From Eden '01 to Eden'05

Though there have been a few aberrations on home soil, for the most part the Indian bastion has been hard to breach, writes S. DINAKAR.

THE Chemplast ground, nestled in the IIT campus in Chennai and with a wonderful red-bricked pavilion, has to be among the prettiest venues in the country. There is space and comfort all around and there is greenery as well.

The year was 2001 and a Ranji Trophy knockout game between Tamil Nadu and Delhi was in progress on the ground. Like always, the shadow of international cricket loomed over this domestic fixture. Steve Waugh's marauding Australians were annihilating India at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata. In Chennai, Tamil Nadu had taken a vice-like grip over Delhi, but just about everyone — the players, the officials, and the journalists — had an ear on the news tricking in from Kolkata on the fourth day of the Test. Astonishingly, no wicket had fallen as V. V. S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid scripted India's epic come-back from the brink and then Harbhajan Singh, living a dream, orchestrated one of the most memorable victories ever in Test history. India went on win the mother of all series after a humdinger in Chennai.

It was at the Chemplast ground that Team India had its conditioning camp ahead of the epochal 2001 series against Australia. It was there that Sourav Ganguly took on Steve Waugh in a war of words, meeting aggressively the great Australian's mind games. The captain was also sending the right message to his men that reputations can mean nothing in international cricket where self-belief is often the driving force behind achievements.

Under Ganguly's leadership and coach John Wright's inputs (not to speak of vice-captain Rahul Dravid's strong presence), India, apart from enjoying one of its finest periods on foreign soil with a Test series triumph in Pakistan and drawn series in Australia and England, has mostly been impressive at home too. This is a side that clearly means business.

There have been aberrations on home soil such as the failure to defeat a dogged and well-planned New Zealand side in 2003 and the reverse at the hands of what must now be surely termed a `legendary' Australian side last year. However, for the most part, the Indian bastion has been hard to breach. Ganguly has had periods when he has failed to inspire confidence with the willow, but he has been a tough-talking captain who follows his instincts on the field — and they are mostly right.

Ganguly loses no time to react when the contest changes stripes. When he took over at the helm in 2000, the match-fixing scandal threatened to tarnish the image of Indian cricket. To Ganguly's credit, he managed to steer the side through a demanding phase, when the credibility of the side was at stake.

The 2001 series, where Waugh's `Final Frontier' dream remained unrealised, has to be the point where the fortunes of the Indian side changed. Team India was now regarded and respected. The side's glittering and unexpected success over the world champion brought in sponsors, raised the level of expectations, and propelled India forward as a cricketing force. The Indians, having come through a difficult situation, had now become a resilient unit. This team could indeed buck the odds.

Bowlers win matches and the fact that India was able to put together a well-balanced attack has been a key ingredient in its triumphs. The leg-spin-off-spin combination of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh provided India the thrust. The two have to be regarded as the foremost spin duo in contemporary cricket.

Both Kumble and Harbhajan are attacking bowlers. When the duo are operating in tandem at home, it is a very different ball game for the opposition — close-in catchers breathe down the batsmen's neck, the deliveries hiss off the pitch, and the crowd roar as the batsman finds himself in a tangle. When Kumble goes for wickets, Harbhajan ensures there is no respite for batsmen from the other end. And when Harbhajan is among the wickets, Kumble keeps things tight.

Far from cutting into one another, they enhance each other. This was the case in the Mohali Test of 2001, where on a pitch with some grass on it, the Kumble-Harbhajan tango closed out all escape routes for England. Last November, during the Kolkata Test against the Proteas, Kumble and Harbhajan were outstanding. When the pitch offered them a measure of assistance, they posed searching questions to the batsmen as the ball turned and jumped.

The two do share a bond. When Kumble was suffering from a major shoulder injury, which kept him out of the gripping series against Australia in 2001, he did visit the pre-series camp in Chennai and had words of advice and guidance for Harbhajan, who was on a comeback. And after the Kolkata Test this March, when Harbhajan's action was reported again, Kumble was firm in his voice of support for his spin partner. There have been times when they have contested for a place in the eleven, especially away from the sub-continent, but that has not come in the way of their mutual affection and respect. For Kumble, Harbhajan is dear `Bhajji', and for Harbhajan, Kumble is the revered `Anil bhai'.

