December 6, 2009

Steps to the summit

A look back at the major developments in India's Test side over the decade

A comeback to beat all comebacks, 2000-01
It wouldn't be unfair to say that the belief, imagination even, of India becoming the best side in the world comes from the home series against Australia, one of the two best contests of the decade. A lot happens during those three Tests that India still benefit from: VVS Laxman becomes a permanent member of the middle order, thus forming the Fab Four; the turnaround brings the team together after the match-fixing exposés; Harbhajan Singh emerges and forges a formidable spin-attack with Anil Kumble; for all practical purposes the Sourav Ganguly-John Wright era, and a new, professional outlook towards fitness and training, begins; and the marauding Australians, the best team by a distance, are beaten.

Sehwag opens, 2002
Virender Sehwag smashes 84 off 96 balls at Lord's in his first Test as opener. India go on to lose the Test, but find their first permanent opener since Navjot Sidhu. Sehwag goes on to redefine the opener's role in Tests, and is pivotal to many of India's victories over the decade. Later, along with Gautam Gambhir, he puts an end to the days of makeshift and uncertain Indian opening combinations.

Test wins in England, West Indies and Sri Lanka
All the above factors come together and, in the next few years, India post their first win in the West Indies after 26 years, in England after 16 years, and in Sri Lanka after eight. But they go on to lose two of those series and, while the Test victories are important landmarks, they are still only half steps forward. Even in Zimbabwe they squander a 1-0 lead.

Gatecrashing Steve Waugh's farewell party, 2003-04
Four years after a horror tour to Australia, and months after an embarrassing defeat in the 2003 World Cup final, India are an avoided collapse, an enforced follow-on, or a strong bowling performance short of winning a series in Australia, something no team has done since West Indies in 1992-93. The Adelaide win is their first in Australia in 22 years.

Winning across the border, 2003-04
Months later India go into a series with the highest possible pressure for players involved, and win emphatically. They achieve first Test win in Pakistan followed by their first series win there, their first away-series victory since 1993 - not counting Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

Triumph amid turmoil, 2004-2006
Wright is gone, Greg Chappell's honeymoon has ended, and the Chappell-Ganguly spat has become more important than whatever India do on the field. The results aren't great either: at home they lose to Australia, draw with Pakistan and England, and lose in Pakistan. Series win against Sri Lanka at home, and in Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are the only consolations. In the West Indies, though, starts another spell of memorable wins, under the captaincy of Rahul Dravid. He scores 81 and 68 on a difficult pitch at Sabina Park to fashion India's first series win outside the subcontinent in 20 years - not counting Zimbabwe.

The next step, 2006-2007
India show they are a group of mature individuals who can win despite differences between them. At the Wanderers, Ganguly makes a crucial fifty on his comeback, and Sreesanth swings South Africa out. It is India's first win in the country, and the first time since 1986 that they have won consecutive Tests outside India, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

A season later, Zaheer Khan puts behind injuries and sporadic form for good, and assumes leadership of the pace attack, spurring India to a win at Trent Bridge, which in turn secures a first series win in England since 1986.

Picking up the pieces, 2007-08
India have been embarrassed in the World Cup, Chappell has been sent packing, Dravid has given up captaincy, and Sydneygate has happened. What is more damning is that they have just lost a Test they had no business losing, controversy notwithstanding. But adversity brings them together and, by relying on team performance as opposed to individual genius, they beat Australia in Perth, something that hasn't been done since the great West Indian fast bowlers retired. Poignantly Irfan Pathan, whose contributions in the series win in Pakistan are easy to forget, is the Man of the Match in a game in which Ishant Sharma announces himself.

Resilience
Lord's 2007, Wanderers 2006-07, Bangalore and Chennai 2008-09, Napier 2008-09, and Ahmedabad 2009-10 are six performances that wouldn't have been expected from Indian teams of the previous decades. They were careless to fall behind in all those games but they show character to come back and somehow save them, and even win two of them. Five of these match-saving efforts prove pivotal to series wins.

No. 1 finally, 2009-10
A decade that is a huge improvement on the previous one culminates in India attaining the No. 1 Test ranking after beating Sri Lanka 2-0, but they know they are No. 1 and still not the best. Being the best involves winning series in South Africa and Australia, and there is time to go before India even travel there.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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