A successful tour indeed

G. VISWANATH

INDIA'S tour of England in 2002 was for many reasons quite different from its previous visits, as different as chalk and cheese. According to Rahul Dravid, it was probably his best tour abroad in six years. India's many-faceted cricketers, ranging from the world class performers such as Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid and Sourav Ganguly to the virtually little-known ones such as Virender Sehwag, Yuveraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif captured the imagination of the Englishmen. They also reflected the varied hues of the game that's become the very soul of a multitude of passionate Indians.

India's cricketers covered themselves with glory in the English summer. The batsmen performed brilliantly, Dravid in particular, and the bowlers bowled with energy and enthusiasm. India's young lions led the way to a remarkable win in the NatWest Trophy Triseries final at Lord's and the veterans returned to roaring form after a big defeat in the first Test. This was followed by spin and sleight of hand playing a familiar and vital role when taking the team across the finishing line at Headingley.

The Indian team turned out to be a formidable opponent for an England squad relishing its victory against Sri Lanka in the earlier Test series. India's captain Sourav Ganguly backed his reasoning and a host of youngsters and led the team wonderfully. He made mistakes, but a captain is bound to make a few in the course of a long tour in foreign conditions. But these were errors of judgment, matters relating to picking a bowling combination. He did not pass the blame on to the others; he owned up for picking a seam-based attack and for dropping off spinner Harbhajan Singh for the first Test at Lord's.

It was a tour when almost each and every man chosen for a specific work performed his role well and built or enhanced a reputation. The players realised that there was an opportunity for only a dozen or so of their ilk to make an impact. The likes of Sehwag, Yuveraj and Kaif literally seized the chances that came their way and vindicated the faith of the national selectors. They threw themselves right into the vortex of a contest and faced the challenge.

A classic example was Yuveraj batting with a cracked finger and facing England's pace fury in the NatWest final at Lord's after the seniors had thrown in the towel and all seemed lost for India. Yuveraj and subsequently Kaif fashioned a memorable triumph for India that left a packed house at Lord's stunned and the England team shocked.

The tempo had transcended expectations in the triseries. India found new heroes in Yuveraj and Kaif, who made 69 and 87 not out respectively, and made Lord's rise to applaud their feats. There were other good performances leading up to the final from seasoned campaigners such as Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid. In fact Dravid's wicket-keeping, too, came in for commendation.

Left arm paceman Zaheer Khan was the leader of the pack in the bowling department. He bowled fast and judiciously mixed the yorkers and the slower ones to top the aggregate with 14 wickets.

The first half of the 85-day tour - the one-day series - proved to be successful for the Indians. They displayed their skills sufficiently enough to indicate that they could be more than a match for Nasser Hussain's team in the Test matches. The third team, Sri Lanka, was beaten hollow.

The Indians faced the litmus test in the contests spread over five days. They had begun the tour well, losing only once to England in a shortened game of the triseries. Ganguly's men had to make the switch from their freescoring ways to the typical, gritty demands of the traditional game. India had time to make adjustments in the form of the two side games against the West Indies 'A' and Hampshire. The stars took a break from the three-day match at Arundel, but returned to spend some time in the middle against the second division team Hampshire.

These two matches were meant to serve as a preparation for the Indian team for the Lord's Test. But the preparation was not satisfactory as the pitch at Hampshire's new venue at Rose Bowl turned out to be dubious. India, fortunately, won the match with all the players' limbs intact and set its sights on Lord's, where England had to play out of its skin to save the Test against Sri Lanka earlier in the season. Hussain's team proceeded to crush Sri Lanka in the next two Tests at Edgbaston and Old Trafford. But it believed, and rightly so, that India would be a tougher proposition than Sri Lanka.

The conditions were just about favourable for India to look upon the first Test with a positive frame of mind. It was sunny and bright with the pitch generally on the slower side. But as it transpired, India went down by 170 runs with Ajit Agarkar winning the consolation points for making his maiden Test century. India was not able to turn the heat on Hussain and his team. Hussain's tactics - asking Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff to bowl round the wicket - worked well against the Indian batsmen, mainly Tendulkar, who, though, was dismissed in the Test by Craig White and Matthew Hoggard.

England, even without Marcus Trescothick, Darren Gough and Andrew Caddick, dominated the first Test, but more importantly appeared to have gained the psychological edge over the Indian batsmen. Ganguly's team was down in the dumps for the first four days of the second Test before its batting giants ran into form and baulked England. India went one better at Headingley restoring parity, that too in conditions most suitable for the home team's seam bowlers - Hoggard, Caddick, Flintoff and Alex Tudor.

Once India's chief batsmen got over their nightmares in the second innings of the Nottingham Test - in the first innings of which Sehwag made a fine 106 - the England bowlers could not contain them. Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly together made 257 runs in the first three innings of the series at Lord's and Nottingham, but in the next three innings, from the second innings of the Nottingham Test to the first innings of the Oval Test, the trio's contribution was 1097 runs; Dravid's run of scores being 115, 148 and 217, Tendulkar's 92, 193 and 54 and Ganguly's 99, 128 and 51.

It was after saving the second Test by the skin of their teeth that the Indians believed that they could cause a turnaround in the series which they did in style at Headingley. Tendulkar described it as a "near perfect Test match" and Dravid as "close to an ideal Test match". Anil Kumble, who had only eight wickets from his previous two visits to England, bowled with a missionary zeal after recovering from a calf muscle strain and took seven wickets, including the crucial ones of Hussain and Alec Stewart in the second innings. These two strikes hastened India to a victory by an innings and 46 runs, India's best ever margin in 18 Test wins abroad.

It was teamwork that enabled India to level the series with Sanjay Bangar rising to the occasion when asked to open the innings at Headingley, but without Dravid's extraordinary feat of consuming time - he batted for 31 hours in the series - and amassing runs - making 602 runs in six innings - Ganguly's team might have struggled to ward off the dangers posed by the England seamers, Hoggard, Caddick and Flintoff. There were sparks of brilliance from Tendulkar, who moved one number ahead of the late Sir Don Bradman's 29 centuries and became the youngest to play 100 Tests and also the touch of class from Ganguly. But both of them will place and value Dravid's cool and composed outlook and expertise over their achievements.

The bowling department was well served by Zaheer and the two spinners, Kumble and Harbhajan. Zaheer who became India's spearhead after Javagal Srinath announced his retirement after the West Indies tour, was preserved for the Test series. He is the one who has benefited most from physical trainer Adrian Le Roux. Agarkar bowled well in patches, but Ashish Nehra, who was impressive in the NatWest series, was not up to the mark in the two Tests in which he shared the new ball with Zaheer.

A major decision was made before the start of the Lord's Test: that Sehwag had to be accommodated in the side. So the Indian team had a new pair of openers first in Sehwag and Wasim Jaffer and then in Sehwag and Bangar. Jaffer did not have the luck and Shiv Sundar Das did not play a Test. Indian cricket will have to continue with the balancing act and as Ganguly put it at the last press conference: "Our bowlers must capture five wickets in an innings consistently to win more Test matches."