An India to reckon with
How do you compare cricket teams across eras? Is it right to contrast the performances of those who played on uncovered pitches with no helmets with those of cricketers who play on shirtfronts with every kind of protective equipment imaginable? Can we really compare a time when a run-rate of three an over was considered brisk to an era when it's considered tardy?
Given how often lovers of sport, and journalists, wander off into these fantasy realms, exercises like all-time XIs and greatest teams are all too common. They fuel endless debate and argument, and at the end of it all you can be sure that a lot of people will disagree with your conclusion. Ask an Australian which was the greatest team in baggy green and see how the vote splits. Some will swear by Don Bradman's Invincibles, while others will refuse to see beyond the Steve Waugh vintage that won 16 Tests in succession. There will be advocates, too, for Ian Chappell's side, which featured the talents of the Chappell brothers, Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Doug Walters and Rodney Marsh.
The task is actually easier with a team like India, rarely considered a genuine Test force until Sourav Ganguly and John Wright set about changing perceptions in the new millennium. But to say that India had no fine teams before that would be a disservice to those whose efforts in the Caribbean and England in the early 1970s did so much to ensure that cricket became India's sport of choice.
Look at Indian Test history and you can identify three teams that can claim to be special. Between St Valentine's Day in 1971 and mid-February 1973, India played 13 Tests under Ajit Wadekar's stewardship. Victories in Port-of-Spain and at The Oval meant first-ever series wins in the Caribbean and England, and the team followed that up with a 2-1 home triumph against Tony Lewis' Englishmen.
That team had two batting heroes. Sunil Gavaskar didn't play the first Test in the West Indies, but he made 1142 runs at 57.10 in the other 12 matches. Dilip Sardesai played only nine of those games before being dumped at the age of 32, but his 811 runs at 54.06 were critical to Indian success, especially in the Caribbean. Two of the other batting stalwarts had a poor time of it. Gundappa Viswanath had just one hundred and averaged only 33.05 over 11 Tests, while Wadekar's contribution was a modest 30.31 per innings.
The batsmen were to a large extent overshadowed by two of the spin twins. Bishan Singh Bedi played all 13 Tests and took 51 wickets at 31.62, but it was Bhagwath Chandrasekhar who was game-breaker supreme. After being overlooked for the West Indies tour, Chandra took 48 wickets at 21.68 in eight games. His spell of 6 for 38 at The Oval, which included quite a few Mill Reefs - his quicker ones, which not many batsmen could read - was voted Wisden's Indian Bowling Performance of the 20th century a few years ago.
Erapalli Prasanna offered tremendous back-up, with 21 wickets at 29 in six matches, but with Tests so rare in those days, and several in the side ageing, that team wouldn't scale any further peaks. If anything, it was a big trough that awaited them, with the 42 all out at Lord's in 1974 signalling the end of the road for Wadekar as captain and batsman. One more Test and he was gone, taking with him the formula for success overseas.
It wasn't until Wright left Kent and joined the Indians in November 2000 that the team started to shed the garb of lions at home and lambs away. Between December 2001, when they returned home after the Mike Denness fracas in Port Elizabeth and May 2004, the Ganguly-Wright side played 28 Tests. They won 10 of them and lost seven.
They squandered a series lead in the Caribbean in 2002 and were well beaten on seam-friendly surfaces in New Zealand months later, but that period also included drawn series in England and Australia and a first series win on Pakistani soil. They didn't lose a single one of the 10 home Tests (winning five) and were considered Australia's closest contenders before things began to unravel in the autumn of 2004.
With several of that team still having a prominent part to play in the current side, it's interesting to compare their performances then and now. The period following the controversial Sydney Test of 2008 has been one of unprecedented success for the Test team, with 15 wins and only five defeats in 29 games.
Apart from the series in Sri Lanka, when Ajantha Mendis carrom-balled them, India haven't been second-best to anyone, and the run of results has seen them climb right to the top of the rankings. That alone nudges them ahead of the class of 71 and that of 2004.
But how have the main protagonists fared of late when compared to how they did under Wright, another unobtrusive foreign coach? Given his even-keel temperament, it's perhaps no surprise that there's next to no difference in VVS Laxman's figures. Having averaged 58.7 in 27 Tests (five hundreds) in the Ganguly era, he averages 58.85 in 26 games since early 2008, under Anil Kumble and MS Dhoni (four hundreds).
Rahul Dravid, who was the foundation for so many of those successes earlier in the millennium, has seen a marked downturn in his fortunes. In the 28 games he played at the start of the decade, he averaged a staggering 69.74 with eight hundreds. The second flush of success for the team hasn't been anything like as kind. In 27 games, he averages 42.02, with five centuries.
Fortunately for India, the decline in his output has coincided with Sachin Tendulkar enjoying the sunniest of Indian summers. He was hardly a failure under Ganguly and Wright, averaging 57.51 with seven centuries, but post-Sydney his batting has been on another plane. In 27 games, he has scored 11 hundreds while averaging an astonishing 64.47.
The man once seen as his clone has experienced a similar upswing in fortunes. Virender Sehwag had five hundreds in 21 Tests (average of 53) soon after he broke into the side, but since the Australia series in 2007-08, when he returned to the fray, he has pillaged 2997 runs at 59.94. There have been nine centuries and the scoring rate (92 runs per 100 balls) would make most one-day batsmen stare at the ground in shame.
The older side had Ganguly scoring four centuries and averaging 44.08, but his exit hasn't been keenly felt thanks to the emergence of Gautam Gambhir (eight hundreds and an average of 62.73) and the ability of Dhoni (average of 46.36 and three centuries ) to hold the lower order together.
But batting alone can't win you a Test match. Ganguly was fortunate in the extreme to have two spinners bowling as well as they have ever done. Though they couldn't always play together, both Kumble and Harbhajan Singh contributed immeasurably to those successes. After returning from shoulder surgery, Kumble took 116 wickets at 27.83 in 21 Tests, while Harbhajan's return was 83 wickets at 27.12 (19 Tests).
Since 2008, Harbhajan has taken 113 wickets at 33.12 in 25 Tests. Kumble exited the stage in late 2008, but India's strike-power hasn't suffered unduly thanks to Zaheer Khan discovering new strings for his pace-bowling bow. Under Wright and Ganguly, Zaheer was still finding his feet in the international arena and his figures (61 wickets at 32.24 in 20 Tests) are indicative of that. In his last 21 games, he has taken 84 wickets at 30.15, and the strike-rate (53) suggests how integral he has been to the team's success.
If you were to pick a composite team across the three eras, who would be the men in contention? Not surprisingly, most of the slots would be filled by the moderns, with only Gavaskar and Chandrasekhar from the 1971-73 side uncontested picks for the XI. For what it's worth, my team is given below. Let the debates begin.
1. Virender Sehwag, 2. Sunil Gavaskar, 3. Rahul Dravid (2001-04), 4. Sachin Tendulkar (2008-10), 5. VVS Laxman, 6. Sourav Ganguly (capt), 7. MS Dhoni (wk), 8. Anil Kumble, 9. Zaheer Khan, 10. Ishant Sharma (70 wickets at 35.82) 11. Bhagwath Chandrasekhar.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo