How good are India, really?

Like an uprising

India do not play cricket at their own levels

Rahul Bhattacharya

December 17, 2003

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Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly: how good are they? Don't ask again
© AFP

It is hard to keep perspective in this age. One of the problems with too much cricket being played is that too much cricket is lived, ball by ball, break by break, analysis by analysis. No sooner are teams rubbished are they resurrected are they trashed again, a phenomenon even more heightened with individuals. There is something about a sport that lasts for 30 hours that drives the brain potty.

The Indian team has seen it all in this decade. Exposed to the emotions of an unparalleled audience, players in the jarring worlds of competition, entertainment and commerce, they must already feel a thousand years old. And at every step they must confront the fundamental human insecurity: How good am I?

Sourav Ganguly chooses his moments without tact, but often he speaks from the heart. "We're the second-best side in the world, and can be the best in the world," he said yesterday. As captain of a team that has not won their last home series and 18 previous series outside the subcontinent, this is open to scrutiny, even ridicule. And yet, in a sense, Ganguly is not entirely wrong.

India do not play cricket at their own levels. By and large, they are able to give anyone a run for their money and everyone is able to give them a run for theirs. But this is the difference: when what can only loosely be described as the "force" is with them, they are very, very hard to overcome. In these times they are like an uprising.



A forgotten man: Anil Kumble's bowling at Headingley and at Adelaide were crucial to India's historic wins there
© Getty Images

It is hard not to be bullish about India. Admittedly, Ganguly's tenure has been patchy though, when seen in relation to history, golden. He and his men were on their way early in 2001 having toppled Australia's winning streak in a series full of suspense, sub-contests and deeper meanings. This team was born there and then, at home. Even so, the best barometer of their progress since is their performance overseas. Step by step, they have moved forward.

In every away series (seven in all) except for those in New Zealand and South Africa, they have won Test matches. There have been patterns in these wins. They have been complete efforts, team efforts. In each one at least seven members have stepped up at one stage or another, and pounced on moments in their own ways.

It is forgotten, for example, how vital a role Anil Kumble played in the last two of these triumphs, at Headingley and Adelaide. Javagal Srinath's indefatigable spell of 11 overs for two crucial wickets on a scorching last afternoon at Port-of-Spain will possibly get buried by time as just another bowling analysis that ended as a three-for. How that misses the point. Zaheer's burst at Kandy, Harbhajan's helicopter runs at Bulawayo, Tendulkar's legspinners at Adelaide, Ganguly's grit in Trinidad, Sehwag's catches at Headingley and Adelaide - each of these games is littered with little victories. The sum of these contributions were larger than imagined.



Don't forget Virender Sehwag's catches
© AFP

Headingley still remains their most perfect performance, though it pales against the drama, poignancy, and possible significance of Adelaide. Headingley was, out of the blue, a supreme domination, and an exquisitely well-rounded one. Nothing was left to chance, no stone unturned. Defensive and attacking batting, slow and fast bowling, close-in and outfield catching, it was flawless. It came at a time when India were not only doing the chasing in the series, but were fighting a disquieting battle with their own board over the fine print in legal documents.

That's the other thing about this team. Often it appears that they need rockets up the bum to get going. The home win against Australia, the World Cup show, the victory at Kandy - all came from when they were down. And so there was something perversely comforting in the prelude to this series: a drawn Test series at home, a lost tri-series, a blatant underperformance in the tour games, and a shellacking on the opening day of the Test. But on Day Two at Brisbane, they rose, and are yet to lie down.

And through these victories has been another common thread. He is Rahul Dravid. In each instance he has come and done his bit and in some, like at Headingley and Adelaide, easily the hardest bit. The more you think about his performance at Adelaide the more it boggles the mind. In fact, the more you dwell upon his last three years, the more it astonishes. There is scarcely anything more inspiring than the man who constantly improves.

Yesterday, his every sense sapped, he made a stirring sight on television, talking to the camera as if to a fellow survivor in war. The words didn't come out at first, only a few mumbles suffixed by "man", along with the hint of tears.

The simple truths he spoke in those moments of exhaustion were touching. Asked what it takes to maintain his concentration, ball after ball, innings after innings, he said: "It's important to be determined." Asked what his motivation was, he said: "I have been in teams where we have not completed the job, the pain has stayed with me, I didn't want to experience it again."

It often escapes all attention that only one time out of 16 when India's best Test batsman has made a century have India lost the match. Nor have these been centuries, bar one in New Zealand, scored once the match has died. It is hard to know about God and stuff, but few human beings have reached Dravid's levels of recent accomplishment.

And there is another thing he said. "There's a lot of guys in the dressing-room with character. There really are." Ultimately, strength of character will out. Ganguly's team have shown enough glimpses of it in these engrossing three years. Now, more than ever, they need to sustain their force. For the force is with them.

Rahul Bhattacharya is a contributing editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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