Future in a foreign field

With Zimbabwe's lower-order batsmen remembering that they play for an international side and not a Sunday League one, India had to wait longer than expected for a victory that ended one of the most dismal streaks in all of sport. Those that watched Kapil's Devils lay waste a pretty competent England side in the dreary summer of 1986 could scarcely have imagined that such a glorious chapter in the country's cricket history would be followed by almost two decades of famine away from home.

That team, with its core responsible for victories at the 1983 World Cup and the World Championship of Cricket (1985), could have amounted to so much, but a cursory glimpse at the record books will tell you how they failed to deliver when it mattered, especially in Test cricket. There were individual performances to savour, but by the early '90s, Indian cricket had regressed back to its former state - formidable at home, and an unfunny joke abroad.

The match-fixing scandal of 2000 was to be a catalyst of change. Sourav Ganguly, with his confrontational style, was the perfect man to spearhead a new generation which didn't look away when eye-balled by the opposition, and John Wright the ideal candidate to try and infuse ideas of professionalism and attention to detail in a team not renowned for either.

Though they failed to oversee that first series win outside the subcontinent since '86, the tag of travelsick whipping boys was swiftly discarded. In 156 Tests away before the dawn of the Ganguly-Wright era, India had managed a paltry 13 wins, with a sole triumph at Colombo in 1993 to show for 14 years of futility abroad. This victory, India's first-ever by a ten-wicket margin away, was the team's 12 th - against 11 defeats - in 30 Tests abroad since Ganguly succeeded Sachin Tendulkar.

Six of those successes have come against non-minnows, with the victories at Headingley (2002), Adelaide (2003), Multan and Rawalpindi (2004) showcasing the strength of a team that no longer suffers stage fright away from the comforts of home. And while it pales in comparison alongside Australia's record in the same period - 18 wins and 8 defeats in 30 overseas Tests, and not a minnow in sight - it is easily the equal of what any other side has achieved.

England, for all the improvements under Duncan Fletcher, Nasser Hussain and Michael Vaughan, have managed 12 wins and nine losses, while South Africa - bridesmaids for so long - have 11 wins and 11 defeats from 33 games. Pakistan, with 10 wins and nine defeats in 23 Tests, and Sri Lanka - four wins and 10 losses from 19 - can hardly call themselves better travellers, and it must also be noted that only India have gone to Australia and returned without being pulverized.

Too much can't be read into victories against Zimbabwe, a wan excuse for what was once a handy side, but the fact remains that it's only in the past half-decade that India have safely negotiated such banana-skins. For all of the defiance shown by Hamilton Masakadza and Andy Blignaut this morning, it still took India only 99.2 overs to bowl out the opposition twice, with Irfan Pathan returning magical figures of 12 for 126.

With an unwanted monkey off their backs, the challenge for Greg Chappell and his wards is now to start winning consistently away from home, like Australia - and latterly, England - have done. Tours of South Africa and New Zealand are more than a year away, but a trip to the Caribbean next summer will offer a chance at redemption for those who disgraced themselves in 1997 and 2002. And though no stretch of ocean separates the two countries, a rejuvenated Pakistan side will pose tricky questions when India head over in the New Year.

This series win was as emphatic as they come, but ironically, it could also herald a changing of the guard. The captain-coach equation has to be solved urgently, and with Tendulkar due back against the Sri Lankans, two from Ganguly, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif will have to sit out. It will be a time for tough choices, and one can only hope that the selectors face the facts head on, instead of shying away. Having come this far, it will need some tough love to take this team to the next level. The last thing that's needed is namby-pamby diplomacy and another 19-year-long drought. Second place, as a coaching legend archly pointed out, is merely first among the losers.