Ganguly has to be given the credit for Harbhajan's successes. He has been supportive of the off-spinner and once again we have to travel back to the timeless India-Australia series of 2001, when Ganguly fought for Harbhajan's inclusion and secured it. The rest is history.

Ganguly, who has not been parochial in his thinking or outlook, has backed the right players and if Harbhajan, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammed Kaif are popular names in Indian cricket, then the `Dada' deserves much credit for the blossoming of these players.

While spin has been the main weapon of the Indian bowling, pace has played a part too in home Tests. Javagal Srinath, before he retired in 2003, sent down a few fiery spells in conditions not favouring him. The zestful Zaheer Khan has also bowled with purpose at home, none more than his telling burst during a defining moment in the India-West Indies Test in Mumbai, 2002. The left-armer got the ball to seam both ways and the Caribbeans were caught napping. More recently, Lakshmipathy Balaji has bowled incisively in the home Tests.

Of course, batting has been a huge area of strength for India, even if Sehwag's opening partners have changed. Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sundar Das served the Indian cause as a pair before they drifted away for varying reasons. Since then, it has been Sehwag all the way with the swashbuckling Delhi batsman setting the ball rolling for India with his rollicking strokeplay.

Dravid has been rock-solid at No. 3, taking the sting off the rival attack, handling pressure situations in a calm, collected manner, and building monuments in the top-order. Besides being technically pure, Dravid also possesses a wealth of strokes, and he can leave an attack demoralised by playing out sessions. In hot conditions, he has overcome dehydration and cramps, and done the job for his team in India. And when Ganguly has been troubled by injuries, Dravid has been a reliable and pro-active captain.

Sachin Tendulkar has been influential in the middle-order. The little man with big deeds can affect the morale of the opposition due to his sheer stature as a legendary batsman. And he has produced some key innings for India. Laxman, who deserves much credit for starting the Indian revival at the Eden Gardens in 2001, is a wristy batsman with the gift of timing, who can, when in mood, coax the ball into the open spaces with strokes of ethereal beauty. On the sub-continental pitches, he can also get away with marginal footwork. While Laxman's 281 at the Eden Gardens will remain the single greatest innings conjured by an Indian in Tests, his match-saving efforts in the Mohali Test of 2003 against a bunch of spirited Kiwis should also be rated high.

Ganguly has had some ordinary days with the bat, but his captaincy, strategically, has been excellent. He is a good motivator of men, and his raw confidence has a positive effect on his men. The `Dada' is the most successful captain for India in Tests and he has made things happen for his team.

Things have not always been rosy though for Ganguly and his men. Relentless and probing bowling by Glenn McGrath and Co. last year seriously dented India's batting might. In that series, apart from Sehwag — who took the fight into the Aussie camp with his daring methods — the other big names stumbled.

Australia was certainly the better team, but one of the reasons for the Indian batsmen not being able to find rhythm could be that they entered the series after a welter of ODI tournaments. Mentally, they were not ready for Test cricket against the best side in the world. This was a series where the Indian bowling fared well when pitted against a formidable line-up, but the batsmen failed.

There has been some criticism that India wins only on tailor-made wickets at home.

This has not always been true and the recent Test against Pakistan in Eden Gardens where the pitch aided spin only on the final day is a case in point. And in the first Test at Mohali, India was within a whisker of pulling off a win on a largely green wicket. While a minefield such as the one at the Wankhede Stadium against the Aussies should not be encouraged, the tactic of preparing a surface that will gradually take spin cannot be faulted.

India's work ethic has taken a turn for the better, and here Wright's contribution has been noticeable. The fielding standards have gone up too, and the roles of Andrew Leipus (Indian physiotherapist before the India-Pakistan series) and former fitness trainer Adrian le Roux and the present one Gregory Allen King have to be acknowledged. This side has also shown a healthy tendency to learn — when the team came under much fire for a sharp drop in the scoring rate in Mohali, a drastic improvement was witnessed in Kolkata.

Though the Wright-Ganguly think-tank will go down in history as the partnership that inspired India to become a consistent force to reckon with on foreign soil, it must not be missed that the team has had some wonderful results at home as well. Team India retaining the rubber against Pakistan in the just concluded series by winning at Eden Gardens is one such result.