July 31, 2011

How have India remained No. 1 this long?

The credit goes to MS Dhoni, who has shrewdly managed with a thin attack, but leaving England with their top billing intact is the team's biggest challenge

The surprise is not that India could lose their No. 1 Test ranking but rather how they managed to retain it so long.

At the time when India reached the No. 1 spot they didn't have the look of a long-term resident. Unlike the two previous teams that held the top ranking for lengthy periods, India do not have a strong bowling attack. West Indies and Australia not only had four top-class bowlers in their sides, but also a couple of replacements who would have been frontline bowlers in most other Test teams.

India have mostly only fielded three good Test bowlers. Zaheer Khan is undoubtedly the leader of the attack, and Ishant Sharma and Harbhajan Singh have provided occasional glimpses of class, but both are inconsistent. Sreesanth, as he was at Trent Bridge, can be both devastating and disappointing on the same day.

Despite an exceptionally strong batting line-up, India, because their attack has never been dominant, have always given the appearance of being a squatter rather than an owner.

So how have India survived so long at No. 1? The attacking threat of Virender Sehwag has helped enormously. However, a large chunk of India's success can be put down to the shrewd manoeuvring of the captain MS Dhoni.

Dhoni has managed to get the best out of his bowlers. When Zaheer has been out with injury, Dhoni has still found a way to mix and match well enough to beat the opposition. It has helped that Zaheer was available for the toughest challenges against Australia and South Africa. So it's no surprise that with him missing from most of the action at Lord's, India struggled against a strong England side.

Lord's provided India with a double-whammy because Sehwag was also missing. The fact that Dhoni inserted the opposition at Lord's is an indication of how much Sehwag means to India. It was also probably the first sign that even the strong-minded Dhoni was starting to doubt India's bowling. He must have felt that India's underdone attack, especially Zaheer, who was returning from injury, would need all the help they could get, and consequently bowled first under cloudy skies.

Any doubts a captain might have, no matter how hard he tries to disguise them, will show up somewhere in his actions. His own team will most likely suspect he has doubts, and the opposition, if they're any good, will be sure of it.

Dhoni is nothing if not a fighter but the odds are mounting. In the field, his ageing side has bigger cracks than a slip zone; his own keeping has regressed enormously and his bowlers are susceptible to attack

England were quickly aware of Dhoni's doubts. After proceeding cautiously, they pounced when the time was right. A hungry cheetah couldn't have done a better job of plotting and executing the kill.

In keeping India at the top for so long, Dhoni has well and truly fulfilled the most important role of a captain. He has made his team better and got the best out of the players.

However, with Zaheer injured, Sehwag missing, Harbhajan waning and an ageing fielding side gifting runs, Dhoni is currently like the boy at the dyke; every time he plugs a leak another appears.

He managed to plug another hole by giving his bowlers first opportunity on a favourable surface at Trent Bridge. However, the doubts crept in near the end of England's innings, and once again India are fighting to cling to their No. 1 ranking.

Dhoni is nothing if not a fighter but the odds are mounting. In the field, his ageing side has bigger cracks than a slip zone; his own keeping has regressed enormously and his bowlers are susceptible to attack.

England are aware of the bowlers' weaknesses, and will take every opportunity to exploit it. If Dhoni can keep this series level until the cavalry arrives, i.e. Sehwag and Zaheer, he will have performed a captaincy miracle.

To date Dhoni's greatest achievement as Indian captain has been to guide the team to a magnificent World Cup victory. If his team is still at the top of the Test rankings after this series with England, he will have surpassed that monumental achievement.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist