Losing out towards the end

Sachin Tendulkar played some crucial knocks, helping India post a series victory in New Zealand, while suffering a heartbreak after scoring a brilliant 175 against the Aussies in Hyderabad.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

It was a sobering closure to a year in which consistency proved elusive as the young turks failed to cement their spots while World Cup 2011 was becoming ominously clearer on the horizon, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

It was a year in which strangely M. S. Dhoni’s men in coloured clothes lost a touch of their lustre. As 2009 draws to a close, all that remains is a string of top-notch triumphs against New Zealand and Sri Lanka that have been undone by a bare cupboard when it comes to handling tough teams like Australia or tougher situations like the ICC World Twenty20 in England or the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa.

As starts go, January 2009 proved to be a smooth take-off as the ‘Men in Blue’ defeated Sri Lanka 4-1 in the ODI series that commenced at Dambulla. India twice scored 300 plus totals as the batting muscle bulged with the likes of Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Gautam Gambhir scoring a ton each. Backed by massive totals, the Indian bowlers found their breakthroughs as the men from the Emerald Isles panicked in the chase. However, the dead-series curse did afflict the Indians as they lost the fifth and final ODI after leading the series 4-0.

India then whittled down distances as Dhoni’s men flew to New Zealand in March. A venue that often sprung nasty surprises in the past, thankfully provided glad tidings as the Indians won the series 3-1.

Tendulkar was forced to pause at 163 due to injury in the third match of a series in which the Indian batsmen dominated with Sehwag lashing an unbeaten 125 along with other efforts that bruised the Kiwi bowlers. However, India again lost a dead-rubber match as the final clash swayed New Zealand’s way with Jesse Ryder getting the runs.

The DLF Indian Premier League interlude in South Africa strangely nipped the Indian team’s momentum and worse was the shoulder injury suffered by Virender Sehwag while playing for Delhi Daredevils. Sehwag pulled out of the Indian squad just ahead of the ICC World Twenty20 Cup in England during June and the defending champion had lost its force-multiplier.

It was also a tournament in which an old failing revived its dark shadow as rival fast bowlers tested rib-cages and the Indian batsmen, especially youngsters like Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma, failed to cope. A paradigm was set for the opposition ranks to exploit and though the opening rounds proved easy against Bangladesh and Ireland, subsequent losses against West Indies, England and South Africa meant that India failed to defend its title and the tournament’s marketing whizkids were left wondering at television ratings that dipped and a shrinking ad-pie.

However, there was no time to mope as the Indians buzzed towards the Caribbean Islands and the team’s up-down performance graph surged high again as the series was pocketed 2-1, the highlights being Yuvraj Singh’s 131 and also Ashish Nehra’s much-delayed return to the Indian squad as an injured Zaheer Khan stayed home. The triumph against the West Indies was the fifth successive ODI series victory for Dhoni and company.

Ashish Nehra... a welcome return to the Indian team.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

It was time to savour the fact that the Indians had begun to travel well but amidst the euphoria there was also the sobering reminder about the fragility within the ranks. As 2009 entered the half-way stage it was evident that India still thrived on its core batting group of Dhoni, Sehwag, Tendulkar, Gambhir and Yuvraj to post the runs, while the bowling surged and slumped in tandem with the fortunes of Zaheer Khan, who was battling injury; Ishant Sharma, who was searching for his rhythm; and Harbhajan Singh, who was yet to impose himself on batting-friendly pitches.

That the selectors’ faith in the younger batsmen was on a downward spiral was obvious when an SOS was sent to Rahul Dravid and as the former India captain wedged his way back into the team in a bid to paper over cracks in the batting edifice, there was a debate between two schools of thought — ‘a step back in time’ vs ‘recognising proven mettle.’

Dhoni’s men then won the Compaq Cup in Colombo that went along the predictable lines of ‘win-toss-bat-big’. Once the Indian skipper called right in the final and Tendulkar backed the decision with a 138 and Harbhajan found his roar with a five for-, the summit clash was just a one-way street.

Rohit Sharma... falling away after promising much.-AP

Dravid too was back in the scheme of things and all eyes were on the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa. Sadly, like the stock markets that swayed dizzily, the Indian team too struggled for a toe-hold in the land of the Proteas. The tournament’s format was such that India’s opening loss to Pakistan proved fatal and once rain truncated the match against eventual champion Australia, all Dhoni could do was gain a belated face-saving victory against the West Indies.

The stage was then cleared for India’s home series against the visiting Australians. A seven-match Hero Honda Cup series, billed as a clash between the number one and the challenger, did get off to a cracker of a start in Baroda as Harbhajan and Praveen Kumar wielded their bats with abandon, but Ricky Ponting’s men pulled away and though India did wrest the next two games — in Nagpur, riding on Dhoni’s 124 and in Delhi, braving a dodgy pitch — the ambush in Chandigarh restored parity at 2-2.

The teams then headed to Hyderabad where Tendulkar’s achingly beautiful 175 embraced pathos and India lost its way in Guwahati as Australia won the series 4-2. Rain washed away the final match in Mumbai. It proved to be a series in which a virtual Australian ‘A’ side, as eight of its regulars were missing due to injury, pulled the rug from underneath a smug team and with that Dhoni’s men failed to grab the opportunity of becoming the top-ranked ODI team in the world.

It was a sobering closure to a year in which consistency proved elusive as the young turks failed to cement their spots while World Cup 2011 was becoming ominously clearer on the horizon.

* * * Coming a cropper in the big events

India largely travelled well despite the slump in multi-team events like the ICC World Twenty20 and the Champions Trophy. The winning habit did linger as India managed to defeat Sri Lanka repeatedly and the West Indies while on tour. M. S. Dhoni’s men did show the hunger to battle hard overseas though they inexplicably failed to hit the high notes in England and in South Africa.

The batting phalanx of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Dhoni and Yuvraj continued to be an armada that brooked no opposition, running up nine centuries in all. However, Suresh Raina’s inability to build on his fine starts, Rohit Sharma’s fall from his own high standards and Virat Kohli’s tentativeness are blind-spots that have to be sorted out soon.

Rahul Dravid, India’s insurance against batting collapses, was recalled for the Compaq Cup and the ICC Champions Trophy but was discarded for the home series against the Australians. Dravid had played his part of being the batting adhesive in South Africa but the treatment meted out to him proved to be a sore thumb despite selection committee chairman K. Srikkanth having a quiet word with Dravid, explaining the rationale behind his recall and subsequent return to wilderness.

A bevy of fast bowlers played musical chairs as form and fitness played truant. Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Praveen Kumar, Ishant Sharma, R. P. Singh, Munaf Patel, L. Balaji and Irfan Pathan were part of a fast-changing cast and the unceremonious ouster of bowling coach Venkatesh Prasad and fielding coach Robin Singh, added to the rumbles of discontent.

The search for an allrounder who can partially step into Kapil Dev’s still waiting shoes since 1994 continues. During the course of the year, the Pathan brothers — Irfan and Yusuf — failed to stabilise, Abhishek Nayar and Ravindra Jadeja still have a long way to go, while Harbhajan Singh and Praveen Kumar, either bowled reasonably well or batted well but they never got the two facets right on the same day.

In the absence of allrounders, Dhoni has become the floater in the batting order, at times offering band-aid to an injured score-card and at times gifting bravado and bluster to the slog and the chase. Sehwag and Yuvraj have also peddled their part-time spin to lend more options, but the need for a genuine allrounder has become a strident demand.