Pushed by Sania, Maria and Wayne

IN the one and a half years that had passed since the double in Pakistan in the spring of 2004, Indian cricket had progressively plummeted to new lows. Team India had nothing to show other than a Test series win at home against South Africa last year, that too a narrow one against a team which was then in the process of rebuilding.

All sorts of viruses — bitter rivalries between the two factions of the Board, a never-ending dispute about television rights that is well into its second year in courts, and the public spat between the coach and captain — infected Indian cricket during the aforementioned period, which also saw major inflections from other sporting disciplines such as Sania Mirza's achievements on the WTA Tour and in Grand Slams, Narain Karthikeyan's entry in the Formula One circuit and the success of the Premier Hockey League in Hyderabad. Added to this was a BBC News South Asia Report last year, which said that most children of the upper middle class and middle class brackets of Mumbai and Delhi nursed ambitions of wearing a different blue — the Chelsea one — and the Manchester United red. Kolkata, not surprisingly, was the third metro in the list.

The hegemonic nature of cricket in the public and commercial spheres was being challenged as never before, including the time when hockey held sway as the country's most successful sport but was a distinct second to non-achieving cricket in terms of patronage and public attention. That India's most recognised public figure, Sachin Tendulkar, was away from the spotlight for huge chunks of the period due to his injury also did not help the country's most popular sport.

The maestro is, of course, back now with a wonderful innings in the Nagpur one-dayer against the visiting Sri Lankans that evoked memories of the Tendulkar of the 1990s and the 2003 World Cup. And more importantly, the team under new captain Rahul Dravid and relatively new coach Greg Chappell has combined well with a positive attitude.

Exciting youngsters Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni have come up with brilliance, which has re-ignited public interest in cricket. Dravid has made an early impression with his attacking fields in the first four one-dayers — the captain deployed three slips and a 7-2 off-side field at times which are a revelation in a one-day match on the Subcontinent. The young duo of Venugopala Rao and Suresh Raina showed much promise during the run chase at Pune.

However, it is too early to assume that it is again a bed of roses for Indian cricket. That the win came against the second best one-day team in the world according to the ICC rankings is being shouted out from rooftops as proof that the national team has turned the corner. But, Sri Lanka has been worse than India over the last two or three years as a tourist. The Sri Lankan team, which has been affected by the poor form and injury of Sanath Jayasuriya, does not have as good a record overseas as its predecessors led by Arjuna Ranatunga in the late 1990s.

Though it is encouraging that India were able to dominate despite the absence of one of its best fielders and in-form batsman, Mohammed Kaif, and without major batting contributions from Yuvraj Singh and Virender Sehwag, it must be said that this win has to be seen just as the beginning of the process of rebuilding intended to win the 2007 World Cup.

Even if the team extends its run of success against Sri Lanka to the next bilateral ODI home series against a resurgent South Africa, it does not mean much. The major challenges ahead for the team are the assignments abroad, which begins with the tour of Pakistan next year. Though the home Test and ODI series against the Ashes winning England side will also be a good test of the Indian team's preparedness for the 2007 World Cup, there is a world of difference between being an invincible team at home and a fighting unit overseas. Mohammed Azharuddin's side of the 1990s is testimony to this gap, which was reversed for a brief while in the early years of the decade under Sourav Ganguly and John Wright.

The duo took over at a time when Indian cricket was going through a crisis bigger than the current one. However, even during those lows of match-fixing, Indian cricket had no immediate competition in sight from other sports. Chappell and Dravid will soon realise that in their own rebuilding project, they will be pushed not just by the likes of Australia, England, Pakistan and South Africa but at one remove by the new young stars from other sports led by Sania Mirza, Maria Sharapova and Wayne Rooney.

Nothing less than a World Cup win will satisfy a new young generation in India that now defines sporting excellence along global rather than national lines.