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India scaled the peaks in the few Tests they played, but it wasn't all sunny in limited-overs cricket
December 31, 2009
This year the space-time India inhabited was anything but the year 2009. Their batsmen challenged norms, redefined audacity, and went at a pace that wouldn't be out of place in 2019. Their fielding - and for the major part their bowling - slipped into an era gone by: in the limited-overs game, they would have been put to shame by some sides from 1999. In a period of three weeks India beat their record for highest Test score in a day, then beat it again, conceded more runs in a day than they had ever before, and a higher total in India than ever before. In ODIs they led the way both in scoring 300-plus totals (10 times) and conceding them (nine times).
What India sowed in 2008, they reaped in 2009, becoming the No. 1 side in ODIs for a brief while, and ending the year as the No. 1 Test side, despite having played only six Tests. Three of those were away matches against seventh-ranked New Zealand, and the others were home games against Sri Lanka, who had never previously won in India. In a frenzied year of extremes - unbelievable batting performances, first win in New Zealand in 40 years, fielding bordering on the ridiculous, first-round exits from two world events, and then the eventual rise to top of Test rankings - they found time to show character and save two Tests from losing positions.
In a crunched calendar they also found time to provide some comic relief through the leaked sex dossier and the parading of team unity in a press conference. Around those two trivial events lurked a serious doubt regarding the techniques of the new batting stars and the sudden bare look that the fast-bowling cupboard wore.
The first ones to panic after the bouncers exposed some of the younger batsmen at the World Twenty20 were the selectors. Back came Rahul Dravid, out went the youngsters. The Champions Trophy on bouncy pitches in South Africa negotiated, out went Dravid and back came the youngsters. The message sent to both parties could not have been worse: Dravid was left with reason to be feel slighted; the Rohit Sharmas and the Suresh Rainas were effectively told that they could not be trusted.
The next ones to panic were the BCCI, who summarily sacked without reason and without notice Venkatesh Prasad, the bowling coach, and Robin Singh, the fielding coach, a day before Diwali. Towards the end of the year, when the bowlers were struggling to defend 414 in an ODI and the fielders were dropping catches like hot bricks, Prasad and Robin would have spared themselves a smile. As the last match of the year, the Delhi ODI, proved, the board still had more sacking to do.
If the youngsters were still finding their feet, it was reassuring how Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid and VVS Laxman - part of the infamous voluntary-retirement scheme last year - looked good to last beyond 2011, the year of the devil, the year of the World Cup. Twice Tendulkar, now 20 years old in international cricket, threatened to score a double-century in an ODI; Dravid finally got rid of his temporary habit of fluffing good starts; and although Laxman scored just one century, not many can find fault with an average of 67.28.
The positives of 2009, though, can best be summed up by the contributions of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and MS Dhoni. Sehwag represented ambition, creativity and disrespect for decorum. His two ODI centuries in fewer than 70 balls, his 284 runs in one Test day, his admission that he felt sorry for the bowlers he dismantled, the way he played around with the definition of a bad ball, were pure joy.
Gambhir embodied ruthlessness and toughness, batting in the Dravid mould, drawing the Napier Test by playing out of his skin, overseeing the Ahmedabad draw, scoring four centuries in nine Test innings, and twice getting 150 in the ODIs.
Dhoni, safe, inconspicuous and still an unbeaten captain in Tests, was the rock around which the ODI team flourished. He let the flashier batsmen play their natural games, yet finished as the world's joint-highest run-getter for the year and reinforced his reputation as the best ODI batsman in the world.
The year, which ended as it began, with ODI series wins against Sri Lanka, seemed too long. When India were failing in the limited-overs formats, their impressive showing in New Zealand was forgotten. When their last Test of the year took them to No. 1, the BCCI started to try and squeeze more Tests into the programme, to defend the ranking. Suddenly it was as if the World Twenty20, the Champions Trophy, the loss to a second-string Australia, hadn't happened. Yes, there was no time in 2009 to pause and reflect. Yes, we don't know which year India actually inhabited.
Getting to No. 1 was reward for hard work over the decade, not just this year. It had been a long journey towards the top, which started perhaps from the time India won the Kolkata Test of 2001. There were many obstacles they had to clear along the way: start fighting outside the subcontinent, find suitable openers, find genuine fast bowlers, finish games, salvage draws from impossible situations. It took them 10 years to get there, and obviously it was going to be a special moment when they finally did, through their win in the Brabourne Test, marked by a Sehwag special.
Since Dhoni has become captain, India have enjoyed a proud record in bilateral series. They were not hot in the world events, though. They hardly put up a defence of their World Twenty20 crown, and fizzled out of the Champions Trophy without a fight. Is it the knockout atmosphere that is getting to them? They will want to prove otherwise.
What 2010 holds
Thankfully there seems to be an acknowledgment that being No. 1 in ICC rankings and being the best are not synonymous. To become the best, India need to beat South Africa, Australia and Sri Lanka away. That journey will start towards the end of 2010, with India travelling to South Africa. Apart from that, the board will have to find time to arrange more Test matches for an aspiring side: six is not nearly enough.
Limited-overs cricket will keep putting pressure on the bowlers and fielders. They will get a go at the World Twenty20 again, before the road to the 2011 World Cup begins.
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