India v Sri Lanka, 2nd Test, Kanpur, 4th day November 27, 2009

India hit century on road to top

India rank as one of the most consistent sides in world cricket now, so much so that a victory in Mumbai will put them at the top of the Test rankings

There was one important similarity between India's first Test victory in 1952 and their hundredth today: Celebrations were restrained - "subdued", as Wisden reported of the first instance - on both occasions. Back in the fifties that was a sign as much of the times as of India's minnow status - Vijay Hazare's men were not expected to surprise Donald Carr's side to level the five-Test rubber in Madras. Half a century later, India rank as one of the more consistent sides in world cricket and there were no pretensions about their comprehensive win over Sri Lanka in Kanpur today.

One possible reason for the restraint shown today is that this Indian team is finally getting used to winning. Through this decade, India have moved steadily towards the top of the table under spirited leaders like Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and now MS Dhoni. Their individualistic approach encouraged team-mates to express themselves clearly. At the same time every player got his own space and subsequently the dressing-room environment has become more positive and transparent.

The effects were evident in the performance of Sreesanth in Kanpur. He walked into the team from the cold, a discard with a dodgy temperament. His 19-month spell in isolation taught him patience and fired his hunger; he reined in his wild side and focussed instead on bowling good balls consistently while working batsmen out.

Sreesanth's inclusion was a punt alright but a calculated decision. Not convinced by Ishant Sharma's ability to come out of his rough patch, the team put its faith in Sreesanth's prodigious reverse-swinging capabilities. In return, he fast-tracked Sri Lanka's downfall on Thursday with terrific spells of swing and seam bowling. "He played in a different way this Test," a clearly pleased Dhoni said after the Test. "He was aggressive but controlled his emotions. That's what is important."

The operating margins at this level of cricket are wafer-thin; India's decision on Sreesanth proved inspired while Sri Lanka's gamble on three spinners, expecting the pitch to break as soon as the sun came out, left them high and dry. Yet India had a plan and stuck to it. They read correctly the Green Park pitch as dry and tending towards the slower side despite a light stubble on the eve of the game.

So Amit Mishra celebrated his birthday on the bench watching the left-arm spinner Pragyan Ojha making his debut. A good debut too - forget his four wickets, what was most impressive about his performance was his accuracy. Every time he was thrown the ball he put the Sri Lankans on the defensive. The weight of his success increases when you compare him to Ajantha Mendis, whose mystery has been built by his skill to pitch the ball accurately and consistently on the same spot.

That Mendis was rendered ineffective was because the Indian openers Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir attacked him relentlessly and forced him to change his lines and lengths. He was not the only Sri Lankan bowler to lose his confidence. Throughout the two games Muttiah Muralitharan has been made to look a pedestrian by the Indian batsmen, who took advantage of the slow pitches on offer at both Ahmedabad and Kanpur and erased in part the wounds inflicted on them by these two bowlers in Sri Lanka last year.

That series included India's last Test defeat, in Colombo. In 11 subsequent Tests, spanning four series (including the current one), India have won five Tests. They are now favourites to win their fourth straight series as they travel to the Brabourne Stadium, the venue of India's first Test in 1933; if they win there they will take the top spot in the ICC Test rankings. Much has been achieved in 57 years; much remains to be done.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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