A journey from mediocrity to superiority
Before the start of the South African Test series, it was touted as the final frontier for the number one Test team in the world. India had never won a series in South Africa. In fact, out of the total 12 Tests they played in that country, India had managed to win only a single match.
However, Team India was determined to do well this time, which would also justify their Numero Uno position in world Test cricket. A team that was earlier branded as ‘tigers at home only’, has some successful outings in the recent past, be it in Australia, England or West Indies. These were the countries from where India had always come back routed and empty handed.
While it was under the captaincy of fearsome competitor Sourav Ganguly that India first earned respect around the world, it was the business-like and cool headed Mahendra Singh Dhoni who helped them establish their supremacy as the top team in the world…a team that could win on any kind of surface, be it grass or heavy clay. It’s not surprising then that India drew the just concluded 3-match series 1-1 on South African soil, which was once considered undoable.
After being thrashed in the first Test at Centurion, India came back strongly in Durban with a thumping win that levelled the series. It was the same Durban where India were shamefully scuttled out for 100 and 66 in the two innings of 1996-97 tour. In the third Test at Cape Town, it was Team India that dominated most of the sessions with South Africa always looking to save the match.
So, what exactly is it that the Indian cricket team has accomplished over the years to become such a wonderful unit? What are the differences between the contemporary teams and the teams of 90s?
Zeecric.com’s Biswajit Jha, has tried to find out the reasons behind this huge turnaround in Indian cricket.
No more homesick
Former captain Azharuddin and coach Ajit Wadekar stitched a partnership in 1990s that was immensely successful on home soil. Their three spinners, one pacer formula made India one of the most dangerous teams in their backyard. Cricket teams from England, Australia, West Indies and South Africa toured India at different times only to be humiliated. The story was similar: Indian spinners on crumbling pitches would run through every batting line-up while the batsmen would make hay on slow and low pitches. But once the Indians left the country’s shores, they would be a completely different team, surrendering meekly in front of the pace batteries. Let alone Australia, England and West Indies, Indians could not even win a Test series in Zimbabwe.
All started to change, however, under Sourav Ganguly, who took over the captaincy in early 2000 after the ugly match-fixing scandal hit cricket, with some leading Indian cricketers named in it. The Indian team started believing in itself. The 2003-04 Australian tour was a case in point where they won a Test at Adelaide after a long time. India then went on to win Test series in Pakistan, West Indies and England, a feat which was unthinkable a few years ago. They again came pretty close to winning a series against Australia, which was marked by controversy, in 2008. Their victory on a lively Perth pitch proved that they were no longer helpless against pace and bounce of the cherry. Next up, they conquered New Zealand in 2009 after 41 long years.
Leading from the Front
The success mantra that Azhar came up with on home soil became India’s downfall outside India during that period. Preparing crumbling pitches at home ensured Indian victory, but it also hampered India in producing good quality batsmen who could cope with pace and bounce. It also could not produce good quality spinners as they used to thrive on helpful conditions. Once the pitch stopped helping them, they became insipid. Azhar actually resorted to the safest route during his captaincy and was only concerned about saving his own job.
Despite winning most of the matches in India, they were not considered a good team for their poor record outside the country. Ganguly initiated the change. He first made the players believe that if they were good in India, they could be good in foreign lands too.
Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag played their natural games irrespective of the nature of the wickets. The spinners, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, started to get success on turfs which provided little help to their art. It was a transformation that was more of psychological nature rather than technical.
Ganguly’s vision of doing well outside India was carried forward by the subsequent captains Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble. Now, M S Dhoni has continued the tradition of brave and bold leaderships that saw India overcome many a hurdle.
It was under New Zealander John Wright that India started touring well. He gave the Indian team much needed self-reliance to win outside the country. His superb cricketing knowledge and modern approach to coaching helped India form a good unit. Though Greg Chappell era was the most tumultuous one in recent times, it was under him that India won series in Pakistan, West Indies and England. After his unceremonious exit, South African Gary Kirsten helped this squad reach the No. 1 spot in the world and become a consistent performer.
No Regionalism please
Gone are the days when Venkatpathy Raju used to cling to the Indian squad because he and captain Md Azharuddin happened to hail from the same state. There was a time when regionalism and favouritism were synonyms of Indian cricket. Several talented players fell out of favour despite performing well in the domestic circuit. There were many rookies who were shown the door after just one poor day in office.
But, Ganguly changed the way Indian cricket used to deal with its younger talents. He identified talented players and decided to give them enough opportunities so that they can get the chance to showcase their talent.
In identifying talents, Ganguly never ever considered the state a particular player belonged to. It was no surprise that Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh and Virender Sehwag, who all faded into oblivion after some initial matches at international cricket, came back and flourished under his astute captaincy. The subsequent Indian captains also followed his footsteps in backing the players who they thought had talent. So, when Dhoni backs Ravindra Jadeja, it’s for pure cricketing reasons. This departure from regionalism helped India get so many talented hands which later formed the backbone of Team India.
The success of the recent team can be attributed to the bench strength Team India has these days. This bench strength has ensured that even if India are playing without their top stars, they are not pushovers anymore. India have overcome the over-dependency on Sachin Tendulkar due to this fact.
Murali Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Dinesh Karthik, Rohit Sharma, Parthiv Patel, Munaf Patel, Amit Mishra and RP Singh are fantastic players, but they are not the regular members of the team. If you have such players cooling their heels on the benches and pushing for their place in the Indian team, your regular team members are bound to perform well.
Batting them out
Though India had always been known for their good, artistic batsmen, never before did they have such classy and talented batsmen. Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman could make their way in any current team of the world. Their records at home and away, on pace friendly pitches and on spin pitches are envious. They form a very stable batting combination which won India many matches around the world.
Apart from Kapil Dev and later on Javagal Srinath, India has never produced good quality pacers. But despite their presence, the team suffered a lot on foreign land as they didn’t have good pacemen who could support them from the other end. And without a good pace attack, one can’t win on bouncy pitches of Australia, South Africa and West Indies.
But the emergence of so many pacers at the beginning of this century turned the table for India. Suddenly, India have more quality pacers than spinners. Zaheer Khan was the first into the scene followed by Ashish Nehra, Irfan Pathan, Munaf Patel, R P Singh, S Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma.
Though some of them faded away suddenly, their performances on different tours helped India perform well. Jaydev Unadkat, Umesh Yadav, Abhimanyu Mithun and Sudeep Tyagi are the new generation pacers who are waiting to take responsibility from the old pros.
Pitches go slow
One section of cricket pundits give credit for India’s success to the overseas pitches which have turned slow over the years. Everyone knows how the pitches of Caribbean in 70s and 80s used to behave. They were the deathbeds of every batsman. The irony is that the fast pitches along with genuine fast bowlers have become an extinct species.