Mid-life crises - 1996
The morale of neither England nor India could have been particularly high on the eve of the 1996 three-match Test series. While India's home record was awesome, their record abroad was nothing to boast about. England too, with a series of setbacks both at home and abroadm, could not have been very confident. Predictably enough, then, the series was marked by much mediocre cricket with just a few highlights.
The sudden departure of Sidhuthe most senior member of the touring party, having made his Test debut in 1983 - put a big question mark over the vital opening slot. In his absence, various pairs - Vikram Rathour and Ajay Jadeja in the first Test, Rathour and Nayan Mongia in the second, and Mongia and Sanjay Manjrekar for the third - were tried out, but none came good.
Opinion on this incident was sharply divided. Given Sidhu's soft and studious nature, it was believed that he would not have taken the extreme step unless he had a very valid reason. The other school of thought was that whatever the provocation, Sidhu should have stayed behind, for after all he was representing the country and should not have allowed personal misunderstandings to cloud his decision.
The sudden departure of Sidhuthe most senior member of the touring party, having made his Test debut in 1983 - put a big question mark over the vital opening slot. In his absence, various pairs - Vikram Rathour and Ajay Jadeja in the first Test, Rathour and Nayan Mongia in the second, and Mongia and Sanjay Manjrekar for the third - were tried out, but none came good. Under the circumstances, the Indian batting was always under pressure, and full credit must be given to Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid for rising to the occasion in the second and third Tests after the first at Birmingham had been lost by eight wickets.
Ganguly's batting in fact was the major highlight of the series. There was an outburst of criticism over his selection, but taking this in his stride, the stylish left-hander from Bengal let his bat do the talking. He made his debut in the second Test at Lord's in storybook fashion, becoming the first Indian to hit a century in his first Test at cricket's historic headquarters. Overall, he was the 10th Indian to perform the feat.
Going in at number three, Ganguly faced 301 balls for his 131, hitting 20 fours. For good measure, he got 136 in the next Test at Nottingham, figuring in a record third-wicket partnership of 255 with Tendulkar (177). This time Ganguly showed his penchant for big hitting, clouting two sixes and 17 fours. He also became only the third batsman to hit centuries in his first two Test innings, after Lawrence Rowe and Alvin Kallicharran. By the end of the series, the man whose selection had prompted howls of protest headed both the Test and tour averages. In the Tests he finished with 315 runs at an average of 105.00, while in the first-class matches, he amassed 762 runs at an average of 95.25. As if all this were not enough, he also headed the bowling averages with six wickets at 20.83 apiece. The legend of the Prince of Calcutta was born.
Dravid was not far behind. By contrast, his selection had been widely welcomed. He started off with 95 on his Test debut at Lord's and followed it up with 84 at Nottingham, and it was obvious that India had discovered two young batsmen who were, in racing parlance, stayers rather than sprinters. Events over the last six years have only served to confirm this view. Dravid finished third in the Test averages with 187 runs at 62.33, while in first-class games, he aggregated 553 runs at an average of 50.27.
Tendulkar lived up to his reputation. He made a masterly 122 in a losing cause at Birmingham. This was one of the finest knocks of his career, for he struck 19 fours and a six over 177 balls, while no other batsman even got to 20; Manjrekar's 18 was the next-best score. Coming in at 17 for two after India faced a first-innings deficit of 99, Tendulkar was ninth out at 208.
The effort was in vain as England went on register the only victory of the series. He followed this up with his second century of the series at Nottingham. Tendulkar, who was named among Wisden's cricketers of the year, scored 428 runs in the series at an average of 85.60 to finish second to Ganguly in the averages. He was second to Ganguly in the tour figures too (707 runs at 64.27).
The batting of Ganguly, Dravid and Tendulkar helped cover up the wretched form of Azharuddin, who scored just 42 runs in five innings at an average of 8.40. Little went right for him as far as batting and leadership were concerned, and at the end of the tour, Tendulkar replaced him as captain. Manjrekar too failed, getting just 105 runs at 26.25, although he did fairly well in the first-class games scoring 540 runs at an average of 41.53. Rathour was another batsman who scored heavily on the tour (805 runs at 47.35), but he came a cropper in the Tests, being reduced to 46 runs at 11.50.
Like the batting, the bowling too presented problems. Too much depended on opening bowlers Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, and to their credit both shouldered the heavy responsibilities admirably. Srinath took 11 wickets at an average of 39.36, while Prasad, who made his Test debut at Birmingham, was the bowler of the series, taking 15 wickets at only 25 apiece. He also headed the tour figures with 25 wickets at 29.36 each.
India's leading spin bowler Anil Kumble was a sore disappointment, his five wickets costing him 66.80 apiece - the first indication that Kumble overseas was not the master bowler he was at home. On the tour he did little better, as his figures of 13 wickets at 56.84 will readily testify. The support from Paras Mambhrey, Venkatapathy Raju, Narendra Hirwani and Sunil Joshi was painfully inadequate.
England for their part were quite happy at emerging narrow victors in the series. Batting was their forte, as exemplified by totals of 313, 344 and 564 in successive Tests. Nasser Hussain got two hundreds, skipper Michael Atherton and wicket-keeper Jack Russell hit one each, while Graham Thorpe was a picture of consistency. Seam bowling was their trump card, and Chris Lewis (15 wickets at 23.73), Alan Mullally (12 at 24.83) and Dominic Cork (10 at 36.90) did their job in exemplary fashion. England also won the three-match one-day series 2-0. Even in the tour results, the Indians did not have a record to write home about. Out of 11 first-class games, the tourists lost two and drew nine.