India come full circle
Duncan Fletcher was right after all. The India coach, in the team's first press briefing upon landing in England, had said his team was unpredictable, and this was going to make for some exciting cricket during the series. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, M Vijay, Cheteshwar Pujara, Ajinkya Rahane, Ravindra Jadeja and Stuart Binny, along with the more experienced Ishant Sharma, have struck vital blows against an uncertain and frazzled England side at various junctures to put India one-up in the series with three Tests to go.
It was a memorable win in an exciting match in which no one knew who the winner would be when play started on the final day. India had been put under pressure straightaway by Alastair Cook, who asked the visitors to bat on one of the greenest strips Lord's has produced in recent memory. The same Lord's where, in 2011, India's sequence of overseas defeats began. India then had been reduced to 10 men after they lost their talisman Zaheer Khan to a hamstring injury immediately after lunch on the first day. Ishant Sharma and Praveen Kumar were playing their first Test at Lord's but put up spirited performances. Harbhajan Singh struggled despite bowling honestly in the face of unfriendly conditions and an unrelenting and ruthless Kevin Pietersen. India were desperate for a third fast bowler and they did not have one.
Things only got worse as the English summer stretched on. Injuries coupled with the failures of Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag exacerbated the pain. India finished the tour without winning a single competitive match. MS Dhoni said he would never forget that series. He had exhausted every possible reason for the defeats. Perhaps his hands were tied. Perhaps he could not push or ask of the seniors beyond a certain point.
Lord's 2011 was Dhoni's 28th Test as India captain. Three years down the line, with 26 more Tests in his leadership vault, Dhoni returned to Lord's far more experienced, and emboldened. He now led a team that was entirely his own. He was now more vocal and expressive. Having lost patience with Irfan Pathan, he was now happy to entrust the allrounder's responsibility in the spin pair of Ravindra Jadeja and R Ashwin. Or, in this series, Binny. He had learned the fitness lesson. Zaheer, who might have regained fitness halfway through the series, was not considered. The only things this team was desperate for were fitness and fight.
Mentally Dhoni's Indians are highly charged and confident - always the best weapon to deal with pressure in Test cricket. Fearlessness is a defining characteristic of this Indian team. Take Jadeja: he could not put bat to ball at Trent Bridge, hopping down the pitch like a rabbit in the headlights. Before the Lord's Test Jadeja had made the headlines for entirely different reasons. By the end of the Test he had added to one of most enduring images of Indian cricket by brandishing his bat like a sword to celebrate his match-turning half-century.
It is easy to get overwhelmed by the occasion at a cherished venue like Lord's. But this Indian team managed to keep its eyes on the cricket and its feet on the ground. It did not matter to the players whether they had registered their names on the Honours Board or not. More significant for them was performing the role given to them and listening to the captain at all times. Take Ajinkya Rahane's first-innings century, without which the Test would have swayed England's way. Rahane showed the maturity to accelerate in the company of the tail to put the strain back on Cook.
Talking on radio Rahul Dravid, who had got his only century at Lord's in 2011, mentioned that Rahane, during the IPL, had quizzed him about various facets of batting in England. Dravid, who is the mentor at Rajasthan Royals, Rahane's franchise, praised the youngster for his planning and his keenness to perform even while they were playing a Twenty20 tournament.
As much as it is looked upon skeptically by purists the IPL has actually contributed to the growth of many of the players in the Indian squad. Having played with and against top quality international players, the Indians have been able to gauge how good they are themselves. That kind of positive mindset has allowed them to stand up to fight in various tough situations in India's last three overseas Test series including in England.
One of the biggest achievements of the Dhoni-Fletcher management team has been to create a strong bond of trust among the players to play for each other and not constantly look over their shoulders. Dhoni stressed this, saying every player is aware he has the team management's backing. "What's important to see is how they are preparing and what their mental approach is," he said. "Not to talk too much about technique. Technique is important, but mental approach is something very important. I feel what we have done well is to take them to a position where they feel very comfortable within the team. And they feel as if they are wanted in this scenario and have backing of team and not just the captain. That is showing on the field."
Bhuvneshwar acknowledges that fact. "Set your own fields and make your own plans. If I feel the need to change anything, I will tell you," he told bcci.tv about Dhoni's instructions after his six-for in the first innings.
Another striking difference from the previous England tour has been the vital contributions from the tail. On the 2011 tour only Amit Mishra, among the lower-order batsmen, managed a fifty during the four-Test series, having come in as a night-watchman. This series the Indian tail has wagged at a handsome average of 42. The stark difference in contributions is noticeable between the two teams: England's lower-order batsmen have scored only 253 runs from 302 balls with two half-centuries. In comparison India's lower order batsmen have scored six fifties and spent longer in the middle, having faced 837 deliveries.
India are doing exactly what England did three years ago when Andrew Strauss' team won 4-0 and grabbed the No.1 Test ranking from their opponents. The obvious challenge is to take the process, as Dhoni likes to say, forward. He has the support of his players this time. A group of young men filled with confidence and self-belief.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo