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By Partab Ramchand
It is over half a century since I first took a keen interest in cricket – enough for me to hear the live radio commentary and go through the details of the day’s play in the newspapers the following morning. The first Test match I followed closely in this fashion was between India and England at Trent Bridge in 1959. India lost by an innings and 59 runs inside four days and a couple of months later the series itself ended in a 5-0 whitewash for the hosts.
But then this was very much a sign of the times. It was still very much the formative period in Indian cricket and Indian teams going down repeatedly to huge, humiliating defeats was the pattern. This continued through the sixties when I followed the game during my teenage years. Losing 5-0 to England was followed by a similar result in the West Indies in 1962. In England in 1967 all three Tests were lost. In Australia in 1967-68 India went down in all four Tests. The situation at home was only slightly better and indeed a draw was considered a moral victory. The batting, bowling and fielding were all sub standard and what was left to savour were the heroic deeds of a few who played the role of Horatio on the tottering bridge.
The situation changed for the better with the India Rubber Year of 1971. Suddenly India acquired the winning habit emerging triumphant in the West Indies and England. With first Sunil Gavaskar and then Kapil Dev providing the inspiration Indian cricket basked in sunshine most of the time through the 70s and 80s though there were aberrations like the disastrous tour of England in 1974 where everything that could go wrong went wrong. Overall though the improvement in the record was palpable and there was greater respect for Indian cricket and cricketers.
The arrival of Sachin Tendulkar at the start of the 90s and the emergence of greats like Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman led to even greater triumphs during the decade and into the new millennium. Again there were aberrations like the 4-0 thrashing in Australia in 1991-92, the 3-0 rout in Australia eight years later and the double debacle of 100 and 66 against South Africa at Durban while going down to a 328-run defeat in 1996-97. But overall India could now hold their own even abroad while being almost unbeatable at home. Midway through the first decade of the new millennium even as Australia’s decline commenced India were challenging strongly for the No 1 spot in the Test rankings their only challenge coming from South Africa. But largely on the strength of the most lustrous batting line-up in the contemporary game India ascended to the top slot in late 2009.
It certainly was a significant moment. After all reaching the top for the first time in 77 years was a landmark achievement but there was always the lurking doubt that the reign at the top would not last very long. Certainly India were not going to emulate the West Indies who remained at the top for about 15 years through the 80s and early 90s or Australia who were the dominant team over the following decade. The batting superstars were ageing, the bowling always remained a question mark especially after the retirement of Kumble and the fielding continued to be below international standards.
The Indians’ reign at the top was shaky at best but few would have predicted their downfall so early and in such a sudden and shattering manner. The debacle in England must be a huge shock for the younger generation brought up on the deeds of Tendulkar and company but to be candid it is an unnerving experience even for an older generation like mine which had seen India go from one disastrous defeat to another in the past. After all what was our status in world cricket then compared to now? Given this fact the humiliation in England must be the most devastating in the history of Indian cricket.