India v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Mumbai, 5th day December 6, 2009

It's been a long road to No. 1

Over the course of the decade, India's not-so-formidable links have gotten progressively stronger

A decade ago, India were annihilated 3-0 by an Australian side on the cusp of world domination. Even for a nation that had been bowled out for 42 in a Test and been heavily beaten on other occasions, it was a nadir that said much about the state of their Test game. Prior to that tour, the board secretary's private thoughts had been leaked, and his prediction of a 3-0 defeat turned out to be uncannily accurate. A few months later, Hansie Cronje's South Africans became the first touring side to win in India since the days when permed hair was fashionable. From that Mariana-Trench low to this No.1 high, it's been a long 10-year road.

It was interesting to listen to MS Dhoni speak of short-term goals afterwards. Like many of the seniors in his team, he doesn't lose sleep over the rankings. He's probably aware that Sri Lanka too could have assumed the mantle with a series win, despite never have won so much as a Test in India, South Africa or Australia. India themselves have series-win boxes left to tick in Australia and South Africa, but for the moment, this achievement will be cause for celebration. After all, it's not as though India or Sri Lanka devised the ranking system, which affects every team in the same way.

Though they may not voice it publically, there's little doubt that these moments at the summit, no matter how short they prove to be - South Africa can take over with a 2-0 success against England - mean a lot to the seniors who were part of that drubbing in Australia 10 years ago. Soon after Zaheer Khan's fine morning spell sealed a second successive innings victory and confirmed India's ascension to No.1, Rahul Dravid said: "Rankings are not something I concern myself with overly, but I believe it's a good reflection of the kind of cricket we've played over the past few years."

If that ill-fated tour of Australia in 1999-2000 taught many players harsh lessons about the game and the rub of the green, then it was the next visit there that really laid the platform for what India have gone on to achieve since. Having overcome improbable odds to thwart Steve Waugh's quest for Indian glory a couple of years earlier, India went into the series without being overawed or intimidated. With a little more luck on the final day at the SCG, they could even have won.

They followed that with a first-ever triumph in Pakistan and their first series victories in the West Indies (2006) and New Zealand (2009) in more than a generation. Zaheer Khan's sensational bowling and a solid batting display ensured victory in England in 2007, jellybeans and all, and over the past 15 months there have been comfortable home successes against Australia and Sri Lanka, and a epic last-day heist against England.

In the new millennium, India have won 40 and lost 27 of their 103 Tests. In the past five years, the win-loss record is 22-10. It goes without saying that it's been the most successful epoch in India's cricket history, one that has been shaped by a golden generation and some nearly forgotten fringe players. When asked of the contribution of the seniors, Dhoni pointedly spoke of how "everyone who has played over the past four of five years has played a part".

Some of those men are now just fond memories. Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble retired 12 months ago, while John Wright left the coaching job in 2005. All three were major pillars in their own way, as were support staff members like Adrian Le Roux, Andrew Leipus and Greg King.

Spare a thought too for the players who have come and gone. How many remember Sanjay Bangar, whose first-day defiance alongside Dravid was so pivotal in India squaring a series at Headingley in 2002? And what of RP Singh, on the honours board at Lord's in a game that India saved largely because of a tremendous rearguard action from Dhoni?

Victory in Pakistan in 2004 would never have been possible without the tireless efforts of Irfan Pathan and L Balaji, with both new ball and old. Even more unexpected was the contribution of M Vijay at the CCI. In for the absent Gautam Gambhir, he was both fluent and solid as Virender Sehwag and India got their second double-century start of the series.

As the cliché goes, a team is only as strong as its weakest link. Over the course of the decade, India's not-so-formidable links have gotten progressively stronger. The fielding will never rival Australia or South Africa, but the catching is invariably safe, and there's finally a bowling attack capable of taking 20 wickets in most conditions.

Zaheer, Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma will make most teams think twice before preparing a green top, and successes at the WACA and the Wanderers have gone a long way to exploding the stereotype of India being poor travellers. If there is a concern, it lies in the waning quality of the spin stocks, though it's far too early to pass judgement on the likes of Pragyan Ojha and Amit Mishra.

Though they may not voice it publically, there's little doubt that these moments at the summit, no matter how short they prove to be mean a lot to the seniors who were part of that drubbing in Australia 10 years ago

Over the next year or two, the No.1 ranking will change hands often. Unlike in the days when Australia, and West Indies before them, ruled the roost, it no longer signifies the best team in the world. For India, greater challenges await, but there's little use brooding about Australia or South Africa right now. When asked if victory in those climes was essential to be legitimate top dogs, Dhoni said: "Let's see when we go there. We can't play them sitting here."

Five years ago, in an interview with the Sunday Times, Sachin Tendulkar spoke of why Australia were the No.1 team in the world. "They deserve that status because they've beaten every other country both home and away," he said. "When we start to win series abroad on a regular basis, then I can say that we are definitely No.2. But right now, there are three or four teams pretty close together. If anyone wants to be the undisputed No.2, they'll have to start winning wherever they go."

The world has changed since then, and teams can aspire to more than bridesmaid status. Tendulkar and the other weatherbeaten warriors alongside him has done as much as anyone to get India to where they are now. Regardless of what happens over the next few months, it's something to savour. In a country where both administrators and fans are obsessed with cricket in coloured clothes, whether it be over 50 or 20 overs, the players deserve much credit for keeping their eyes on the red ball. After the horrors of a decade ago, these are the best of times.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

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