India’s tryst with history

The Indian huddle after reaching the summit.-PICS: K.R. DEEPAK

Scaling the summit of Test cricket is a significant moment for India. Test cricket, the most complete and challenging form of the game, is back in the forefront of the nation’s cricketing consciousness, writes S. Dinakar.

The wave of emotions that swept the arena after India’s epochal 2-0 series triumph over Sri Lanka overwhelmed even some of the battle-hardened senior Indian cricketers.

Sachin Tendulkar was hard-pressed to hide his joy. It almost seemed the maestro had been waiting for this moment for a long time. He would comprehend the sacrifices, the suffering his body had undergone, the mental effort that went into his cricket every day.

Rahul Dravid, the architect of several famous Indian triumphs abroad that proved so crucial in the team’s climb up the Test ladder, laughed and rejoiced.

The gentle V. V. S. Laxman, who along with Dravid orchestrated India’s revival in Tests on a magical day at the Eden Gardens in 2001, smiled from ear to ear, his teeth gleaming.

Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan...spearheading the Indian attack.-

Virender Sehwag, who once again raised the bar for attacking batsmanship with his spirit-lifting 293 at the historic Brabourne Stadium, was pleased as punch. And skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, an emerging leader of men, could not quite stop grinning.

There were high-fives and much back-slapping. The bowlers, often the neglected lot, were also in the thick of the celebrations. And the man who took five Sri Lankan wickets in the second innings, Zaheer Khan, was the toast. So was his pace partner, the rejuvenated S. Sreesanth.

Harbhajan Singh, his eyes seldom without a hint of mischief, and Pragyan Ojha joined in the merriment. Yuvraj Singh was gung-ho, while the young M. Vijay was soaking up the atmosphere.

Tendulkar invited the support staff to the arena. The huddle at the summit was a tightly bonded one.

Being No. 1 can be a heady feeling. This was a historic moment for Indian cricket. Test cricket, the most complete and challenging form of the game, was back in the forefront in the nation’s cricketing consciousness.

Sehwag and Tendulkar’s commitment has been exemplary.-

India’s place at the top in Test cricket, though, is tenuous. Considering the side is slated to play only a handful of Tests in 2010, it could be overtaken by the second and third placed teams, South Africa and Australia.

But then, Dhoni was in no mood to allow the moment to fly away. “We want to enjoy the occasion. We do not want to think too far ahead,” he said.

The Indian captain admitted that his team needed to play more Test matches to have a fair chance of maintaining its lead at the top. The Indians will stay No. 1 till the end of the year but the South Africans could regain the top spot if they overcome England 2-0 in the forthcoming Test series at home.

India’s achievement is the result of some committed work put in by the various coaches, the support staff, captains and a team that is now a fine blend of youth and experience. Significantly, India has begun winning away from home and away from the sub-continent. There has definitely been a turnaround in Indian cricket.

The period under Sourav Ganguly’s leadership put India on the path to the acme. Ganguly instilled the side with self-belief and understood the importance of building a worthy pace attack for India to compete hard and win outside the sub-continent.

Ganguly and John Wright had their differences but formed a healthy working relationship based on mutual trust. Indian cricket gathered momentum during this phase.

In a series of dramatic swings in fortunes, India held Australia to a 1-1 draw in 2003-04. The Indian pace attack stung, while champion leg-spinner Anil Kumble picked heaps of wickets.

On pitches where the ball seamed and bounced, Dravid and Laxman conjured masterpieces. Tendulkar came into his own in the final Test at the SCG. Yet, what provided the Indian batting the psychological edge was Ganguly’s promotion of Sehwag to the opening slot.

Sehwag could demoralise attacks upfront, provide India the momentum and make batting easier for the other batsmen as well. He was a heavy-hitter who could badly bruise the new ball bowlers and carry on to make big scores. The run-rate when he was at the crease could rattle the opposition.

India, by now, had the batting might to put up match-winning totals on seaming tracks with bounce or in conditions where the ball swung. The victory over England at Headingley — Dravid batted in a masterly manner under cloud-cover on the first day at Leeds where there was appreciable movement for the seamers — is a case in point.

India batted big in the first innings and then the combination of pace and spin ambushed England. Zaheer Khan, Kumble and Harbhajan all played their roles well. India’s world class spin combination of Kumble and Harbhajan was now backed by a telling pace pack led by Zaheer. India made significant strides in 2004. Defeating Inzamam-ul-Haq’s men 2-1 in Pakistan was a stirring achievement.

Sehwag’s astonishing triple hundred in the first Test in Multan is now a part of Indian cricketing folklore. This innings put India on course for a historic series win.

This was again a series where India struck with both pace and spin. And Dravid built an edifice, a monumental series-clinching double hundred, in the final Test at Rawalpindi.

Greg Chappell, an engaging personality, took over as India’s coach and the team continued to impress away from home. The pace pack was on the ball while Harbhajan and Kumble struck in the final Test of the 2006 series in the Caribbean to hand India a 1-0 win. On a spiteful Jamaica pitch in the decider, Dravid scripted a series-winning innings of great skill and character. Under Dravid’s captaincy — his contribution as skipper is often ignored — India won Test series in the West Indies and England.

Then India won its first Test on South African soil with Sreesanth sending down a probing spell of precise out-swing bowling at the Wanderers in 2006. These were significant steps for Indian cricket.

M.S. Dhoni... leading from the front.-

The Indian pace attack was humming with the likes of Sreesanth, Munaf Patel and R. P. Singh adding depth and quality.

Dravid abdicated his post as captain but Kumble led with dignity and cricketing nous. His leadership on the rather acrimonious tour of Australia in 2007-08 was admirable. By now, India had another young promising paceman in its ranks — the lanky Ishant Sharma.

He was sharp, extracted bounce and had a telling off-cutter. He made a distinct impression during India’s campaign down under. It was a series where India won the third Test at Perth, considered a paceman’s bastion. Ishant & Co. made life difficult for the Australian batsmen. Though India went down 2-1 in the controversial series, teams were now wary of preparing seaming tracks against India.

When India toured New Zealand last season, the pitches were batsman-friendly. India won the series 1-0. By now, another star had emerged. The left-handed Gautam Gambhir was making both match-winning and match-saving centuries, home and away. In a crucial verdict for India, the Australians were beaten 2-0 at home. Zaheer and Ishant probed and consumed front-line Australian batsmen with conventional and reverse swing, and the Aussie bugbear, Harbhajan, was also among the wickets.

Importantly, India’s top seven were putting runs on the board. And India had serious options with the ball. When Ishant went off the boil, Sreesanth was ready to step in.

Dhoni has been a strong captain and his Test record as skipper — 10 matches with seven wins and three draws — is an impressive one. And his chemistry with coach Gary Kirsten is just right.

India’s achievement is significant since only Australia and South Africa had become No. 1 since the ICC Test ratings were introduced in 2001. India has never clinched a Test series in Australia and South Africa, and winning in these two tough cricketing terrains is its next challenge. But first, India should play enough Test cricket.

The top slot brings with it responsibility as well. There can be no let-up in the levels of intensity.

* * * IN PRAISE OF TEAM INDIA

India must be very excited about the achievement which they should be extremely proud of. They have done really well over the last 12-18 months and deserve this position. Test cricket deserves a team like India to reach the top at some point of time and you cannot reach there without performing well.

— Haroon Lorgat, ICC Chief Executive.

This is a reflection of what we have been able to achieve in the last 20 months or so. It is great to be sitting on the top. We have worked hard and Gary has been very instrumental. The other support staff also deserve credit. Along with all this was the leadership of (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni and the team’s effort, so I would say that the whole team got together and worked hard.

— Sachin Tendulkar

This was not achieved through one or two individuals, but it was a long process and everyone has contributed, whoever has been a part of the side for the last 18 months. It has been a hard-earned achievement and it will be tough to maintain that at the same time.

— M. S. Dhoni, India captain.

Getting to number one is hard work. But they would have to work harder to stay there because others would try to knock them off the pedestal. They would have to be a lot more consistent but it’s not beyond them. They have got the skills and talent and it’s application which is not always 100 percent.

— Sunil Gavaskar, former India skipper and opening batsman.

Congratulations to all members of Team India for their superb performance. They have made it possible. It has taken a long time for them. Right now, it’s a proud moment to cherish and not look at the shortcomings.

— Bishan Singh Bedi, former India captain.

It is a wonderful victory. It is gratifying to witness a great effort by the team especially since it’s coming for the first time in history. There is going to be added pressure on the team now. We need to do a lot of home work now (in order) to sustain that position with the knowledge that other countries are also developing faster.

— E. A. S. Prasanna, former India off-spinner. Dhoni and his men have realised the dream of past masters of the game like me. Each of us who has played for the country had dreamt of achieving the feat of being world number one in Test cricket. I congratulate the current bunch of Indian cricketers.

— Ajit Wadekar, former India captain.

They have grabbed the number one spot convincingly. In Kanpur they won it on a flat track. It was Sreesanth who won us the Kanpur Test and it is Zaheer Khan who has brought glory for Team India in the Mumbai Test. India has been pretty good in these last 3-4 years. I am very pleased with the effort they have put in to become the number one Test side in the world. Now, I want them to continue with their good run and maintain the ranking for the next couple of years.

— Javagal Srinath, ICC match referee and former Indian fast bowler.

Congratulations to Dhoni and his boys. Dhoni is as good as his team. The kind of team he has, it’s great. Had this team not been there, he would not have been that successful a captain that he is today.

— Ajay Jadeja, former India batsman.

It is well deserved and reflects the depth of talent of our cricketers.

— Pratibha Patil, India’s President.