A season of polar opposites for Indian cricket has just ended — or has it begun, it’s tough telling these days — and spurred the mental machinery of the self-anointed sports intelligentsia into overdrive. It was a year ago to the day that the World Cup was won, in dramatic fashion as an inspired Indian team regained the crown it had first worn as a no-hoper in 1983.
This time was different. India started favourites and played to their potential against stiff competition. The joy was doubly multiplied as the team had also clambered to the top of the ICC Test Rankings, and upon this dual platform they were expected to build and consolidate.
What happened was the reverse of expectation.
In the 12 months since M.S. Dhoni’s defining larrup off Nuwan Kulasekara sent a nation into a tizzy, India’s overseas boat floundered as water seeped in from the cracks of disrepair. The team lost eight consecutive away Tests split neatly down the middle as white-washes in England and Australia. The season was concluded with an unflattering 13-3-8-2 record – all the three Test wins scored against the perennially under-powered West Indies (and two of those at home!), a far cry from the redress of poor overseas performances that was supposed to be set in motion.
After a heady World Cup campaign, Yuvraj Singh returned to his old ways in England and against the West Indies before it was discovered that he had been competing with a rare malignancy. Virender Sehwag continued to confound – despite an ODI double-century against the West Indies, and Gautam Gambhir and Suresh Raina were muted against the short ball.
The noise around Sachin Tendulkar’s imminent 100th hundred drowned out the creaks and rattles from India’s plummeting performances. Rahul Dravid retired from the game after a poor trip to Australia (although he was a roaring success in England) and across two important tours did India’s batting fail as V.V.S. Laxman too derived precious little from a ghastly season.
Neither was the bowling department particularly incisive. Zaheer Khan lost his vitality and mojo sometime after the World Cup. Ishant Sharma failed to impress, Harbhajan Singh fell out of favour and faded away as R. Ashwin rose to prominence and the boys for the future — Umesh Yadav, Vinay Kumar and Ashok Dinda – were unable to harness their pace for any meaningful gain. Praveen Kumar and Irfan Pathan returned to the side and were sporadically effective, though overall India’s bowling arsenal looked incapable of claiming the 20 wickets required to win a Test match – unless the game was being contested on home shores.
So, what went wrong? Were we being too optimistic in hoping for the momentum of a World Cup win on home soil to translate into Test success abroad? Australia did it, going from strength to strength in an unmatched decade that followed its 1999 triumph. Sri Lanka too rode on the frenzy of its maiden 1996 win to breach the top-order of world cricket, where it has stayed put since. For India, the task at hand was to repair its lamentable overseas credentials and exactly the same time last year, the international calendar loomed promisingly in invitation.
The inevitability of the IPL arrived and was dispensed with — albeit with its usual contribution to the crock list. The West Indies were taken care of — in both ODIs and Tests with the help of a borderline ‘B’ team as the young guns — save for a listless M. Vijay and an unlucky Abhinav Mukund — showed glimpses of responsibility on tour. The gaze of the follower then panned to England – a frontier that was to be the No.1 Test team’s first true battleground.
India in Old Blighty were beaten even before they could sink their teeth into the contest. Zaheer hobbled off on the first day of the first Test, and with him departed India’s fight. Under-prepared and jaded, the team sheet soon resembled a roster of the walking wounded.
Without the services of Sehwag, Gambhir and Zaheer against a motivated aggregation of Poms, India were shellacked in each of the four Tests as a vaunted batting line-up lay in tatters. Nobody – with the exception of Rahul Dravid, who constructed three centuries amid the ruins – showed the mind-set and stomach to counter the moving ball on wickets entirely dissimilar to sub-continental iron-boards.
The knives were out already and they were sharpened further when a win-less ODI series followed the humiliation in Tests. The ODI reversal was surprising, since four Indians featured in the top-five run aggregators. No matter, all that India had to show for nigh two months in the British Isles was a tie. Which is why it appears that the return ODI series for which England visited India was constituted just so the host could pay back in kind. India routed England 5-0, as flat-track bullies found their range and the slower bowlers their deteriorating terrain, in familiar conditions.
Then came the West Indies, smiling their way through a Test and ODI series loss ahead of India’s crunch tour of Australia, which was again being swathed in overtones of revenge and retribution. Either the business guys never learn or they are eternal optimists, for the trip down under ended all too familiarly – batsmen hopping, bowlers toiling, four losses in as many Tests and a rapid slide down cricket’s power pole. Nobody averaged above 40 across four Tests, Virat Kohli hit the lone century and Zaheer’s 15 wickets at 31.80 per dismissal paled irredeemably when viewed against the 50 scalps at 18 per wicket claimed by the Ben Hilfenhaus-Peter Siddle combine.
India was thoroughly outclassed and all this while the hum in the background for Sachin Tendulkar’s godforsaken 100th hundred increased in volume. It reached a crescendo when the maestro got into the 80s – which wasn’t too many times – and fell to a morbid lull whenever he was dismissed. India failed to make the final of the CB Series, adding another page to its sorry touring book – although it has to be mentioned the event was intensely competitive and on more than one occasion, usually brought about by a friendly wicket, the team showed just why its batting might is viewed with trepidation.
This weary lot also failed to make the final of the Asia Cup — despite beating Pakistan and Sri Lanka — as a sequence of three horrible overs cost them dearly against Bangladesh, when Tendulkar finally got his long-awaited landmark. Kohli continued to pile up the runs in his trademark fearless way as he celebrated his elevation to vice-captaincy with a succession of hundreds, and underlined his suitability to replace the superannuated Rahul Dravid at the No.3 slot.
India ended the season losing to South Africa by the D-L Method in the mother of insignificant matches – a one-off Twenty20 at Johannesburg. The hit-and-giggle for charity was crammed into the calendar, prompting Dhoni to quip that it would help players acclimatise to the impending IPL. No doubt, the man’s still got a sharp tongue.
With no overseas obligations in the next 12 months it’s bound to get sharper. What is likely to remain blunted is the country's record on tour.