August 9, 2007

The last hurdle

Will the Oval Test see India's reputation as poor finishers change?

Zaheer Khan has Michael Vaughan caught at The Oval in 2002 ... but only after he had made 195 © Getty Images
Bella the elephant won't be around, and there's unlikely to be a triumphant motorcade down Marine Drive afterwards, but it's fair to say that this Oval Test will be the most important that India have played since they came so close to pooping Steve Waugh's party at Sydney in January 2004. For the golden generation, the sands of time are trickling away; this series is the first of three that will define the last phase of some stellar careers.

With due apologies to the likes of South Africa and Sri Lanka, the three marquee series for India will always be England, Pakistan and Australia, in no particular order. One against the old rulers, the second against "the other half", and the third a recent rivalry that caught the world's imagination after an epic series in India in 2001.

The likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble may conceivably carry on even after the tour of Australia early next year, but they won't be playing any more series of such magnitude. In that sense, this six-month stretch, with the biggest matches possible, truly represents the end of an era.

For all the individual achievements, India have not managed to do what great teams do, and win a neon-light series away from home. Victory in Pakistan in 2004 was an epochal one, especially after 50 years of not so much as a sniff of success, but that was a Pakistan team in disarray and one prone to the same inconsistency that afflicts the Indians.

The ones that got away stick in the mind much more. Sydney was the prime example, with some terrible wicketkeeping and Waugh's defiance holding off an Indian charge on the final afternoon. Perhaps even more painful was the defeat in Cape Town last January, when even an "Indian" pitch couldn't rouse a batting line-up that fired blanks when South Africa were tied up and there for the taking.

Over the course of the decade India have managed several breakthrough wins without going on to stitch together a series of results to rival those racked up by Australia - or even England during a two-year golden run that culminated in the Ashes being regained in 2005. And what has hurt supporters more is that on several occasions it was the main men who let the side down while lesser lights shone.

Given the team's yo-yo nature, it was almost ordained that they would do well in England after the ignominious World Cup exit. The Lord's escape was fortuitous, but luck had little to with the Trent Bridge triumph, where Zaheer Khan's swing and a disciplined batting display saw England comprehensively outplayed.

One that got away: India's failure to seal the win at Sydney in 2004 was among the biggest disappointments in their recent cricket history © Getty Images
And so to The Oval, a venue where India haven't lost a Test since 1959. Nearly four decades on, the 1971 win resonates as perhaps the most significant in India's cricket history. England were the best team in the world then, and the victory that Bhagwat Chandrasekhar's freakish legspin helped inspire ensured that Indian cricketers would never again be considered children of a lesser sporting God.

Victory or a draw at The Oval won't make India the world's best side, but it will go a long way towards healing the wounds of the past two years, when a team that promised so much in the aftermath of Sydney careered off the rails. Old stars grew dim, the new ones disappeared into a void, and darkness descended on a March afternoon at the Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad, once the scene of India's most famous run-chase.

Since then, there have been signs of a renaissance in the old guard, and consolidation of young talent like Dinesh Karthik. Most heartening, though, has been the resurgence of Zaheer - an indication that the in-between generation may not be washed up after all.

Five years ago, splendid innings from Michael Vaughan and Dravid cancelled each other out in a high-scoring draw. And with London finally seeing some summer sunshine, such a result is more than likely over the next few days. For an Indian team still seeking a career-defining series triumph away from home, that would be as sweet as any victory.

Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo.