if they can become India's equals or even better at times with pace bowling. Barring a couple of series, India have been competitive in every series for close to six years, but at home, in Sri Lanka and in the West Indies, they have been routing the opposition as a matter of routine. Australia and New Zealand, however, have both had reverses at home: New Zealand against Australia and South Africa, and Australia against India and South Africa. It shows in how well India have done in their most-recent series against all opposition.
Barring the post-pandemic course correction, this has also been an era of toss playing a big role in deciding the outcome of the matches. That's because quite a few sides are evenly matched in most conditions in the world. India and New Zealand have been excessively dominant at home so the toss has mattered a little less, but in most other matches the toss has played a crucial part. In these times, India have lost only one match - home or away - after winning the toss. It's a win-loss ratio of 22 after winning the toss; next-best is New Zealand's 3.5. Perhaps more impressive is India's win-loss ratio of 1.5 after losing the toss; only other side in credit there is England.
Despite such clear dominance, with some luck - say, Jofra Archer being fit for the second Ahmedabad Test and playing instead of Dom Bess - England would have made it extremely difficult for India to be in the final. That wouldn't have changed a thing about who the best Test side in the world at the moment is. It is India because they have the bowling attack to be dominant in half the world and competitive in the other half.
Identifying the best Test team in the world is not really the purpose of the WTC. The WTC strives to provide some context and relevance to sides who are not fortunate enough to play as much Test cricket as the Big Three do. It is the ICC's attempt to prevent Test cricket from becoming this elite three-team affair. It makes New Zealand a part of the conversation even though most of their series are two-match long and they play half as many Tests as England do. That will inspire Sri Lanka and Pakistan and West Indies.
The final will still be a mouth-watering contest. You would back India against New Zealand in most conditions outside New Zealand and the first half of the English summer. It is when the ball swings in the air that New Zealand hold an edge. A midsummer final in England might give New Zealand that opportunity to make it anybody's Test, but even if India lose, it will not change a thing about who the best Test team in the world is. Not as long as Siraj is only the fourth-best quick and Patel the third-best spinner in the Indian squad.