Not the '90s again, please
On the eve of the Hyderabad Test against Australia, R Ashwin triggered a memory and a premonition. He talked about how MS Dhoni's Chennai innings of 224 had cascaded onto his captaincy. "As a captain you set the tempo, it boils out into your field setting, bowling changes, everything." After Dhoni's double century, the Test, Ashwin believed, "just took off from there, I don't think we were looking back after he played such a knock." Dhoni's innings effectively seized control of the Chennai Test. It has put in to play such a balance of power in the series that only some freakish effort from the Australians can reverse it.
The memory triggered by that innings came from 20 years ago and had at its centre another besieged Indian captain, who scored a century with a pace and fluency that could only be described as both manic and magical. Or, as Ashwin put it, "demoralising" for the fielding side.
The captain from 20 years ago was Mohammed Azharuddin, whose form had vanished circa 1992-1993. He had two fifties from 10 Tests and had just come through two ghastly overseas tours. His team was clobbered by the Australians 0-4 in 1991-92 and a year later, during a historic series in South Africa (1992-93), India lost a four-Test series 0-1. (Still doesn't look as bad as 0-4, 0-4).
Azhar's number, many believed, was up. In the 1993 Calcutta Test against England, Azhar came in to bat at No. 5 with India on 93 for 3. At stumps, he was 114, playing flicks and drives, and whiplashes past point, his bat glinting in the afternoon sun. His eventual score of 182 off 197 balls gave enough runs for India's spin troika to push England towards a follow-on and defeat.
That innings reinstated Azhar's position as captain and prime batsman in the squad. He stayed in charge of the Indian team uninterrupted for another three years and returned to the job between 1998-99 (after Sachin Tendulkar led the team for 18 months) until the end of the 1999 World Cup. Dhoni's double in Chennai has certainly given him more than adequate breathing room both at the top and in the team.
So much for the memory. The premonition following Chennai 2013, which was driven by an all-round craving for victory after being pole-axed by England three months ago, is that the 1990s could return. Their onset could well be marked by the stewardship of Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher this season, much like India's 1990s were marked by the Azhar-Ajit Wadekar partnership.
That decade became famous for India's lopsided performances - victory at home and completely hapless performances overseas. In the entire decade, India won a single Test away from home-in Sri Lanka - and zero outside the subcontinent.
In the 1990s, India played 69 Test matches, won 18 and lost 20. Fifteen of those defeats were away from home. India's home Test record remained outstanding: 17 wins in 30 Tests, five defeats (to West Indies, South Africa, Australia and two to Pakistan) and eight draws. Other than the solitary Asian Test Championship defeat to Pakistan, India didn't lose a series at home in 10 years.
Victories were concocted by a simple method: keep the wickets dry, stack in two other spinners alongside Anil Kumble, and make the opposition melt. India had allrounders in Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar, slightly improved versions of Ravindra Jadeja, bless him.
They were heady days because Kumble was a ferocious hunter and gatherer of wickets and the batsmen Indians watched on television were eminently watchable: Azhar the magician, Sanjay Manjrekar the craftsman-technician, Sachin Tendulkar the prodigy, Navjot Sidhu the spin-meister, Vinod Kambli the maverick, among others.
The triumphs of the twirly-men fast became the 1990s Azhar-Wadekar template even when India's post-Kapil crop of quick bowlers began bursting through. It was this skewed approach which still makes some of those bowlers, like Venkatesh Prasad for example, a bit queasy when they hear that India have gone into a home Test with a 1-3 combination.
During that decade, India plunged in to ODI cricket, matched only by Pakistan with a passion that appeared perennial and an appetite that looked insatiable.
In many meaningless fizzy-drink tournaments, India were towering at home (69 wins, 33 defeats in 112 matches) but timid away (25 wins, 57 defeats) and fifty-fifty (46 wins, 50 defeats) in neutral venues like Sharjah, Singapore and Toronto. It was all so obvious that on one occasion, even the otherwise sedate The Hindu newspaper was tempted to stick a picture of an Indian team celebrating another home victory on its SportStar magazine cover with an acerbic headline, "Local Heroes."
Cricketers of that generation cough politely when asked about what they thought of that pattern of play and the atmosphere it created. Everyone sensed what was going on as team after team returned home whipped on away tours. On the tour of Zimbabwe in 2001, Kumble was asked how many overseas Test wins he had been a part of in his 10-year plus career. His answer: one. In Sri Lanka, and that too eight years ago.
One Test victory over Australia in 2013 doesn't imply that the 1990s are going to return. This is a new India, data-analysed, former-Test-No.1, support-staffed-to-its-eyeballs India, with fast bowlers pouring in from all corners. Except that Mumbai 2012 was borne out of a 1990s mindset (and 18 months of denial) which was upended by Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar.
If India were to lapse into a 1990s redux, it will come with a few ominous supplements. This time there is oodles of cash on India's side, the ability to control the message going around about Indian cricket, and a burgeoning cast of pliable messengers on television and in print. Anything to keep the home fires burning. Like ODIs were for the 1990s, the latest flavour of many seasons is, of course, Twenty20.
Yet, and here's the coincidence: at least two of the selectors on the current panel played their first-class cricket in the 1990s. They know exactly what it was like. Over the course of this series and what it indicates to them for the next round of away tours, these selectors can exercise control over Indian cricket's future over and above the wants, needs and short-term goals of the current team. Indian cricket had much to celebrate two decades ago but an overwhelming narrowness of ambition, purpose, and vision wasn't part of it. Gentlemen, not the 1990s again, please.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo