Saturday, January 8, 2011

2000 to 2010: Indian cricket – From rabbits to fighters

Its 2011 and a decade has passed by witnessing the best of Indian cricket. There can be no better time than now to look back at how the journey has evolved over the last few years. This year’s first test at Cape Town was headed towards a draw or an Indian collapse after Boucher and Kallis did the resurrection job on the 4th day but such has been the change in expectation and attitude that the Indian fan went to sleep expecting a sparkling series win the next day and the status messages on social networking sites were filled with over optimism. Going back by a few years when Facebook was still an unknown component the average Indian fan would have put hundreds of offers in front of the almighty for the batsmen to draw strength and courage to see through a day of hostile bowling on a crumbling pitch. Today a draw is not considered to be a good enough result. Incidentally it was in the Port Elizabeth test of 2001 when a player by name Deep Dasgupta (more of a goal keeper than a wicket keeper) and Rahul Dravid had stonewalled for nearly three sessions on a 5th day track against the likes of Pollock, Ntini, Hayward, Klusener and Boje to save the test match. The test series was lost 0-1 and also ‘unofficial test match’ but that is exactly when the journey of hope had begun.

Going back to April 2000, Indian cricket had hit rock bottom. The gloomy weather of match fixing had shadowed the atmosphere and the casualty were many fans who till date are shocked to an unimaginable extent. Few big names of the game were humiliated and punished for the right reasons and change was the only way forward. In came Sourav Ganguly with this ‘whose father what goes’ spirit and was ably supported by one Jagmohan Dalmiya, the then BCCI president and ICC president elect. The backing was huge more so because both belonged to the same state association (Cricket Association of Bengal). Those were the days of state lobbies and zonal quotas. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the captain and the country’s newly appointed first foreign coach John Wright (recommend reading- The Indian Summers) went on a rampage from one end of the country to the other end in search of raw talent. BCCI’s Talent Resource Development team which is now defunct was being led by an earnest Dillip Vengsarkar those days and his seriousness complemented with the agenda of the team management.

Mohammed Kaif, SS Das, Yuvraj Singh, Dinesh Mongia, Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, Irfan Pathan, JP Yadav, Sanjay Bangar, MS Dhoni, Munaf Patel, Suresh Raina and many more such unknown names became household figures in no time. Some were directly pooled into the national team whereas the others were molded through the junior teams and the National Cricket Academy. All of a sudden Indian cricket was no more a rich kid’s dream. From Rai Bareilly to Ranchi, the ‘aam junta’ now had their chance to have a go at the top prize as Indian cricket for the first time had truly entered the rural belts of the country. The connectivity factor was alive and kicking and when a little known left arm seamer from Shrirampur on his birthday (7th October 2000) yorked Steve Waugh in ICC Knock Out Cup, Nairobi the country erupted with joy. Those days this seamer used to play for Baroda in the Ranji Trophy as he could not break into the formidable Mumbai team. Today he is India’s bowling captain- Zaheer Khan. It was on this very day when Yuvraj Singh announced his arrival on the world stage; it was just their second international game.

Slowly the intent was changing and the desire to register foreign wins was becoming evident but there was some distance to cover as a major humiliation was never far away from the recipe. The rise of VVS Laxman and the change in India’s fortune abroad have run in sync with each other. For the first half of his career this Hyderabadi craftsman was considered to be a domestic wonder unable to go beyond classy 30s in the international circuit. However that blow on the helmet on 4th January 2000 in Sydney which floored him changed the dynamics. He went on to score a magnificent 167 in that innings for a losing cause – an innings that took an average Indian fan by surprise (those were the days when wicketkeeper MSK Prasad used to be the opener for the team in the absence of Debang Gandhi). The anger of that hit transformed into a miracle at Eden Gardens on 14th March 2001 (281) and since then there has been no looking back. His silken grace has been very very special and continues to charm the grounds across the globe and if India has not lost a test series for two years now then a major share of the credit goes to the once upon a time domestic giant. The four heavy weight innings coming from behind that were produced last year have not only elevated him to unparalleled level but also gave the team the tag of fighters, a title the Indian fans so yearned to be associated with but never managed to earn for many years.

Post 2001 the scenario changed as slowly but steadily wins started coming abroad and due credit goes to the positive vibe created by the seniors in the dressing room leading to the rise in confidence levels of the youngsters, something that had been lacking for long. The West Indies tour of 2002 gave a new lease of life to the Indian team. The five match test series was lost 1-2 but the one day series was won 2-1 (memories – Kumble’s broken jaw, Ajay Ratra’s century, Dravid-Sarandeep partnership to save the Georgetown test). For the first time Indian teenagers were witnessing test matches being saved outside the sub continent and it was good enough result to rejoice and celebrate, such low was the self esteem. The belief of better result abroad had been crucified over the years. The Durban disaster followed by the Barbados hara-kiri of 1997-1998 , the never ending Premadasa toils of mid 1990s, JY Lele’s (the then BCCI secretary) infamous 0-3 score line prediction of India’s tour to Australia in 1999-2000 and Ajit Agarkar’s crowning as Mumbai’s duck (7 consecutive blobs), Zimbabwe loss in 2001. To put statistics in place India had slipped to 8th in ICC’s test ranking after losing the 2001 test series in Srilanka.

