December 28, 2001

Hopes belied in the new millennium

When India beat England in style at Chepauk way back in February 1952, hope must have risen in the patriotic Indian heart that the country which had won freedom without firing a bullet was now ready to take on the world in cricket too, with nary a bouncer bowled in anger. Indian cricket had discovered its own ahimsa - the magic of spin - as Vinoo Mankad with 12 wickets in the match, and Ghulam Ahmed with four, bowled India to a famous innings victory. But the hopes were belied when India toured England the very next season and were drubbed 3-0. The West Indies tour that followed provided further confirmation that India were a force to reckon with only at home.

The pattern continued throughout the 50s and 60s, when India registered some fine victories at home, though not necessarily series wins, against England and Australia; the West Indies continued to be invincible even on Indian soil. The Chepauk Test of January 1967 against Gary Sobers' men produced exhilarating cricket from the home team, with sensational batting by the likes of Farokh Engineer and Ajit Wadekar; more significant, however, were the exploits of the new spin combination of Erapalli Prasanna, Bishan Singh Bedi and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, who were to weave magic against all comers in home conditions for years to come. But India again came a-cropper in England in the summer of 1967, dashing hopes that our cricket had at last come of age.

Srinivas Venkataraghavan was the fourth component of what came to be known later as the spin quartet - a misnomer, really, since only three of these world-class spinners played together most of the time - and these men dominated Indian cricket for over a decade. Ironically Venkataraghavan, the man who, among the foursome, figured least in Test match cricket, was a key player in India's first triumphs in the West Indies and England in 1971, wins that promised to be the ultimate turning point in the nation's cricket fortunes.

The Indian vice-captain, technically among the most accomplished in the world, played outstanding cricket of great character against the Australians, but since then he has shown a distressing tendency towards Hamletian indecision, especially after the ludicrous attempt to convert him into an opener bombed.
But 1974 proved that nothing had really changed in Indian cricket, with India crashing to 42 all out at Lord's and losing the series rather ignominiously. Once again, a home series helped restore the balance in India's favour. A stirring fight was staged against Clive Lloyd's West Indies, then on the verge of becoming an all-conquering combination; the Carribbeans did experience a hiccup or two along the way, not the least of which was a Port-of-Spain Test that India won, chasing over 400 in the fourth innings.

India regained some lost pride against comeback captain Bobby Simpson's Australia, sans those who defected to Kerry Packer's World Series, losing the series in a closely fought 2-3 result. A brilliant away win against England under Kapil Dev's captaincy in 1986 was fashioned - for the first time in Indian cricket history - by seam rather than spin, but that was the penultimate time India won a series abroad, the 1993-94 triumph in Sri Lanka being the only bright spot in the depressing succession of abject surrenders that followed. Kapil's Devils had earlier shown tremendous resolve in drawing a series that they deserved to win against Allan Border's Aussies in Australia in 1986-87. Although India were involved in the second tie in Test history the following year at Chepauk, Indian cricket abroad went steadily downhill from that time onwards.

The year 2001 raised hopes again. VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid came together in a historic record-breaking partnership to give India her most improbable, if not her greatest, victory of all time at Kolkata. In Harbhajan Singh she had apparently discovered a spinner in the mould of the greats of the past to partner the strong-of-mind Anil Kumble, a veritable demon on Indian tracks. The young sardar has since shown that he still has some way to go before he is to be bracketed with the best in the business.

In Laxman, we hoped that we had found a batsman who could dominate the best bowling attacks in the world and make batting look as simple as driving a Formula One car in a video game. Joining the world's best batsman, Sachin Tendulkar, and the other two champion batsmen in the Indian side, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, he added an exciting new dimension to the Indian line-up. But our joy was to be all too short-lived. In South Africa and elsewhere, the Hyderabad batsman has consistently exhibited a streak of recklessness that has bordered on the irresponsible.

The Indian vice-captain, technically among the most accomplished in the world, played outstanding cricket of great character against the Australians, but since then he has shown a distressing tendency towards Hamletian indecision, especially after the ludicrous attempt to convert him into an opener bombed.

The Indian captain too flattered only to deceive, his match-winning innings in the Kandy Test proving to be no more than a flash in the pan. And, even as we learned to overlook his rough edges and appreciate his ability to lock eyes with his opposite numbers in, figuratively speaking, fight-to-the-finish staring contests, he has shown inconsistency in the horses he backs, sometimes in defiance of the selection committee, and deficiency in common sense while ringing bowling changes that defy logic.

The Master Blaster is yet to win a match abroad off his own bat, something that both Brian Lara and Steve Waugh have done for their teams. While there is no doubting the little man's clear superiority over his nearest rivals in terms of sheer class, dedication and commitment, we, the Indian nation, starved of heroes and heroic deeds, still look up to him in vain to perform a miracle or three.

After the early promise of the Javagal Srinath-Venkatesh Prasad combination fizzled out some years ago, India suddenly found a surfeit of riches in the pace department. Even on Indian wickets, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra showed enough talent and fire to promise a bright future for Indian bowling, especially with Kumble returning to match fitness and Harbhajan Singh proving to be an equal partner. Once again, we were to be disabused of any delusions of Indian bowling grandeur, with injuries curtailing the left-arm seamers' progress. The one Indian on a genuine comeback trail, Srinath, has also been plagued by injuries.

The mirage of a solid opening pair in Sadagoppan Ramesh and Shiv Sunder Das also vanished, with the southpaw taking an untimely sabbatical to nurse his back. By accident, we found a more-than-able replacement, but unfortunately, Deep Dasgupta is still a less-than-competent wicket-keeper. Predictably, instead of showing patience with the gutsy youngster, critics are already baying for his blood.

The year promised much but delivered precious little. All the old doubts and weaknesses remain, compounded by indecision and confusion in the administration. The Mike Denness controversy has done nothing to enhance India's image, although it was a clear case of a team under siege by a rogue referee overreacting to an unpleasant situation. Instead of winning the sympathy of the rest of the world, India has managed to earn the dubious tag of rebel nation. The much-awaited contract system has been postponed, and Ranji Trophy reform is still a year away. Fast domestic wickets continue to be a mirage, and while India has a crop of good medium-pacers, quality spinners, especially the left-arm variety, will soon become extinct, thanks to an uncaring system that refuses to give them opportunities.

The beginning of the 90s was marked by much optimism for the future of Indian cricket. No such positive feeling for the first decade of the new millennium is justified in the light of the 2001 experience.