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Why the outrage? India was never a great Test side

It’s been a bad year and then some for Indian cricket. Should Indian fans be outraged? Never mind. From the looks of it, they are. This is totally understandable. It is also totally unfair. Actually, what Indian fans should really be is grateful for the abnormally good decade 2000-10 turned out to be. A trip down memory lane might help Indians make sense of why their team has sunk so low since those halcyon highs.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the 1930s and 1940s, India won no Test matches. During those twenty years, India played 20 Tests, lost 12, and drew 8. The utter lack of success might have had a lot to do with the fact that India was still a British-colony. India had more pressing matters – like the Independence struggle and famine – to deal with.

Come the 1950s, India registered her first win in Tests. Yay! In the 50s and 1960s, India played 96 Tests, won 15, lost 38, and drew 43. India was beginning to make her presence felt. But only just. She was certainly not among the top Test-playing countries. Perhaps the people of that time and age were too conservative to take to what was still a quite foreign sport. This was after all a time when ‘Nehruvian’ socialism, 5-year plans, nationalization, and the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ held sway over the Indian mind.

Sunil Gavaskar was a great batsman but India wasn't a great Test team. Getty Images

Sunil Gavaskar was a great batsman but India wasn't a great Test team. Getty Images

In the 1970s, the Indian cricket team started to come into its own. India was in the throes of the Green Revolution. For the first time, India triumphed in Tests abroad. The two may or may not have been related. The ten-year period also witnessed, also for the first time, India winning almost as many matches as it lost. The numbers make for quite impressive reading. India played 64 Tests, won 17, lost 19, and drew 28. That the team did so well in the 70s had much to do with the freakish rise and rise of the famed spin quartet. The operative word is ‘freakish.’ This fact is borne out by India’s middling performance in the decade that followed; a time when India was without the wizard tweakers and, once again, struggled to get sides out twice, which meant many more games lost than won.

The Indian team’s win/loss record in the 1980s (81 Tests, 11 wins, 21 losses, 1 tie, and 48 draws) was similar to that in the 60s (52 Tests played, 9 wins, 21 losses, and 22 draws). Up until this point in time in the short-ish history of Indian cricket, the 70s was the outperforming decade. It would take another thirty years for Indian cricket to register a better 10-year run.

In the 90s, India played 69 Tests, won 18, lost 20, and drew 31. Notwithstanding the good win/loss record, this decade was a deceptively impressive one for Indian cricket. None of these wins came outside the Indian sub-continent. Not one. The 70s was still the high point for Indian cricket. Then this happened.

From 2000 to the end of 2009, India played 103 Tests, won 40, lost 27, and drew 36. For once, the Indian team won more Tests than it lost. Much like what happened in the 70s, some extraordinary reasons helped turn this decade into an exceptional one for Indian cricket. Two of the top five batsmen in the history of the game played for India, and hit personal peaks not once but several times. The two most prolific spin bowlers in the history of Indian cricket were at their inventive best. A regular supply of fast-medium bowlers kept coming through the supply chain to support or, at times, step in for Zaheer Khan. Plus, Zaheer Khan was bowling like Wasim Akram. In fact, an incredible number of things fell in place almost magically for Indian cricket during this period. If the 70s was an outperformer, this decade was an outlier.

Since that highest of high points, India has played 34 Tests, won 14, lost 13, and drawn 7. Only two of these 14 wins have come outside the sub-continent. In short, it’s back to business as usual. The Indian Test side once again finds itself where it truly belongs, i.e., in the middle of the pack. India’s overall record is proof of this. In all, India has played 466 Tests, won 115, lost 148, drawn 202, and tied 1.

Based on past performance and much introspection, it’s safe to say that Indian players in general are not cut out to excel at Test cricket. Indians are, essentially, much better at the shorter, less demanding forms of the game. Test cricket is too intense and high-maintenance for Indians. We love our cricket, but not that much. So let's not get our chaddis into a twist when this rather average Indian team doesn’t live up to unrealistically high standards set by outliers from the previous decade. We might have to wait at least twenty years to come close to topping it. Try chilling out for a bit.

The writer tweets @Armchairexpert. You can follow him if you’re into that sort of thing.