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Perhaps it was just as well that the Indian government refused permission to the Indian team to participate in the Sharjah triseries. For there is no doubt that the Indian players are almost desperately in need of a break. As compared to a few other seasons, perhaps the 2000-2001 season, on the face of it, was not that taxing. A total of six Tests and 19 one day internationals does not compare with some of the previous seasons when the team played more Tests and ODIs and went on more tours.
In the period under review, the Indians started their international engagements in October with the ICC KnockOut tournament in Kenya where they played four ODIs. They then proceeded to Sharjah and played five ODIs. In November they went to Dhaka to play the inaugural Test against Bangladesh. Back home it was time to take on Zimbabwe in two Tests and five ODIs. Then after a short break during which the cricketers played in domestic tournaments and attended the preparatory camp for the Australian series, there were three Tests and five ODIs against Steve Waugh's men. Competing in the tournament at Sharjah would have meant that the Indian players had rest for only about one month before the next engagement - the tour of Zimbabwe in May-June. This way at least the players can have an extra fortnight or so and their attitude at the end of the ODI series against Australia showed that they more than welcomed this. Sourav Ganguly for one has made no secret of the fact that he can do with a break and the same will doubtlessly be the desire of the other players too.
As I said, on the face of it, the season's programme might not look very protracted. But certainly it was as taxing as any other seemingly more strenuous season for one simple reason - the cricketers certainly participated in a number of high voltage contests that stretched their physical and mental abilities. They peaked early in the season when they entered the final of the ICC KnockOut tournament with victories over Kenya, Australia and South Africa before losing to New Zealand in a thriller in the final. About the only game where there was no pressure was in the one-off Test against Bangladesh. But here again the Indians encountered some opposition and had to raise their game to ultimately register a nine wicket victory. Zimbabwe were expected to be pushovers but proved to be worthy opponents and again India had to push up the level of their game a notch or two to win the two match Test series 1-0 and the five match ODI series by four matches to one.
Certainly the performance of the Indian team thus far had raised little hopes of them winning the Test series against the all conquering Australians. But with a superhuman effort, they turned a 0-1 deficit into a 2-1 triumph and then maintained the momentum by matching the visitors in the one day series too before going down by three matches to two. By this time one could see that the players were physically and mentally drained out. They had raised the level of their game all too frequently in an all out effort to get the better of worthy or formidable opposition and this finally told on them. Seldom has an Indian team taken part in a series of successive deeply intense and high profile contests. Probably the off the field skirmishes, notably between the two captains, and the increasingly boorish behaviour of the players on the field were an offshoot of the tension that the matches generated. That's the time a person needs a break and viewed even from this angle, the fact that the Indian team was not allowed to go to Sharjah was indeed a blessing in disguise.
Looking back at the crowded programme of the past six months, it would not be out of place to term it eventful. Any season, which is marked by the kind of victory that India notched up against Australia at Kolkata, the showing in the ICC KnockOut tournament at Nairobi and several great individual performances, notably by VVS Laxman and Harbhajan Singh, has to be memorable viewed by any yardstick. Winning four of the six Tests and the majority of the ODIs played is something to rejoice.
But it was not sunny all the way. By the end of the season, Indian cricket was still without a reliable opening pair, even though some progress had been made by the duo of Ramesh and Das. There continued to be a question mark over the wicketkeeper's slot, proof of this being the fact that four stumpers were tried out in the six Tests. The pace attack was also a cause for some worry and the lack of a genuine all rounder was all too obvious. On the other side of the coin, the batting remained strong and the emergence of Laxman from out of the shadows removed some of the responsibility from the `big three' of Ganguly, Dravid and Tendulkar. The startling rise of Harbhajan gives rise to the belief that a capable spin attack is round the corner, once Anil Kumble returns after treatment to his shoulder injury is complete. And the promise shown by players like Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Hemang Badani, RS Sodhi, Virender Shewag and Sarandeep Singh augurs well for the future.
As regards the captain, Sourav Ganguly might not be the most popular cricketer with the Aussies or even in this country. But there is no doubt that with all his drawbacks, he has many of the qualities that go into the makings of a successful leader. Overall, he is already an improvement over his two predecessors and there is little doubt that his best, as a captain lies ahead.
Another hectic season will soon be upon us and if the showing of the Indian side matches up to their performances during the season just past, we incurable Indian cricket fans will be content.