October 16, 2010

A team with remarkable belief

India's performances in the second innings of Tests are indicative of how the team has progressed since Sydney 2008

Sachin Tendulkar's paddle-sweep off Nathan Hauritz to seal the series 2-0 against Australia is a moment India and their fans will cherish and look back to often. For one, for a change the chase was set up by two youngsters, who could be the future of the team, and in the winning frame were two veterans, Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, who didn't often have batsmen finishing what they left unfinished in their younger days.

More importantly, it reminded one of the same shot from the same batsman to finish off a chase of 387 in Chennai less than two years ago. Between those two paddle-sweeps, India have successfully chased more than 200 on two occasions, nearly doubling their tally of such wins.

Since Sydney in 2008, which is considered a turning point of sorts for this team, India haven't lost a Test batting fourth. Over this period they have drawn once batting fourth, twice after having fallen behind by big margins in the first innings, three times after having conceded more than 500 in the first innings of the match; and they have come back to level four series.

The results haven't been a fluke: this team - the Test team, not the limited-overs one - has remarkable belief in their abilities. It says a lot about their mental strength, which more than anything has been their hallmark over the last two or three years. Except for the 2000-01 home series against Australia, when India elevated themselves to a completely different space, it is difficult to remember a time when they refused to lose Test matches on so many occasions in so short a span of time.

Perhaps that is why MS Dhoni, the captain, made it a point to credit the team even without being asked. After Bangalore, he said, "One good thing in both the Test matches, even though the last-innings targets were not huge, was that there was pressure on both the sides. Ultimately it was a close finish in both the games. You may look at this scorecard and say this was an easy win, but still there was nervousness in the dressing room."

The subconscious shift in the thinking is hard to not notice. Targets of 216 and 207 are now not considered "huge", never mind that India have scored more to win Tests only on six occasions.

The other pleasing aspect has been that everybody has contributed. If Virender Sehwag has set up wins, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar have been superb in fourth innings, and Gautam Gambhir and Rahul Dravid have done their bit in saving matches. The bowlers, injured and often not the best possible combinations, have managed to be heroes every time India have fallen behind in series. Be it Abhimanyu Mithun and Pragyan Ojha toiling away in Sri Lanka, Zaheer Khan showing his amazing skills with the old ball on flat pitches, Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth finding inspirational spells against the run of play, or Harbhajan Singh picking up the last few wickets in Kolkata with the clock ticking away loudly, they have managed to take 20 wickets on 15 occasions since Sydney.

All the players credit the team of Dhoni and Gary Kirsten - especially the coach - for the mental turnaround. They say that the management has put the team in a happy place from where they can give their best.

The same cannot always be said of the people who decide the schedules. For it is also true that India have let themselves into situations where they have to dig deep in almost every series. It doesn't help that fitness and workload management remain issues. Mohali was the first time, across formats, that India played a first-choice XI since Sri Lanka visited last year. It can't be a mere coincidence, then, that India remain slow starters, beginning two series over the said period with innings defeats and one with a ten-wicket loss. That they remain a fighting No. 1 side, as opposed to a dominating one.

These are interesting times for the Indian Test side. They sit pretty at the top of the ICC rankings, so pretty that there are chances they might stay there even if they lose all their upcoming Tests in South Africa. Still, the ranking will feel hollow if India falter over the next year.

Lots will happen. There will be the World Cup distraction, the big three in the middle order will start making farewell plans, and there will be four overseas tours: South Africa, the West Indies, England and Australia. As it stands, India have beaten Australia in a series at home and lost away, drawn with South Africa at home and lost away, beaten England both home and away, won against Sri Lanka at home and drawn away. The next year will be a great chance to tick those unticked boxes, but it will need all the character India have shown over the last two years. One thing, though, is sure: not many will be writing this team off.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo