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April 16, 2004
There was a poignant touch at the end, when - with nine Pakistani second-innings wickets down - Sourav Ganguly tossed the ball to Sachin Tendulkar. For much of the previous decade, team India had ridden piggyback on Tendulkar's shoulders. And time after time, they had fallen short, despite his immense efforts. Now, after 15 years in international cricket, he finds himself part of a team worthy of his talent. Having ploughed an almost-lonely furrow for so long, he can now reap a rich harvest.
It's been a steady progression, from Headingley in 2002 to this first-ever series victory in Pakistan. There was a noticeable blip in New Zealand just before the World Cup, but that was largely due to appalling pitches that made both Test matches a lottery. What was most important, as Shaharyar Khan, the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, pointed out after the game, was the mental strength of the side, and its evolution from being a two-man army - Tendulkar and Anil Kumble carried the team for most of the 1990s - to a complete outfit.
That was never better illustrated than throughout the course of the 2003-04 season. The five fixtures in India's top order - Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and VVS Laxman - reeled off 13 centuries and 14 fifties in nine Tests, with both Dravid (1241) and Sehwag (1079) making over 1,000 runs. It was a mighty effort, all the more impressive for the manner in which the burden was shared, and it was just as encouraging that when the likes of Aakash Chopra and Yuvraj Singh slotted in, they did so without providing a weak link for the opposition to attack.
Even Tendulkar, who had a patchy season by the sky-high standards he sets for himself, made 659 runs at 54.92, contributing massive hundreds at Sydney and Multan, in addition to providing valuable breakthroughs with the ball.
The real story of this Pakistan tour, though - even for a nation as easily seduced by batting prowess as India - was the remarkable progress made by Irfan Pathan and Lakshmipathy Balaji, whose ever-smiling visage and whole-hearted performances made him possibly the unlikeliest cult figure in cricket history.
Both finished with 12 wickets in the series, to perfectly supplement Anil Kumble's 15. More importantly, they utterly eclipsed a Pakistan pace attack, whose pre-series bluster sat uneasily with the inadequacy of their performances. Not one bowler took more than seven wickets, and as a dismayed Inzamam-ul-Haq pointed out, you just don't win Test series while bowling so poorly.
A 279-run victory at Headingley - inspired by a magnificent century from Dilip Vengsarkar, in conditions where the seamers ruled - in 1986 clinched India's last series victory outside the subcontinent. And though today's triumph wasn't outside the confines of the subcontinent, it was no less praiseworthy. In the space of three weeks, India have registered their two most emphatic victories away from home, and set themselves up perfectly for a tilt at Australia, undisputed kings of cricket, later in the year.
For Pakistan, it's back to basics, and the drawing board. As Ganguly rightly pointed out in defence of his beaten foes, young and inexperienced teams need time to gel, especially when legends like Saeed Anwar, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis have just left the stage. It would help, however, if certain senior players stopped showboating, and put their hands up to be counted. Cocooned in that "I'm such hot stuff" bubble, they have forgotten that no man is bigger than the team, or the game. It must be a bitter pill to have been taught that lesson by Team India.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.
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