Watching India defeat Australia in a highly entertaining series reconfirmed how far the home side has progressed as a cricket nation in the years since I played against Tiger Pataudi's men in 1967-68.
Pataudi led a side that had two fine spinners, Erapalli Prasanna and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar (much like the current Indian team does), and they soon added a third in Bishan Bedi. The one advantage Pataudi's team had over Virat Kohli's group was close catching; no one could match the bravery and skill of Eknath Solkar. He used to field so close at leg slip, you felt like telling him, "Ekky get out of my back pocket."
What Pataudi's team really lacked was a genuine fast bowler. Kohli's side is way ahead in that regard with a talented group to choose from, headed by the tireless and talented Umesh Yadav. Despite the undoubted skill of Pataudi - he belted the Australian bowlers all over the MCG while batting on one leg with a hamstring strain and only one good eye - and a few of his comrades, Kohli's side is a stronger line-up.
"There have been many individuals in the past who have worn the India cap with pride and stood firm against the strongest of opponents, but in this century it's the whole team that competes"
Even without a substantial contribution from Kohli, India were able to hold at bay a strong Australian pace attack, thanks to the skill of KL Rahul, the dogged and relentless concentration of Cheteshwar Pujara and the defiant strokeplay of Ajinkya Rahane. Rahane's calculated counterattack in the final innings, which carried India to a series win, was symptomatic of how combative Indian cricket has become.
A few former Indian Test cricketers have told stories of how a number of players were more interested in proudly displaying the cap and sweater than competing at the highest level. One player, who had shown fine form in the tour matches in Australia in 1977-78, was informed he'd been included in the next Test side. On hearing the news he was about to face the fast and furious pace bowling of Jeff Thomson, he responded, "Why me?"
For some time now, the Indian side has been more than willing to compete with the best. Consequently, they have risen to the top of the Test rankings, in addition to holding a similar spot at different times in the shorter forms of the game. There have been many individuals in the past who have worn the India cap with pride and stood firm against the strongest of opponents, but in this century it's the whole team that competes.
Players like Pataudi, Prasanna, Bedi, Farokh Engineer and Sunil Gavaskar are good examples of past Indian players who were out there to compete. Playing against those guys, you knew you were in for a fight. They spoke of how they were inspired by past players like Vijay Hazare, Vijay Manjrekar, Vinoo Mankad and others of that ilk. In turn, Pataudi and Co inspired the next generation, which included standout competitors like Ravi Shastri and Kapil Dev.
The inspiration of these past players led to a golden era in Indian cricket with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman not taking a backward step against any opponent. Along the way, the leadership also became more combative and the players acclimatised better to overseas conditions. All these factors have culminated in India rising to the No. 1 Test ranking.
India's path to the top wouldn't have been possible without some strong leadership off the field. The man who showed the way was Jagmohan Dalmiya, who set both the BCCI and the ICC on the path to riches, and with the money came power. Indian cricket is now a rich and powerful operation - the Facebook of the international game.
While Kohli is currently the face of Indian cricket, there have been many players along the way who have helped raise the standard to this lofty level. With many established stars, and rising talents like Rahul and Kuldeep Yadav, India will remain a highly combative and eminently watchable team in the foreseeable future.