Batting to the rescue

While India was without a leader in the pace pack, owing to Zaheer Khan's injury problems, its spin spearhead, Harbhajan Singh, lacked the consistency and bite that once made him a formidable adversary, particularly at home. For most part, the Indian batsmen kept the side afloat. And the ageless Sachin Tendulkar continued to build timeless monuments. Over to S. Dinakar.

Going into the last month of 2010, India was holding on to the No. 1 slot in Tests without quite displaying two essential qualities of a champion side —ruthlessness and killer instinct.

Maestro Sachin Tendulkar ruled, the mercurial Virender Sehwag sizzled and the ethereal V.V.S. Laxman scripted rousing comebacks, but the quality of the Indian bowling came under the scanner.

While India was resilient with the bat, it could hardly dominate like a champion side would since the bowling lacked the cutting edge. Too much seemed to hinge on the pace and craft of Zaheer Khan. The left-arm paceman scalped 41 batsmen in eight Tests at 22.92 (strike rate 41.2), testing the batsmen with his swing, cut and two-way movement. Yet, this was a year when Zaheer grappled with injuries. When the wily left-armer was forced to sit out, the Indian attack suffered.

While India was without a leader in the pace pack, its spin spearhead lacked the consistency and bite that once made him a formidable adversary, particularly at home.

Harbhajan Singh still picked up wickets — he claimed 37 in 11 Tests (including the South African first innings of the Centurion Test) at an ordinary 45.13. The off-spinner took eight wickets including a five-wicket haul as India levelled a two-Test series against South Africa at the Eden Gardens but his bowling from dipped.

In fact, Harbhajan's spin partner Pragyan Ojha was not behind with 33 wickets in nine Tests at 43.60. The left-armer was a mixed bag though. Ojha requires to develop the arm-ball to add an element of surprise to his bowling. He is clearly a work-in-progress.

In the days ahead, India's depth in spin will be probed. Spin legend Anil Kumble is being missed like never before.

In the pace bowling department, Ishant Sharma showed signs of returning to form with a hostile burst against New Zealand at Nagpur. The lanky paceman generated speed, his movement around the off-stump was enhanced by bounce and he delivered a few telling toe-crushers. But then, Ishant was pounded by the South African batsmen at Centurion.

Similarly, Shantakumaran Sreesanth swung the ball away at a lively pace against New Zealand but took a hammering from the mean South African batting machine at Centurion.

Young pacemen such as Jaidev Unadkat and Abhimanyu Mithun are still short on speed for international cricket. Umesh Yadav has velocity but needs to harness this precious commodity and build a set of skills around it.

For most part, the Indian batsmen kept the side afloat. And the ageless Tendulkar continued to build timeless monuments, including a mind-boggling 50th Test century in the first Test against South Africa at Centurion. His passion undiminished, he still backs himself to conjure and conquer. He still has the eye of the tiger.

Tendulkar was light on his feet and heavy with his strokes. The legend scored an awesome 1543 runs at 85.72 (including the Centurion Test) with seven centuries and five fifties. His precise feet movement, timing, range and balance tormented the bowlers. He read situations, adapted and consolidated.

Crucially, the maestro's centuries against South Africa (in Kolkata) and Australia (in Bangalore) were match-winning innings. Tendulkar also crossed a historic 14,000 runs in Tests. Tendulkar keeps raising the bar. His astonishing 200 not out — the highest individual score in ODIs — against South Africa at Gwalior showcased his focus, fitness, desire and commitment.

Tendulkar's strokeplay was streaked with magic and the gaps were found with a surgeon's precision. The ball scorched the turf in all directions and the South Africans chased leather.

The marauding Virender Sehwag too gave the bowlers little respite with his hand-eye coordination, bat-speed and sheer bravado. This entertainer swings matches, lifts morale in the dressing room, dents the opposition psychologically.

In a year of peaks, Sehwag rattled up 1365 runs in 13 Tests at 65.00 with five hundreds and eight half-centuries. His strike-rate was a sensational 90.81; there were occasions when he seemed to toy with the attacks at the highest level.

His natural skills also enabled Sehwag to dazzle in the ODIs;, particularly on the seaming pitches of Dambulla where the rest failed.

Sehwag's feet movements might not please the purists but he has this freakish ability to remain balanced as he strikes the ball — there is no falling over and his head is still. His easy, relaxed stance is often a neglected aspect of his batting.

And Laxman orchestrated remarkable turnarounds with his equanimity in pressure situations, soft hands, deft touch and that rare ability to rally with the tail. Moving into what professional sportsmen call the zone, Laxman's stroke-filled unbeaten 103 defying back spasms nailed a famous chase for India (257) in the third Test against Sri Lanka at the P. Saravanamuttu Stadium. All of Laxman's runs came on a fifth-day surface offering spin.

Laxman continued to soar in the cauldron; he times both his strokes and performances. Under excruciating tension, Laxman's serene 73 not out — once again he inspired the tail — proved the difference in the humdinger at Mohali. Pursuing 216 against a charged-up Australia, India squeezed home by one wicket. Laxman was chaired by his jubilant team-mates at the end of it all.

The self-effacing Laxman's heroics continued. At 15 for five in its second innings against underdog New Zealand, India was staring at defeat in the first Test at Motera, when the Hyderabad batsman constructed a fighting 91. His crucial seventh-wicket association with century-maker Harbhajan saved the Test for India against all odds.

Even as his bowling fortunes dwindled, Harbhajan found impressive form with the bat. In fact, the feisty cricketer became the first No. 8 to come up with hundreds in back-to-back Tests.

Gautam Gambhir regained some form in the last phase of 2010 while Rahul Dravid had a mixed year by his high standards; he still averaged 48.60.

Suresh Raina made an impressive century on debut against Sri Lanka at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground. As the season wore on, he ran into familiar problems against short-pitched bowling. The left-hander tends to get squared up.

Opener Murali Vijay, technically well equipped, made a high-quality century against Australia in the Bangalore Test. The smooth-striking batsman has immense possibilities.

In important series that it figured in, India drew 1-1 with South Africa at home, achieved the same score-line in the away series in Sri Lanka, blanked the visiting Aussies 2-0 and eked out a 1-0 victory over the touring New Zealand.

The batting held firm for most part but there were a few worrying collapses. India was blown away by Dale Steyn in Nagpur. Then Kiwi paceman Chris Martin made deep inroads in the Indian second innings in Ahmedabad. And the Indian first innings capitulation against Steyn and Morne Morkel at Centurion does not befit its No.1 status.

In the ODI arena, India achieved a creditable title triumph in the Asia Cup. Later, the side routed New Zealand 5-0 at home in a rare clean sweep. The spunky Virat Kohli cemented his place with 995 runs from 25 matches at 47.38 with three hundreds. A forceful stroke-maker, Kohli has matured. He now bats according to the needs of the occasion.

However, several young Indian batsmen were found out on the seaming pitches at Dambulla in the triangular series; host Sri Lanka and New Zealand were the other teams. Several of them appear too dependent on conditions.

On the flatter tracks, though, many of these batsmen thrive. Yusuf Pathan's blazing, counter-attacking 123 not out during desperate times sunk the Kiwis in Bangalore.

In the bowling department, off-spinner R. Ashwin was the find of the season for India. He operated with control even as he brought his variations into play in the power play and the end overs. Ashwin varies his trajectory cleverly and has an effective leg-cutter.

In the Twenty20 format, India's World Cup campaign in the Caribbean was disastrous. The emerging Indian batsmen were taught a hard cricketing lesson on the fast and bouncy track at Barbados' Kensington Oval. And skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni's reluctance to play a third paceman in those conditions was inexplicable.

Dhoni had his moments as skipper too; as the strong leader of the Chennai Super Kings that emerged triumphant in both the IPL and the Champions League.

This has also been a year of bitter disputes in the IPL. Kings XI Punjab and Rajasthan Royals were terminated by the BCCI for what it called illegal selling of shares. However, both the Punjab side and the Royals subsequently received favourable verdicts from the High Court.