The country had celebrated the arrival of two young talents in 1996 who made the world take a note of their talent in their debut test at Lord’s and it was again on these two pros in 2002 along with a few other seniors and a bunch of energetic youth to change the script in England. The test series was drawn courtesy a dodgy innings by Sanjay Bangar and some inspirational performance by the trusted trio of Sachin, Sourav and Rahul. It was the very series in which Ajit Agarkar managed to put up his name on the batting honour roll of Lord’s – miracles do happen! In the hindsight when years roll by the Natwest Series final against the hosts will be seen as a turning point in the way Indian cricket has proceeded ever since. One of the most dramatic storyline scripted on a cricket field ever. Chasing 326, India were 146/5 with Tendulkar back in the hut (he was batting at number 4 those days). It was nothing but over when the Yuvi-Kaif duo decided to earn the title ‘Lords of the ring’.

A series of ODI tournament wins later when things were starting to look rosy India toured to the Kiwi land to have their confidence shattered (losing test series 0-2 and ODI series 2-5). The pitch was blamed but it did not help the mind frame just before the world cup in South Africa. The safari campaign started modestly as Netherlands game was more of a warm up followed by a face hiding defeat to Australia. As was the norms those days, the privacy of the players’ family was intervened and it took none other than Sachin Tendulkar to come out in public and request for some order. Like the phoenix, the team rose to the occasion winning every remaining game on their way to the finals but at the last step the pressure of the occasion took over and much before the Australian innings was over, the conclusion was foregone. However the Indian fans basked in the glory of being runners up in World Cup and the wave carried the team to Australia. The clash was fitted as the top of the tables clash. A drawn test series courtesy some superlative performances by the old giants was seen as a victory (Steve Waugh’s farewell series). The standards were graduating to new levels and Pakistan was conquered twice as were Bangladesh (2004), Zimbabwe (2005) and West Indies (2006). By now Rahul Dravid had established himself as the leader of the troop and India had witnessed the Greg Chappel fiasco. Sourav Ganguly had already made a comeback in South Africa (2006-2007) where the celebrations of a lone test victory grabbed the headlines for the wrong reason. Lack of concentration led to the series loss (1-2) and history was repeated yet again. It was immediately followed by the disastrous 2007 World Cup and ‘guru Greg’ resigned to everyone’s pleasure. Sanity prevailed in Bangladesh before the team embarked on a much important tour to England. It was a triumph as after two decades the country won the test series there. Though the closely fought ODI series was lost (memories – Robin Utthapa’s heroics and Dimitri Mascarenhas’s attack on Yuvraj) yet the youth was slowly taking over and aptly the captaincy for the World T20 championship at South Africa was handed over to MS Dhoni. An accidental slower ball from Joginder Sharma followed by a miscalculated scoop by Mishbah-Ul-Haq earned India the world title and all hell broke loose. Celebrations and Indian Premier League were the post victory consequences.

Rahul Dravid’s desire to concentrate on batting led to Anil Kumble being handed over the test captaincy at the fag end of his career. His leadership was inspirational. The test series in Srilanka (2008) was lost courtesy Mendis carom ball but there was pride in the Perth test victory (2009) after what had conspired in Sydney. Kumble’s serenity was instrumental in enabling the team to show its true character during the tough times. In came Gary Kirsten and formed an able partnership with MS Dhoni to win the ODI series in Australia, a fitting tribute to the old boys who were slowly on their way out of the international circuit. Dada and Jumbo left the arena in a celebratory manner in the home series against Australia and with that the baton was officially passed to MSD. The dominancy post the changeover was articulated as another milestone was attained; complete series win in New Zealand (2009) something considered impossible in the recent past (memories – The meditation of Gautam ‘Buddha’ Gambir).

Sachin, Laxman and Dravid continue to form the nucleus of the test team but what has changed with MSD’s leadership is the entry of the countryside spirit into the dressing room. The fearless approach was there to be seen and it has seeped into the veins of every youngster walking into the team. The joy of winning has replaced the horror of loss. From outside the dressing room today looks much tighter, happier and more importantly much more professional than the days of Vikram Rathour and Paras Mhambrey.

It is the golden phase in the country’s cricketing history and fittingly enough this is the year when after a long gap the team will tour to all the cricketing continents. The results will give an indication of what lies in the future and a base to gauge the aura that the team has managed to create over the last decade.

For fans who have witnessed disasters in the past, these are better days to be cherished and as the flow of thoughts come to a halt the eternal hope of lifting the World Cup continues to take precedence over anything else.

Sidhanta Patnaik
8th January 2011
BJB Nagar, Bhubaneswar

No comments: