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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Monish on December 10, 2009, 1:37 GMT

    When we go through the history of cricket, It was England and Australia were on prime focus through the famous 'Ashes series' when cricket started getting attraction, Era of 'Don Bradman and Douglas Jardine'. In 1970's West Indies became the power house of cricket, Era of 'Viv Richards and Sir Garfield Sobers'. In 1983, India defeated the 3 time champions West Indies and won the world cup, Era of ' Kapil Dev and M.Amarnath'. In 1990's Australia became the power house of cricket, Era of 'Stev Waugh and Allan Border'. Again Australia was unstoppable in the beginning of 2000, Era of 'Ricky Ponting and Gilchrist'..Now it is going to be the Era of 'MS Dhoni and his team'..Reasons for India's supremacy in cricket -1)Indian players have given much respect to WI and Australian bowler's before, Present batting line up of Sewag, Gambhir, Yuvraj and Dhoni hammer any bowler without any fear 2)Dhoni is captain cool 3) Indian fast bowlers like Zaheer, Sreesanth and Ishanth can intimidate any team

  • Girish on December 8, 2009, 18:04 GMT

    ITJOBSUCKS - it looks like u hav plenty of time to prepare stat when Sachin did score and India won. Spend same time and look out how many times Dravid has won or saved the matches. Many occasions someone else may have overscored, but without Dravid win or draw would not have been possible. Where as Sachin has been behind records just like his ex-mumbaikar Gavaskar. Very selfish in their attitude. Sachin was forced to leave the captaincy where as Dravid gave it away to avoid politics, while he was doing great.

    Kazzamers - I agree with you. Gavaskar & Shastri have all the words on earth to praise every run , record, action Sachin is linked with. But they shut up when it comes to Dravid. A partiality - which is obvious for any true cricket lover.

    Unfortunately, the media has hyped Sachin so much that none has guts to talk against him, I mean talk about his weak areas or poor performances. One thing all agree is that Sachin WAS great opener in ODIs and won many matches during 90s.

  • Supeshala on December 8, 2009, 13:03 GMT

    India played well this time. You guys need to play overseas and prove that you are number 1. Indians always good in Indian. Sri Lankan always good in Sri Lanka. It is too early to that, India is number 1. Indian commentators are happy about this win and it is funny.

  • Supeshala on December 8, 2009, 9:46 GMT

    Well, I agree the fact that India played well this time. However, you guys need to play oversees very well and show the talent to get the number 01 status. Beating Sri Lanka in India is not a big deal and Indian commentators are very happy about that. That very funny!

  • Vikas on December 8, 2009, 6:20 GMT

    I love the fact that India has reached the top of the tree and will always savour this day. I would have loved to see Team India play competitive matches with top tier test countries, instead all I'll get to see in the next one year is two test matches with Bangladesh! Oh look what you've done BCCI!

  • Roshan on December 8, 2009, 4:10 GMT

    SatyajitM, I'm not saying that the no.1 team should be invincible but they have to be clearly better than the rest. Like in tennis - the no 1 player does not have to win all the 04 Grand Slam event to be no. 1, but gets significantly more points in winning them than for other tourneys (yes, Safina's no. 1 ranking was a sore thing). What I'm saying is that for a team that does well away (not just in a series as a whole but even for individual tests) give more points, perhaps bonus points, for Test wins and for squaring a series. Just to recognize the achievements away from home. By the way this ranking system started in 2001 when the Aussies were at their peak and nobody would have begrudged their no. 1 ranking even though they did not win all the series they played in (particularly in India). But then neither did the even more greater West Indian team of the late 70s and 80s - remember they were always challenged whenever they came up against Pakistan. But now things are very murky .

  • Kalyanaraman on December 8, 2009, 1:02 GMT

    India has played some exciting cricket and showed consistancy to be deserving No. 1. To those who complain about the lack of series success in Aus and SA, it must be remembered that Pete Sampras never won on Clay in the French Open but was still regarded as No. 1. India was the one country who pushed Australia consistently even when Australia was at their peak. However I do agree that India needs a fast bowling all rounder or someone like an Ambrose to sustain their success and achieve series wins in SA and Aus.

  • Shazvi on December 7, 2009, 22:49 GMT

    i think the ranking system is fine the way it is. If SL had won the series, the 2 teams would be occupying each other's current places. Just that thing are so close at the top. India's No.1 ranking simply means that they have been the most consistent team during the recent past(although only by a slight margin cuz SA is only 2 points behind). It doesnt mean they're the best team in the world.

    Personally, i dont think there's much of a difference between the top 4 currently. You simply need to look at the rating point rather than rankings to see that.

  • Satyajit on December 7, 2009, 15:54 GMT

    RoshanF, As per I know there was some technical reason why refferal wasn't available in this series. Also, the cricketing world (not only India) have mixed opinion about it. I don't know why we are suddenly worried that ICC ranking is flawed. If it it flawed it has been so from the beginning :-) Regardless of all things, India is the number 1 test side at the moment and deservingly so. I would agree that it is not an all conquering invincible unit. Far from that. SA is probably as good as Ind followed by Aus. Only undisputed champion this decade (till 07 when McGrath, Warne were there) has been Aus. SA never reached that state. Even the invincible Aus huffed and puffed to get a series win in Ind (end of 04). That too when Ind were not at their best and was playing after couple of months gap. Even through this decade India always troubled Aus. Now, you can actually expect to see good competion between a bunch of top sides headed by India. Which is good for cricket.

  • kris on December 7, 2009, 15:53 GMT

    As a Indian I see the following as the most memorable moments of Indian cricket. 1983 world cup 1985 world championship (This could be the best as they outclassed every team) 2002 ? Champions trophy sharing with Srilanka (Not sure of the exact year) 2007 T20 world cup 2009 Reaching top in Test rating table.

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