Pushed down from the pedestal

India's next all-rounder? Ashwin acknowledges the cheers of the crowd after his maiden century in the third and final Test against West Indies at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. Ashwin excelled with the ball as well, taking 22 wickets in the series.-K.R. DEEPAK India's next all-rounder? Ashwin acknowledges the cheers of the crowd after his maiden century in the third and final Test against West Indies at the Wankhede Stadium, Mumbai. Ashwin excelled with the ball as well, taking 22 wickets in the series.

The year 2011 wasn't a comforting one for the fans of Test cricket: not only did India lose miserably to England, it also lost its top spot in the world rankings. Over to S. Ram Mahesh.

India's administrators have justly been criticised in the past for giving Test cricket short shrift, for choosing instead the financial lures of one-day cricket. But with the team's ascension to the No.1 ranking — and the ambitions of India's senior players of staying there — a strange thing began to happen. Tests were fit in (even if they only constituted an unfulfilling two-match series), sometimes at the cost of one-dayers.

Perhaps nowhere was this shift in priority more visible than in the fixture-table of 2011, a World Cup year. Before the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, India had played 11 Test matches in the calendar year — more than any other country. This is in addition to 14 Tests in 2010 and 15 in 2008. Some of it has to do with how the Future Tours Programme (FTP) is structured. But had India not committed itself to the five-day format over the last three years this wouldn't have come to pass.

Unfortunately 2011 wasn't a comforting year for fans of Test cricket: not only did India lose its top spot, it also won the one-day World Cup. Normally — which is to say under a steadfast, progressive board — this wouldn't be a cause for concern.

With the BCCI, however, one always worries. It contains several intelligent men, many of whom have a deep and abiding love of Test cricket; this is seldom revealed in its workings though.

The fear that Test cricket will lose the prominence it recently gained is perhaps premature, misplaced even. But it can't be shifted; it sticks to the being like cling-film. When the Golden Generation moves on, where will Indian Test cricket be?

That, however, is a story for another day, another year. This is a review of India in Test cricket in 2011. As noted earlier, it wasn't a comforting year. It began well enough, in Cape Town in January. Going into the third Test with the rubber level at 1-1, India had the opportunity to record its first series win in South Africa.

Jacques Kallis made two of the most masterful centuries one would hope to seeto deny M. S. Dhoni's men. But a maiden drawn series in South Africa — with the No.1 ranking on the line, and after a drubbing in the first Test — was a creditable performance.

Sachin Tendulkar made his only Test century of the year (at the time of writing, the Melbourne Test had yet to begin) and Harbhajan Singh claimed seven wickets in an innings.

Both men would catch the media's fancy later in the year — for different reasons — but neither could have asked for a better start. Tendulkar's was a magnificent innings, better than his 50th Test century in the first Test at Centurion a few weeks earlier (in 2010). Harbhajan bowled as well as he has abroad, triggering a collapse in the second innings, but he had no answer to Kallis' incredible reverse-sweeping, which swung the match. But for Gautam Gambhir's determination on the final day, and fine supporting acts from Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman, India might have surrendered the Test.

The next assignment was a three-Test series in the West Indies in June and early July. Despite missing Tendulkar, who requested to spend time with his family, and Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, and Gambhir, all of whom were injured, India secured a 1-0 win.

A 63-run victory in the first Test at Jamaica was followed by draws in Barbados and Dominica.A series victory in the West Indies no longer has the meaning it once had, but every win overseas needs to be treasured.

India appeared to make gains in the series: Ishant Sharma looked consistently menacing, bowling a fuller length at sharp pace; Praveen Kumar showed he could do even more with the red ball so his lack of velocity was offset somewhat; Dravid, after exhibiting good signs in South Africa, finally made the runs that settle a doubting mind, his century in the first Test yet another in an Indian win abroad; Suresh Raina played the short ball adeptly, offering hope that he might fill Sourav Ganguly's spot in the middle-order (the moving ball in England was another matter).

But there were also losses. India appeared content to nurse a series lead; it didn't press with the intensity victory demands in the second and third Tests. Neither M. Vijay nor Virat Kohli could make a case for a Test place, which was disappointing given the talent they possess. Most significantly — and this grew apparent only in England — Ishant and Praveen bowled a worrying number of overs before a four-Test series.

England was where it all went wrong. India entered the first Test burnt-out and under-cooked: fatigued after the exertions of the World Cup and IPL, but with very little game-time in England, which has unique playing conditions. The touring side was confronted by an England team that was fitter, keener, and more skilful with andagainst the moving ball.

When Zaheer limped off the field at Lord's with a hamstring strain, his work for the tour over on the first day, India's chances grew thinner. Injury was a recurring theme: Gambhir suffered a concussion; Yuvraj Singh fractured a finger; Harbhajan strained a stomach muscle.

Even with all of them fit, India would have struggled. With three bowlers doing the work of four and the batsmen batting out of position, M.S. Dhoni's team had no chance. The captain had a shocker of a tour himself. His wicket-keeping broke down. And but for his aggressive half-centuries in the third Test at Birmingham, his batting was insufficient.

Only two Indians emerged without reproach from the 4-0 drubbing. Dravid was immense. His three hundreds against the best seam-and-swing attack in modern-day cricket in difficult conditions were incredible in isolation; seen in the context of the batting failure around him — only once did India touch 300 in eight innings — the knocks acquire the sort of halo only the very best in cricket history can boast of.

After a period of self-doubt, Dravid turned back the clock, doing what Tendulkar had done in 2010. Praveen was the other to impress inEngland — his old-world medium-paced swing bowling earned respect from England's batsmen, who saw him as an artist with the ball. But it was his spirit that won even more admiration; even when India was being handed a merciless beat-down, Praveen was unbowed. He refused to countenance defeat.

India had its chances in the second Test. It first had England at 124 for eight on the first day. Then its reply stood at 267 for four. But once these positions of strength were overturned, and Ian Bell recalled, India's spirit broke.

The clean-sweep followed — India's most abject performance since the 3-0 defeat in Australia in 1999-2000. The Test crown (the gaudy ICC mace, in fact, but a little leeway here) was wrenched from India. There was no official review from the BCCI, nothing in the nature of England's Schofield report and Australia's Argus review.

Fortunately India had a home series, against the West Indies, to spread some lightness and joy. Dravid made his fifth hundred of the year, Laxman helped himself to a hundred that surprisingly wasn't made when the pressure churned the gut, but it was the emergence of R. Ashwin that brightened the mood.

Asked to replace Harbhajan Singh, Ashwin bowled with intelligence and heart, and then made a hundred for good measure. With Pragyan Ojha expressing himself with greater clarity and Umesh Yadav bowling genuinely fast, hope sprung anew. And it's on that note of hope that this review will end. Here's to a better 2012.