When Sri Lanka arrived for their first full tour of India for eight years, they had every reason to feel quietly confident. Not only were they the secondranked one-day side in the world, but their opponents were in the middle of a very public coach-captain spat, which eventually led to a change of guard when Rahul Dravid replaced Sourav Ganguly as skipper. But by the time the Sri Lankans flew home for a short break before returning for the three Test matches, they knew they had been well and truly ambushed. Armed with a fresh new attitude, India comprehensively outclassed them in the one-day internationals, the 6-1 scoreline a good reflection of the brand of limited-overs cricket paraded by the two sides. Sri Lanka were conservative, even diffident. There was a lack of freshness, and a reluctance to admit that there was work to be done. In stark contrast, India dared to be different. Dravid and coach Greg Chappell pulled off one masterstroke after another. To the uninitiated, they were experiments; the Indian think-tank, however, chose to call it "strategising", as every move was based on cold cricket logic.
Sri Lanka's coach Tom Moody, who had also applied for the Indian job when John Wright stepped down, claimed after the one-dayers that his side would be better prepared for the Tests than the Indians. But India surged to victories in the last two matches, after the first one was ruined by rain, riding on the momentum generated by the one-day rout, and cashing in on the inexplicable absence from the tourists' line-up of Sanath Jayasuriya, who was omitted after 100 Tests, apparently on the orders of Sri Lanka's sports minister. It was a split tour with wide-ranging ramifications. India needed good results to reassure their fans that the differences off the field would not spill over on to it - Chappell's much-publicised run-in with Ganguly on the tour of Zimbabwe in September had not done much for the image of Indian cricket. An elbow injury to Ganguly thrust the leadership Dravid's way, but by also naming him captain for the South African one-day series that came between the two batches of games against Sri Lanka, the selectors made it clear he was no stopgap.
From uncertain and insecure, Dravid grew into a true leader of men. He led from the front, handled every situation with dignity, did not ask anything of his players that he was unwilling to do himself, and instilled a sense of pride into the team that had temporarily been mislaid. Chappell placed as much onus on discipline and approach, passion and hunger, desire and commitment, as on runs and wickets. Wearing a new cloak of positive energy, this Indian side looked a happy unit. It helped, too, that they rediscovered the winning habit.
There were moments of tribulation along the way, not least when Ganguly was left out of the squad for the final Test at Ahmedabad. He had made 40 and 39 in the previous match, but it was not enough to convince the selectors that he deserved a place ahead of the gifted Yuvraj Singh. A decision based on cricket merit was seen through political eyes; protests and demonstrations in Kolkata threatened to undermine the confidence of a team going into the decisive game of the series. But, to India's credit, they held their own, even with their new captain in hospital with gastroenteritis. Chappell's dream of transforming India into a side that did not depend on one or two individuals had come to fruition. This was Team India in all its splendour.
Where India grew in stature as the matches progressed, Sri Lanka shrank. Caught unawares when India came out blazing in the first one-dayer, they never recovered. And as India kept throwing up one match-winner after another, from established stars to emerging hopefuls, Sri Lanka slid into a quagmire of under-performance and internal squabbling. There was no consistency in batting or bowling, in conditions not unlike their own at home; most tellingly, fielding - usually their strongest suit - deserted them too. By the time the team reached Ahmedabad for the final Test, it was obvious that they could not wait to catch the flight home.
The emergence of Irfan Pathan as an all-rounder was matched only by the brilliance of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, only passable as a wicketkeeper but as explosive a batsman as they come, as he showed with an amazing 183 not out, including 120 in boundaries, in the third one-dayer at Jaipur. It was the attitude of these young guns that will have gladdened Chappell's heart the most.
But nothing boosted morale more than the return of Sachin Tendulkar. He had gone under the knife in May for surgery on persistent tennis elbow in his left arm, but looked none the worse for wear and tear. He was not always consistent, but there was no suggestion that 16 years at the top had done anything to diminish his enthusiasm or his skills. He passed Sunil Gavaskar's record of 34 centuries in the Second Test, which was a monkey off his back, and he looked determined to press on.
Another salvo for the old guard was fired by Anil Kumble. He regained his status as the premier spinner in the Test side, and was named Man of the Series after picking up 20 wickets in the three matches. The Ahmedabad Test was his 100th, tribute to his longevity and a mental strength which has seen him triumph over one setback after another. At 35, his best years ought to be behind him, but more than 200 Test wickets since shoulder surgery in 2001 suggested otherwise.
Match reports for
Tour match: Mumbai Cricket Association President's XI v Sri Lankans at Mumbai, Oct 22, 2005
Tour match: Indian Board President's XI v Sri Lankans at Bangalore, Nov 26-28, 2005