A decent year, but don't mention the bowling
December 31, 2012. India have lost a home Test series to England to go with the 4-0 whitewash in Australia earlier in the year. They have lost an ODI to Pakistan, and are about to go down in the home ODI series. Forget a season full of home Tests and only two away, if somebody had told you it would take India a poor session on their final day of international cricket in 2013 to lose their first Test of the year, you would have kissed the hands of that somebody if you were an India fan. Add to it the Champions Trophy, the only ICC prize missing in captain MS Dhoni's cabinet, and you could be looking at a great year.
It was always going to be a year of repair for India. They were struggling with the grammar of Test cricket, had too many slow legs and tired minds, and had about a year of rebuilding before they went into big tests away from home. In a way, the wins at home would lose half their sheen if they didn't compete against South Africa in the last 15 days of the year. Before those 15 days, though, India had to go through a lot of tough decisions.
Towards the end of 2012, Gautam Gambhir, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh, important parts of India's No. 1 Test side, left the selectors no option but to drop them. That it came to this says a lot about the previous selection committee. The new players who came in brought freshness and hunger. Those qualities alone do not cut it, though. These new players also brought basic skill, and India kept winning, even as the expectations stayed reasonable.
Before the last 15 days of the year, India won everything that was really important. Australia were blanked 4-0 at home, but the players who had said to the Australians, "We'll see you at home", when losing Down Under were not around to enjoy the win. India were outsiders when they went to England for the Champions Trophy, but somehow managed to pull off a heist despite a thin bowling attack. Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma scored centuries on their Test debuts, Ravindra Jadeja and Mohammed Shami were revelations with the ball, and Ajinkya Rahane capped off the year nicely in South Africa.
In between those two events came the IPL, which continued to rob India of young fast bowlers. The list of promising quicks who are content with playing just the IPL is getting way too long. One fast bowler lost more: Sreesanth and the whole IPL spot-fixing scandal was the biggest story in Indian cricket in 2013. It was against the backdrop of this scandal that India went to the Champions Trophy. That win was all the reassurance the desperate Indian cricket fan needed. MS Dhoni had now managed the improbable: won a world event with a young batting line-up and an attack about as reliable as a sombrero in a storm.
The rest of the year built up to India's big tour of South Africa. "Big" is a misnomer here because administrative tussles between the BCCI and CSA turned it into a little big tour. Virat Kohli began to dream of scoring a century in South Africa even as he prepared for the ODI feast against Australia at home. Others felt the same. They might not have got much time to get acclimatised in South Africa, but India went mentally charged up.
Just before those last 15 days began, though, India found their bowlers putting the side under so much pressure, they couldn't bat properly, and they lost both the completed ODIs in South Africa. In the two Tests, though, the batsmen played with such maturity and assuredness that you felt the future of the batting was in safe hands. That with at least two of them - Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara - you could expect a certain degree of consistency. Predictable standards from at least two batsmen is what every Test side needs in a batting line-up.
In the Test series, India showed they can compete with the best in the world; this ability had begun to be questioned towards the end of 2012. They lost 1-0 in South Africa, but they did better than expected. They also pushed the best side in the world hard in the first Test.
There were gains to be looked at towards the end of a year during which India won 29 of the 43 international matches they played. However, all that can't paper over the lack of bowlers who can stay fit, intense and skilful for a considerable period of time.
You might want to go with the Champions Trophy win or even the draw at the Wanderers, but the efficiency and ruthlessness with which India beat Australia at home should take the honour. There was a synergy in the effort: the curators gave India the home advantage they asked for, India in turn asked their young batsmen to work hard on difficult pitches, and the young spinners all delivered. It is up for debate whether this will work as a long-term strategy, and if it will affect the development of fast bowlers for overseas tours, but this was a time when India needed a win badly; they needed the youngsters to know what it feels like to win a Test series. Any win would have done; 4-0 was an absolute bonus.
The fact that even 350 didn't seem a safe total against a half-decent batting side in an ODI. India will need to do something about that before they go to the World Cup in early 2015.
New(ish) kid on the block
This was not an arrival but a comeback. There aren't many who didn't scoff a little at the prospect of Jadeja playing Test cricket as a designated allrounder, coming in ahead of R Ashwin. By the end of the year, he was the one doing the laughing, having taken 30 wickets in five Tests at an average of 19, including the first Indian spin five-for away from home in three years. Jadeja showed that he merited a place in the side as a spinner alone. He also reiterated that our sport takes all sorts. His fast, unsubtle but accurate spin might just have as much of a place in Test cricket as the classical, more beautiful flight and drift and dip do.
What 2014 holds
A sterner test. Eleven Tests out of Asia. This is a year when India will continuously be on the road, when their batting skill and bowling endurance will be tested. Two in New Zealand will be a tight affair, but five and four in England and Australia will push India - for whom two Tests right now seem the ideal duration of a Test series - further. You shudder to imagine what shape their attack would have been in for a third Test, had there been one in South Africa. The core of the batting, though, has been put in place. It's only the bowling that will need big decisions: Ashwin and Jadeja can manage the away spin load between them, Shami should be persisted with, Zaheer Khan will need to be constantly reassessed, but where is the third seamer? The same question will trouble Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher in the ODIs too, this being the year before the World Cup.
Before that, though, there is a World Twenty20, most likely in Bangladesh. Another ICC trophy can't be ruled out.