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Lambs abroad

When you wait till March 21 for your first international win of the year against major opposition - and in a T20 at that - you know you have had a tough year. When you win only one Test out of ten, the worst record among all Test teams bar Zimbabwe, and that's one more win than expected because you didn't play a home Test in the year, you know how low your team has fallen in esteem.

Yet the biggest theme of the year for India was missed opportunities. Unlike on their last set of overseas tours, when they lost eight Tests in a row, this young Indian team created opportunities. It was in a position to push for a win in five Tests, but crossed the line only in one. There was no white flag, except during the last two Tests in England. Three of their batsmen averaged in the 40s, which is not a bad effort for batsmen playing so much testing cricket for the first time in their lives. Yet again, though, those creatures that win you Tests, bowlers, went AWOL. Only one of India's bowlers averaged under 30, which was a pleasant surprise.

All those near-misses must have taken a physical, emotional and psychological toll on their captain, who shocked everyone by retiring from Tests on the last day of cricket in the year. It was probably about time too. India need new ideas and a fresh keeper.

In limited-overs though, Dhoni the keeper, Dhoni the captain and Dhoni the batsman are still a big asset. India began the year in ODIs worryingly, failing to win a game in the five-match series in one of the World Cup host countries, New Zealand. They beat only Bangladesh and Afghanistan in the Asia Cup. But in the second half of the year they were reinvigorated. Despite the thrashing they received in the Tests in England, they came back strongly to win the ODI series there, and beat West Indies and Sri Lanka in home series easily.

India enter the World Cup ranked No. 2 in ODIs, but they are not a settled side. Bowlers as usual remain a worry, and added to that is the opening conundrum, with Ajinkya Rahane having thrown his hat in when Rohit Sharma was injured. So close to the World Cup and they haven't decided on a combination yet.

Back to that first international win now. Like in the Champions Trophy last year, it came at the height of controversy over impropriety and conflicts of interest in the administrative affairs of Indian cricket. Dhoni stayed away from it all, refusing to comment or defend himself against pointed fingers. Like in the Champions Trophy last year, India kept winning matches in the World T20 until they ran into the clinical Sri Lankans in the final.

High point
Indian cricket runs in cycles. They win a lot at home, and almost nothing away. The Lord's win will be cherished for long. Put in on a green seamer, under overcast skies, an inexperienced India registered their first win at the venue since 1986. Contributions came from every player: Rahane scored a hundred to rescue them from a position of 145 for 7; Bhuvneshwar Kumar followed up his crucial 36 with a six-for to keep the deficit down to 24; M Vijay's 95 combined with Ravindra Jadeja's daredevil 68 and Bhuvneshwar's fifty set England 319. And then Ishant Sharma bounced England out at the behest, nay insistence, of Dhoni.

Low point
It would be tempting to consider the last two Tests in England the low point, Tests in which India lasted a total of 180.1 overs, but cast an eye also on Wellington. New Zealand were still 152 runs away from avoiding an innings defeat when Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling came together. This would have been a rare dominant away Test win for India. Yet the bowlers, the captain, the fielders all faltered, to watch and watch as New Zealand ended up with 680 for 8 declared from 94 for 5.

New(ish) kid on the block
Three overseas tours, three centuries, a ton in each country. India didn't lose any of the matches in which Rahane scored hundreds. None of them was a soft, fill-your-boots century made after the top order had tired the bowlers. He helped India recover from 165 for 5 in Wellington, 145 for 7 at Lord's, and 147 for 3 in Melbourne. Rahane, who played ten of his 13 Tests this year, was - along with Vijay - India's best player of the year. He scored runs in ODIs too, finally crossing that century barrier, and then adding another. All this he did in a quiet and understated fashion in what has become a brash and over-sensitive team.

What 2015 holds
The World Cup. Everything leads to the World Cup. Three good matches and India can retain it. One bad knockout match and they could be back home. After that, a long series of easy home matches. The BCCI wants more home matches because they make everybody more money.

This could also be a year in which India move past Dhoni. The manner of his Test retirement suggests there won't be an elaborate warning before he exits ODIs as well. A big year ahead.