India December 31, 2008

One blip, many highs

Australia and succession were handled well, but there was a stutter in Sri Lanka

One for the album: India after clinching the return series against Australia © Getty Images

A year that began with defeat in one of the most controversial Tests of the modern age ended with a cathartic run-chase that transcended cricket. Two thousand eight wasn't without its embarrassments - being bowled out inside 20 overs in a Test match surely wasn't part of the script - but Test victories over Australia and England, and convincing one-day triumphs in Australia and Sri Lanka, meant that this was a 12-month period to savour. Two legends of the Indian game, Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly, bid adieu, but newcomers like Gautam Gambhir and Ishant Sharma established themselves, to ensure that the future looked as bright as it had ever been.

The early part of the year was dominated by events at the Sydney Cricket Ground - umpiring controversies, allegations of conduct that flouted the spirit of cricket, and a dramatic last-gasp finish - but in the months that followed, Indian cricket seemed to gain strength from its experience of that adversity. The tri-nation tournament in Australia was comfortably won after Sachin Tendulkar scripted two epic innings and Praveen Kumar proved an unexpected joker in the bowling pack.

After Sydney, India ceded no ground to Australia. In six subsequent Test matches, they won three and drew the rest. Kumble led them to a famous success in Perth, but by the time a series was clinched on home soil, the baton had been passed. Mahendra Singh Dhoni led with verve and his unique brand of cool to inspire victories at Mohali and Nagpur, and for once, Australia had no answers.

India's big blip of the year came in Dhoni's absence, in Sri Lanka. Though Virender Sehwag's strokemaking brilliance helped them to victory in Galle, Sri Lanka were streets ahead in the two Tests played in Colombo, with Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan humiliating the most feted batting line-up in the game.

Dhoni's decision to take a break had been prompted by a nightmarish schedule that saw two back-to-back one-day tournaments immediately after the inaugural season of the Indian Premier League. His Chennai Super Kings had been denied at the death in the IPL, and Dhoni was helpless to prevent the same fate in the Kitply Cup and the Asia Cup, with Pakistan and Sri Lanka proving too strong at the final hurdle. The Asia Cup nemesis would become a familiar foe a month later. Mendis' 6 for 13 was candidate for spell of the year, but with their victory on Lankan soil two months later, Dhoni's men proved that they could learn from their mistakes.

The IPL saw its share of thrills and dramatic falls from grace, starting with Brendon McCullum's 13-six assault in the tournament opener in Bangalore. The three most expensive franchises - Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad - all failed to make the last four, and the Cinderella story was written by Shane Warne and his Rajasthan Royals, by some distance the least expensive team. Warne played a huge role in the success, and the mammoth crowds and record TV ratings suggested that Lalit Modi's experiment with the club system is certainly here to stay.

High point
No one-day or Twenty20 game could come close to matching a Test for pure excitement. England outplayed India for most of the game in Chennai, and most teams wouldn't even think of chasing 387 to win a Test, but then most teams don't have Sehwag opening the innings. The 50 came up in the sixth over, and though he was dismissed for 83, before stumps on the fourth evening, it left India needing to score just 256 on the final day. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman couldn't stick around, but Tendulkar ensured that there would be no repeat of the 1999 heartbreak against Pakistan. This time he stayed right till the end, with Yuvraj's dashing 85 providing sterling support, clinching victory as only a champion could - with a deft stroke that also raised his 41st century. Three weeks on from the terror attacks in Mumbai, a nation smiled and saluted its favourite son.

Start as you mean to go on: Dhoni has won four of his first five Tests as captain © AFP

Low point
The two defeats in Sri Lanka were hopelessly one-sided. Tendulkar finished the series with 95 runs, Ganguly with 96. Even more painful, though, was the drubbing in Ahmedabad at South African hands. On a green-tinged pitch, India lasted the length of a Twenty20 innings against the pace and accuracy of Dale Steyn, Makhaya Ntini and Morne Morkel.

New kid on the block
Ishant Sharma's spells to Ricky Ponting in Perth and Mohali were little vignettes of Test cricket at its finest - a top-class batsman being given the runaround by a young tyro with something to prove. With his height, Ishant gets steepling bounce and he's as adept with the old ball as he is with the new one. The hair may have gone for a snip, but unlike Samson, he certainly hasn't lost his strength.

What 2009 holds
In 2008, India made a concerted push towards the top of the table in both forms of the game. Dhoni, the new leader, doesn't believe in rankings. "As long as we keep performing in the middle, they will take care of themselves," he says. That's an admirable attitude to have.

A real test of progress will come in New Zealand, where India haven't won for four decades. There's also the small matter of defending the World Twenty20 crown in England in the summer. With its blend of experience and mature youth, nothing is beyond this team, though.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo