One man doesn't make a team
Let's get history out of the way first. India overcame a 20-year-old bogey on Sunday by beating West Indies to claim their first Test series win outside the sub-continent since they beat England in 1986. Correction, they actually did that last year, but does a win over Zimbabwe count? Those who might wonder what the fuss is all about miss the point. It is a big deal.
It's been 35 years of abjectness since India won for the only time in the West Indies in 1971. They won another Test on their next tour in 1976, gloriously chasing down 406 in the fourth innings, only to trigger a retaliation so brutal that it left them scarred for a generation. In 1996-97, they failed to chase 120 in the last innings which would have given them a series win, and in 2001-02, they failed to bat out five minutes that would have earned them a draw. Failure to win this time would have been a huge setback for a team determined to make progress . Let Indian cricket soak in the joy of hard-fought success for a while.
But not for too long. The happy ending shouldn't be allowed to obscure what preceded it. It's been the pattern for the last couple of series. In Pakistan, the pain of losing the Test series was wiped away by the spectacular success in the one-dayers; and at home against an enfeebled England, India's failure to win the Test series, and climb to number two in the Test rankings, was mitigated by a comprehensive one-day win. In the West Indies, it's been the opposite.
Detached from the historic significance of the Test series win, the story of the tour hasn't been all pretty. Most of all, it has given India a reality check. They lost the one-day series they were expected to win easily. The irony of it was remarkable: usually, Indian batsmen struggle overseas on bouncy and seaming wickets; this time, they couldn't come to terms with the slowness. The broad theme however was the same: once again, Indian batsmen failed to adapt to the conditions quickly.
And despite the heady win in Jamaica, the Test series felt underwhelming. The general quality of cricket, apart from a few sessions in the last Test, was consistently below Test class. The pitches were substandard, and the bowlers, Anil Kumble apart, struggled. In all fairness, India were denied a 2-0 win by weather and they went in to the last session of every Test with a chance to win. But to be counted as a serious Test team, India need to acquire the skills to bowl a side out in the last 100 overs of a Test, and the failure to do so against a fragile batting side exposed some serious limitations.
India have chosen boldly, and correctly, to invest in youth. And Rahul Dravid put up a spirited defence for his pace bowlers, going to the extent of calling them India's strongest pace-bowling attack since 1996. That could be a bit exaggerated. India's pace combination looked more exciting - and certainly achieved more - on the tour to Pakistan in 2003-04. Irfan Pathan arrived in that series and Laxmipathy Balaji made the ball dart both ways off the pitch. Balaji has since been plagued by injuries and many changes of action. More worrying is the case of Pathan, who has gone from being India's answer to Wasim Akram and the new Kapil Dev (unfair and uninformed comparisons both) to a bundle of confusion and low morale.
Sreesanth took the decisive wickets in the last Test, but only Munaf Patel, even though he couldn't find the reverse swing that made him look deadly against England, looked the part throughout the series. Sreesanth seemed brittle when challenged, while VRV Singh merely remains an exciting prospect. With hindsight, it must be said that the decision to play him in the first two Tests was wrong: he is far from Test-ready.
Looking at the series averages would convince anyone that Indian batsmen had a good time. India put up two scores above 500, four top-order batsmen averaged more than 50 and five of them scored centuries. But look below the surface, and you will see the cracks. Every time the pitch offered assistance to bowlers, the batsmen, barring the magnificent Dravid, were found wanting both in skill and temperament.
They were bowled out for 241 at Antigua where the ball seamed around a bit on the first day, and twice at Jamaica, they found their technique exposed on a pitch that was challenging but, as Anil Kumble proved with pluck and application, by no means unplayable. In fact, while Dravid was batting, it seemed there were two different pitches: he made it look simple, others seemed to be up against the devil.
The Jamaica pitch wouldn't be graded as a good one according to the new definitions laid out by the ICC. It had lateral movement on the first day, spun viciously on the second, the bounce was unreliable throughout, and the match ended on the third day. But for those who grasp the true meaning of Test match cricket, it was a wonderful pitch. It was a test of the skill of batsmen who prosper these days on pitches that do no favours to bowlers, and produced a real match. But expectedly, most batsmen struggled.
By contemporary wisdom, the virtues of technique are overstated. It is perhaps true. Or perhaps we misunderstand the concept, or confuse technique with skill. Good Test batsmen must possess the skill to score runs in different conditions. Yuvraj Singh possesses a wonderful array of strokes, but what good is that if he cannot battle it out on a difficult pitch? On days when things go right for him, he can be unstoppable, and he has two scintillating hundreds as evidence, but it is perhaps not a coincidence that he has only three more fifties from 29 innings. His last ten innings haven't produced a single one, and it should be a worry.
Mohammad Kaif managed a big hundred, but did little else. His dismissal in the first innings in Antigua was particularly worrying. Jerome Taylor is sharp but he is no Shoaib Akhtar. The word that Taylor's short balls repeatedly made Kaif look like a tailender would spread fast. Makhaya Ntini will be waiting.
Once again, Dravid was India's deliverer; it is inconcievable that India would have won without him. Throughout the series he was excellent, and in the final Test, which called for batsmen to stand up and be counted, he was monumental. Has there been an Indian batsman who has achieved more for the team than Dravid? That's a question for another piece. Meanwhile, India must reassess their batting resources. One man, however great, does not make a team.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine