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By Chetan Narula
In masked truth, the South African sojourn was nothing more than a hyped prequel to the much awaited 2011 ODI World Cup in the sub-continent. India won’t be playing another match in anger until they meet up Bangladesh in the opening game of that big tournament and the interim break of nearly three weeks is more than enough to shrug off any wear and tear suffered in the African continent. For unlike their build-ups in both 2003 and 2007, this was a chapter to remember in Indian cricket history.
They had gone to New Zealand under Sourav Ganguly and John Wright, and therein suffered the greenest of pitches ever seen in the world. Later under Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell in South Africa, the wheels came off what was seen to be a juggernaut, though many didn’t realise it until much later. This season was a marked difference however and it isn’t to do with any one contest in particular, but is a trailing effect from a considerable amount of time spent at a consistent performance level. With MS Dhoni and Gary Kirsten at the helm of affairs, this Indian team has been vastly different from any before. It isn’t to say that they are favourites for the World Cup crown in three months’ time, no, for that is a discussion for another day. The crux of the matter instead lies somewhere in between the drawn Test series and the lost ODIs.
South Africa was the one place where an Indian team hadn’t yet achieved such a singular result. Not too much was expected from the teams that went there under Mohammad Azharuddin and even Sourav Ganguly’s team that gained elsewhere couldn’t find success against the Proteas. Rahul Dravid leading India to their first ever Test win in 2006-07 was not a one-off thing, for any team evolves from one generation to the next. Most of the younger players who came first under Ganguly and Dravid are now the core of this team, and it is in them that the ground work for this more than decent result was laid down.
The three Tests cannot be seen in singularity, again. Maybe the second and third but surely not the first one at Centurion! It is so because at Durban in particular and then at Cape town afterwards, the Indian bowling put on a wholesome display underlining that the collapse their batting suffered at Centurion was mainly down to conditions. When in the second Test, Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth and company bowled out the hosts for just 131 runs, what might have been was the only thought of their many fans. That moment was a turning point in the series in more ways than one. Firstly, it allowed back some confidence in the Indians’ minds that they could more than compete on this tour, after the debacle in the first match. And two, it also told the South African team to stop thinking about the number one spot in ICC rankings and concentrate only on the Test series.
For a long time now, there has been much hollering about how India are not truly deserving of their top-notch status in the Tests and many reasons have been enlisted for that. One thinks all of it is a simple case of sour grapes, for teams like South Africa, Sri Lanka and England have not been able to bring in the consistency needed to make good use of the fallen fortunes of Australian cricket. The Indians meanwhile have done so and it was amply evident in the third Test, when they confidently took on a nervous batting order of the hosts on the first day. On any other occasion they would have overdone their aggression and lost their grip on the game, there itself. Or on the last day, failed to bat out three sessions and collapse like they did four seasons ago.
But not this Indian team, as they went about explaining why they are deservedly the undisputed champions of Test cricket today. Mind you, that accolade will be severely tested in the next twelve months when they visit West Indies, England and Australia. England are already looking forward to the next summer which is understandably so given their Ashes victory Down Under. It is an obvious conclusion that the next twelve months will be quite a tough ride and the only way India can tide over it is if they have their bowling attack fit and raring to go. None more so than Sreesanth who is the one stand-out support bowler for Zaheer Khan. If he stays fit – not just physically but also mentally – then his team will be in the same position one year on.
It can also be said that the ODIs were a bit of an anti-climax from the Tests. With all the injuries taken into account, the top order was a no-go for the Indian team. And along with being the backbone of batting, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag also form the rudder of this ship, contributing much to where it is being steered in the fifty-over arena. In that light a 3-2 result cannot be called a really bad one, but that score-line suggests the contest was closer than it really was. The replacements for the trio will not be at the World Cup so there is no point even discussing their ordeals.
But it is the struggles of Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina with the bat that must have irked all those who thought India are already World Cup winners. You can put it down much to the difference in pitches, for playing in India, you won’t find Dale Steyn bouncing out Raina or Dhoni struggling against the bounce of Morne Morkel. Yuvraj who seems to be in fine touch with his bowling abilities will then be able to replicate that form with the bat as well, much like Yusuf Pathan. His ability to explode has gained a different scale ever since he stroked a century and a double century against South Zone in the 2010 Duleep Trophy. But the real gain has to be seen in Virat Kohli who has made a case of being included in the playing eleven at the World Cup ahead of a few others.
One also took much heart from the bowling of Harbhajan Singh throughout the tour. It seemed he had regained his spark from the ‘olden days’ and was not afraid to exert his role of primary wicket-taker. Will he be able to replicate his form when it matters most over the next eight weeks is a question that remains to be answered though. And there are many other questions as well, relating to batting form and order, injuries and bowling attacks, all needing to be answered sometime soon. Having said that, the run-up has been a far memorable one than last time around and considering how the 2007 World Cup went about, that is saying a lot!