The tendency among the lazier sports writers is to create simplistic narratives — and in recent times nothing is more simplistic than this: India has achieved the statistical distinction of topping the rankings on the ICC Test table, hence India is the best Test side in the world.
While admitting to the obvious — that India has attained the statistical milestone and, to its credit, held on to it for the better part of the year in defiance of the attempts of the dethroned Aussies to snatch it back — I would argue that India is still a long way away from being a champion side.
That goal is a journey, a process — not something that is attained through a calculator. And that process is long; it is accomplished one incremental step at a time; it is a function of identifying the bedrock basics of the sport and becoming extraordinarily good at every aspect of it.
Somewhere along this journey, there will be moments where opponents outweigh you through sheer brilliance; there will also be moments when — blame this on the fact that even a champion is, first and foremost, a human being — you just don't show up, individually and collectively. At such moments — the latest, from an Indian perspective, is the first Test against South Africa at Centurion, now in its last phase as I write this — you confront the cliched "test of character". It is then that not just your ability, but your resilience, your willingness to square up to the challenge, is tested. And the manner in which teams or individuals respond to these situations ends up as the defining sub-text in the holistic narrative that the journey aims to signify.
Today's Indian team – the product of 75 years of patchy brilliance — is by consensus one of the best ever to wear national colors; it follows automatically that it is also one of the most successful ones to play for the country.
What is far more significant however is that this team is one of the most resilient ever. It has what its earlier versions did not possess — the ability to be dogged, be ugly, be scrappy; qualities that are not sexy but ones that somewhere along the line are as valuable, or even more so, than individual brilliance.
At the domestic level, this is what has historically marked Mumbai out as a champion side — the ability to be dogged, to persist, to never give up; to play khadoos cricket, if we were to borrow from the vernacular.
The recent past has seen repeated manifestations of this attitude. Consider that 10 years ago, if India were confronted with a 470 run deficit as it started its second innings, the collective attitude would have been to throw their hands up, offer up some kind of token resistance, and then go down meekly. Fighting back when all is seemingly lost never used to be a trait that characterized the Indian team.
Now, it is. Vide Centurion, as the latest example. As South Africa piled on the runs and the agony, and then declared with two full days and the best part of two sessions to go, who would have betted on India dragging the game on till the final day? To do that takes a different attitude, a bloody mindedness that the Indian team is growing into. It is an attitude that says, the hell with this, the game may seem lost but we are going to hang in there for as long as we possibly can, we are going to guts it out.
Such an attitude may not win you matches too often; such an attitude may not produce "sexy" cricket — but it is a key component of a champion team, and the fact that India fought back the way it did at Centurion is what leads me to believe that while we are not yet a champion side, we are certainly moving in that direction.
The core belief underlying this new found doggedness is that you never know what may happen — a great escape is not out of the bounds of the probable. Consider Lord's, 2007, where India chasing an almost impossible target of 380 against England ended up with 282/9, largely thanks to Mahendra Singh Dhoni manning up and batting for over six overs with Sreesanth to save the Test. A year later against Australia in Bangalore, a late-order rescue effort in the first innings from the likes of Zaheer Khan (57*) and Harbhajan Singh (56) almost helped pull off an improbable win. It didn't happen — but that resistance provided the stiffening of the spine that helped the team win the next game in Mohali. It happened again in New Zealand, in early 2009 where, following-on at Napier, and chasing a deficit of almost 314 runs, India managed to knock off the deficit and even take a 100+ run lead.
What stood out in these instances is that even as things went against the team, there was no sense of panic; there was no intent to throw in the towel, to concede the game as a lost cause. Maybe this is indicative of the environment prevailing within the team; maybe it is a sign of new found maturity; maybe it is an indication that the team is now ready to take that next step towards attaining champion status. Whatever — it is perhaps the most welcome development in recent times.
And it is producing results. Consider Ishant Sharma and VVS Laxman's memorable partnership at Mohali, which not only typified all these attributes, but even resulted in an unlikely win against Australia. Or consider Harbhajan's heroic effort at Ahmedabad after walking in to bat in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
It would be negligent to ignore some of India's dramatic collapses in this same period, beginning with Sydney 2008 where the team just couldn't be bothered to deal with Michael Clarke's pies, or even the 138 all out against Sri Lanka at the SSC, at a time when Ajantha Mendis was still a mystery in the making.
What is significant is that earlier, such collapses were the norm; now, gradually, they are becoming the exception. I still believe India have a long way to go in terms of being a team that doesn't just win consistently, and across conditions, but one that is increasingly hard to beat. But the good news is that we're making a demonstrable effort to get there; that we are increasingly developing the mindset of not giving up on a game until it is actually over. Consider, as I said at the outset, Centurion — going into the second innings, every self-respecting fan would have given up the game as lost; and in times past, so would the team.
Yet, India fought back, in alien conditions, against a high quality bowling that had scented blood — a stirring counter-attack at the top of the order by Sehwag and Gambhir; a bit of a slump in the middle but, rather than fold like an accordion, yet another fight back authored this time by Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni. All of it may merely have delayed the inevitable, but such bloody mindedness is one of the hallmarks of champions, and it is heartening to see India getting there.
As someone who follows Manchester United closely, this is exactly the spirit every footballer donning the Red is expected to have - a spirit where even in some of the most unwinnable battles, he's expected to show an unflinching desire to work as hard as he'd ever do and come up with a moment of inspiration that might just unlock the sturdiest or the stubbornest of defences.
All of this begs the question — what more does India have to do to truly merit the champion tag. Right through this piece, a bulk of my argument has focused on the batting, which is the only area where India is showing the requisite resolve. On the bowling front, however, concerns remain — and examining the landscape leads to the fear that the concerns in this area are a long way from being resolved. The two fast bowlers at Centurion were literally clueless about their respective lengths, and the "lead spinner" looks like the most confused bowler in the world at the moment. More on that later in the week — for the moment, let's just say that for India to truly earn its champion tag, the bowling attack needs to mirror the mindset, and performance, of the batsmen.
What we get now, however, is a combination of listlessness, poor excuses and inferior body language, all of which adds up to a bowling lineup lacking both inspiration and will. Currently, the bowling unit is about making excuses: the best bowler is injured; the Kookaburra is difficult to bowl with; insert your favorite excuse here. What ‘attitude', and the ability to never give up, can do was best exemplified by Dale Steyn who, late in the day on Day 4, at a time when he could not have been blamed for being tired, stepped up with a fiery burst to cut the legs out from under the Indian resistance.
That's the kind of spirit I'd like to see from some of our bowlers — they need to want the ball, rather than wait for it to be thrown to them; they need to learn from the newly discovered bloodymindedness of the batting lineup.
If, when, they get there, India would have taken a giant stride towards champion status. Meanwhile, Durban awaits.