India’s prosperity in the one-day game, and austere times in the Test arena should surprise no one that’s even remotely clued into the game. The more complex skill-sets needed for the longer version mean that revitalisation will take longer than it would in the one-dayers, where a fresh face or three can engineer an immediate turnaround. Frankly, it’s laughable to read anguished columns about India’s decline as a Test side. Decline implies a previous state of excellence, a tall claim for a team that hasn’t won a series of note outside the subcontinent since Rahul Dravid was playing schools cricket.
There were three great results in the time that Sourav Ganguly and John Wright guided the team beyond the turbulent waters of the match-fixing scandal. The first was a stunning home win against Australia, the result of three scarcely believable individual performances – VVS Laxman and Dravid (never forget that he was Butch Cassidy to Laxman’s Sundance Kid) at Kolkata, and Harbhajan Singh over the final two Tests. That was followed nearly three years later by a draw in Australia, albeit against a side lacking the irreplaceable Glenn McGrath, and an epochal first series win in Pakistan, against opponents riddled with problems.
In between, series were drawn away in England, at home against a New Zealand team that played the percentages beautifully, and a Pakistan team that escaped defeat in Mohali to inflict a final-day mauling in Bangalore. There was a shellacking at Australian hands on home turf in 2004 – with the captain bailing out half an hour before the toss in the decisive Test – and also the now-familiar capitulation in the West Indies, against bowlers who wouldn’t even have been allowed near the nets in Caribbean cricket’s heyday. A good team with three or four batsmen that had legitimate claims to greatness? Perhaps. World-beaters? Only if you were blinded by patriotism and under the influence.
The one-day side’s descent into hell was far more worrying. Having reached the final of the ICC Champions Trophy in 2000 and 2002 – when they shared the trophy with Sri Lanka – India were second only to a magnificent Australian side at the World Cup in 2003. Thereafter, they could put away only the minnows, with an abysmally ineffectual bowling attack and a batting order living on hype being no match for the world’s finest.
The reversal of fortune engineered by the team management since the home season started has been little short of astonishing. The dead wood has been ruthlessly chopped away, and some of the new faces introduced like Suresh Raina and S Sreesanth have the potential to be big players for years to come. But change being a painful process, there has been much resistance, both within the system and without. The resounding success of the one-day side has vindicated those that instigated it, and the relative failure of the Test team is just further proof that you ignore precocious talent at your peril.
India’s dismal defeat at Karachi had a lot to do with an innings for the ages from Kamran Akmal, but it also owed much to the fact that the team management were not given the team that they asked for. Had a Sreesanth or another right-arm pace bowler travelled across the border – those whose reputations were at stake had pleaded the case – there would have been no three-man left-arm attack of mind-numbing sameness. And had those in the know been allowed their way, there would have been no tampering with the batting order to accommodate individuals at such a cost.
What has been especially heartening about the one-day renaissance has been the journey away from the cult of the individual. Each man has been called upon to perform so many roles that it leaves little room for prima donnas or the lazy ones who hold those around them back. While Yuvraj Singh has grabbed the headlines with several innings of incandescent brilliance, the support cast of Tendulkar, Dravid, Raina, Pathan and, especially, Dhoni has been just as influential. The bowling spoils have also been shared around, with the likes of Pathan, RP Singh, Harbhajan, Sreesanth and Powar all producing match-turning performances. And while the lack of form of Sehwag and Kaif has been a worry, the cohesiveness and sense of purpose has been such that the team has endeavoured to nurse them through the rough patch.
Australia’s conservative approach, especially the failure to play the in-form Michael Hussey, cost them the Ashes a year ago. If it can happen to the best, you can imagine what a stick-in-the-mud approach will do to a team like India. Those that contemptuously dismiss the one-day game as an irrelevance also tend to be ignorant of recent history. Australia’s trek to world domination was based on the self-belief instilled by a World Cup win on the subcontinent in 1987, and three of the cornerstones of the side – Steve Waugh, David Boon and Geoff Marsh – were handpicked out of obscurity by a selection panel that included a certain Gregory Stephen Chappell.
At the same time, those that label Dravid a puppet captain haven’t a clue about the team dynamics. Dravid, as evinced by his sterling displays in times of crisis, has always had the ruthless streak that separates the very best from the merely good, and his captaincy, save for the odd blip like the Mumbai toss, has been clever, proactive and characterised by his leading from the front. If McGrath, Warne and Flintoff don’t think him a soft touch, we can safely conclude that those who do are either peddling a certain agenda or a little soft in the head.
Past glories may be recalled and celebrated, but cricket teams don’t win matches on the back of them. The sooner the winds of change wafts through the Test team – Munaf Patel and Sreesanth have already provided a welcome lungful of fresh air – the sooner the chances of it being as competitive and sharp as the one-day version. It would also help if people didn’t kid themselves with delusions of a grandeur that never was.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo