Wednesday, 1 August 2007

India's Progress as a Cricketing Nation

On Tuesday, 31st July 2007, India recorded a historic victory at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. It was the first time India was winning at that venue and only India's fifth test victory in that country. Among those present was the team manager Chandu Borde, who was a member of the touring team in 1959 that was cleaned up 0-5.

Looking at India's record, anyone would agree that our performance overseas has been dismal and there really is little for us to be proud of. Consider this: India has never won a series in Australia, only won 2 series (both 1-0) in the West Indies, 2 in England (1-0 in 1971 and 2-0 in 1986), never won a series in South Africa after 4 tours to date, won only 1 series in Pakistan, 1 in Sri Lanka and 1 in New Zealand- which was way back in 1967-68, when my father was not yet out of school.

And yet, in spite of that, there was little attention given to India's historic victory at Trent Bridge. When you consider that it was only the fifth victory in 15 tours dating back to 1932 (when India played her first test match), the achievement has indeed been momentous. Granted that the news was largely obscured by the Sanjay Dutt affair coinciding on the same day, it would perhaps be reasonable to say that public reaction (or rather the lack thereof) says someting about the distance Indian cricket has traveled between the turn of the century and now- strangely mirroring India's progress as a country.

Let me take you a decade back in time, to India's tour of South Africa in 1996-97. Remember the humiliation at Durban? India were blown out for 100 and 66, losing by 328 runs, a test match in which the highest score was just 259. More humiliation followed in the next test, when South Africa gave us a 282 run pounding. Two years later came even greater humiliation: on 10th October 1998, India lost to Zimbabwe chasing a modest 235 for victory on a pitch that had no horrors. The reaction to the flogging in South Africa had been nothing if not knee-jerk, but the defeat to Zimbabwe hardly produced any reaction. Partly it was due to the fact that the test match in Zimbabwe was not telecast in India, but defeat overseas had come to be accepted as inevitable by then, if not earlier.

Its a well known fact that India won just a solitary test match abroad between 1986 and 2001, that one victory being in Sri Lanka, which was at that time a new test-playing nation- little better than what Bangladesh is today. I can still remember India's countless defeats abroad in the 90s when I grew up. We lost 0-1 to England in 1996 at a time when England put on field perhaps the weakest team she has ever produced. I've already alluded to the humiliation in South Africa, then there was a 0-1 defeat in the Carribean (admittedly due to a mine field at Barbados), 0-1 in New Zealand in 1998-99 and of course, somewhere inbetween, a defeat at the hands of Zimbabwe- most of them by embarassing margins.

Before I go further, let me give you India's scores in those defeats (margin of defeat in parenthesis):

Edgbaston (1996): 214 & 219

Durban (1996-97): 100 & 66 (328 runs)

Cape Town (1996-97): 359 & 144 (282 runs)

Barbados (1996-97): 319 & 81 (38 Runs)

Harare (1998): 280 & 173 (61 runs)

Wellington (1998-99): 208 & 356 (4 wickets)

Then came the crowning glory (if one may call it that) came at the end of the century, with a whitewash in Australia, where India lost by margins of 285 runs, 180 runs and an innings and 141 runs. I remember how little we believed in the prospects of our team when we set foot abroad. In fact, we took it for granted, whenever India went abroad, that our team would be hammered out of sight. And yet, when you look at those scores, you would hardly imagine that the batting line up in most of those test matches boasted of Tendulkar, Azharuddin, Ganguly and Dravid.

And as if like light to dark, India lost not a series at home between 1987 and 2000- almost the same period when she won not a test match abroad against a quality opposition. Throughout the 90s, India spun opposition after opposition to defeat (including the all-conquering Australians) at home, almost all of them on sub-standard dust bowls where our spinners thrived and pitches which would usually be lifeless in the first half, on which our batsmen could outscore any opposition. India was unbeatable at home: not even Steve Waugh could breach the final frontier. But the scenario changed completely the moment our team set foot abroad. The batsmen's techniques were invariably exposed and the unhelpful conditions rendered our spinners impotent.

And so between our first test in 1932 to the turn of the century, India won just 13 test matches abroad in 68 years. Amazingly, we have won 16 test matches abroad between 2000 and now- 16 games in 7 years. Admittedly, 7 of them were in Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, but remove those victories, there still remain 9 victories against quality oppositions. A victory overseas has become so common today, that it arouses but little excitement. I remember the anger in India some months earlier, when we lost 1-2 to South Africa. Consider this: we won a test match there and that series went down to the final session. Contrast that with the hammerings 10 winters earlier, it seems like a vastly improved performance. And yet, fans were angry at India's defeat. That, if nothing else, shows how far Indian cricket has progressed.

And much of the credit for that should go to one man: Saurav Ganguly. That tough-as-nails man became the one-day captain immediately after a hammering down-under and India's first test-series defeat at home in 1999-00 (not surprisingly, on pitches that gave both sides equal opportunities). He became the test captain a few months later, just weeks after the match-fixing scandal broke out. At a time when morale was rock-bottom and public credibility was tottering, he led India to the finals of the Champions Trophy, beating Australia and South Africa in the process. Then came his greatest achievement: a 2-1 victory at home against Steve Waugh's Australia with a second-string attack. Greater achievements have followed, but that back-from-the-dead triumph against Australia must surely rank as Ganguly's greatest achievement.

And today, India is expected to win every series we play. It was Ganguly who made us believe that we could win abroad, that we could compete with anyone anywhere. The results are there for everyone to see. True, Indian cricket still has a long way to go, but it has started on the journey to greatness. Perhaps all that might have never happened but for one man: Saurav Ganguly. But that's another topic which we'll come to sometime in the future.

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