Will India go back to the 1990s?

December 25, 2011

“Tigers at home, paper tigers abroad” was how Indian cricket was described a decade back. Defeating India on the turning tracks of the sub continent was next to impossible, but losing to them on the bouncy pitches of Australia and South Africa, or the swinging conditions in England was an even tougher task. The decade of 2000 to 2010 saw a gradual change which has defined the Indian team’s growth in the period. Nothing explains the difference in the two decades than the below table:

*Note: The table shows the contrast between India’s performances when the comfort was highest – ie at home – versus when it was lowest – ie outside the subcontinent. Therefore, matches in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh are omitted.

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Matches Won Lost Drawn
Away from Subcontinent – 90s Decade 33 0 15 18
Away from Subcontinent – 00s Decade 41 12 14 15
In India – 90s Decade 30 17 5 8
In India – 00s Decade 54 25 9 20

While the performances in India remain more or less the same, the drastic progress comes in the performances away from home. The period saw India draw series in England and Australia (2002 and 2003-04), win in West Indies (2006), England (2007) and New Zealand (2009), before sharing a drawn series with South Africa towards the end of the decade (a series that spilled over into this decade). Different leaders – starting with Sourav Ganguly – carried forward the good work and continued the rise throughout the decade. Ganguly started the growth in the first half of the decade and passed on the baton to the likes of Dravid, Kumble and then MS Dhoni in the latter half. The steady ascendancy was also reflected in the ICC rankings, with India being crowned Number 1 Test team in 2009.

But things were not as rosy as they seemed. Every foreign tour was still accompanied with clamours about the batsmen’s ability to handle short pitch balls, or doubts about the spinners ability on unresponsive tracks and the general impression that the Indian pace attack lacked the sting to exploit pacer-friendly conditions. Despite being ranked number 1, critics often wondered if India deserved to top the table, as most of the wins came in the sub continent and no major series was won abroad for quite some time. Victories in New Zealand and West Indies were considered more of an obligation than an achievement, as the teams were too weak. Success at home was memorable, but nothing to boast about.

India’s toughest challenges came after it became the Number 1 team in the world. In the last 15 months, India travelled to the toughest parts of the world. The stiff examination started in December 2010, when India proved it could do well in foreign conditions against strong opposition when they went to South Africa. In one of the most fiercely competed series ever, India and South Africa came out even-stevens with a 1-1 draw. The scoreline silenced the critics to some extent and India retained the number 1 spot. But around the same time, an on-the-rise England side, widely considered as the side that deserved the number 1 rank, destroyed the Australians in their own den to secure the Ashes. While the official rankings pointed to India, many in the cricketing world ranked England as the best Test side in the World.

India’s opportunity to show everyone that they were the number 1 side in Tests came again a few months later, when they toured England. The timing of the series was perfect – India was on a high after a successful World Cup campaign and a series win in West Indies. England’s Test side was on a roll too; the 3-1 Ashes victory in Australia was followed by a home series win against Sri Lanka. There was much more to the battle – the first Test of the series at Lord’s was the 2000th Test in the history of the game, and all that added to the hype surrounding the series. What followed though was an utter mismatch; England completely exposed the Indian team’s (and the board’s) incompetence on and off the field, in a series which they won 4-0. Needless to say, the number 1 Test rank was snatched, the players’ fitness questioned and the board’s seriousness in prioritizing Test cricket doubted.

But to their credit, the Indian team (and the BCCI) have shown signs of improvement and a willingness to learn from the mistakes, in the short period post the disastrous tour. Big name players living on reputation have been axed ruthlessly (Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh), young fast bowlers – something which India lacked – have been tested and given a fair run, and the fitness of the players has been given the importance it deserves. India had only one series to experiment before the big Australian test, and they managed to restore some sanity when they defeated West Indies at home. More than the 2-0 scoreline, India’s biggest positive from the series came from the success of a young bowling attack in the form of Umesh Yadav, R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha.

The humiliation in England threatens to undo all the improvement shown by Indian cricket in the last decade, but the Australian tour provides an immediate opportunity to allay some fears about a downslide. The Australian tour could also be the one last chance for India to correct their mistakes, as most of their Tests in the next year are at home (the next big foreign tour is as far away as December 2013, when they will travel to South Africa). The biggest reason for India’s success – Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman – are not likely to be around till then, and India has to use this opportunity to prove that the England tour was an aberration, rather than a throwback to the 1990s.

In a way, India’s meteoric rise in the Test rankings started in Australia in 2007-08. India did lose that series 1-2, but showed remarkable fight in a tough series. Four years later, they find themselves in a similar position. India’s ODI performances in 2011 season will be remembered for the World Cup victory. The Australian tour will decide how the Test season will be remembered; will it be the 0-4 humiliation in England? Or the improvements shown after that?

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