What has been the biggest change in Indian Test cricket since the turn of the century?
Ask this to any cricket fan who has been following the team for the past two decades and the answer might well be 'the ability to win consistently'.
The first match that India played in the new millennium was the New Year’s Test in Sydney. Unsurprisingly, Australia thrashed India by an innings and 141 runs and won the three-match series 3-0. This was, after all, the invincible Australia of yore, led by Steve Waugh and boasting the likes of Michael Slater, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.
India, on the other hand, were still tackling the match-fixing scandal that rocked the nation, and captained by an out-of-form Sachin Tendulkar. While there were no official ICC rankings back then, it was safe to say that India had been whitewashed by the best team in the world.
Compare that to India’s last Test match in 2015. India beat the current world No 1 South Africa by 377 runs in Delhi to win the four-match series 3-0. The win propelled them to the second position in the ICC rankings and handed the Proteas a rare overseas series defeat. Don’t let the margin of win at Kotla fool you, it was a close match and in the end it was won on the back of some consistent bowling and a confident team spirit.
Confidence and consistency: These have been the biggest changes in the Indian Test team since the turn of the century. It's not only the team that has evolved over the last 15 years, but also the attitude. The erratic performances of the 1990s gave way to a determined unit of the early 2000s which evolved into the team we have today.
And the team's performance graph of the last decade has reflected this change. From being ranked fifth in the ICC Test rankings when they were introduced in 2003, to being ranked on top in 2010, the Indian Test team had one of their best runs internationally. And then, the form plummeted once more — the age-old problem of competing overseas reared its ugly head again.
What changed in 2000
At the turn of this century, Indian cricket was at one of its lowest points, battling a match-fixing scandal, poor form and an inexperienced captain in the form of Tendulkar. The whitewash in Australia was followed by a 0-2 Test defeat to South Africa at home and Tendulkar’s resignation as captain. The then deputy, Sourav Ganguly, assumed command of the floundering ship, and soon India had the services of its first foreign coach, New Zealand’s John Wright. It wouldn't be wrong to say that the unorthodox captain-coach pair ushered Indian cricket into a new era.
Wright's description of Ganguly in his book Indian Summers, a chronicle of his experiences as the Indian coach, is indicative of the latter's impact on the team, "His high-handedness often annoyed me but I secretly admired his rebellious streak because it gave the team some pepper and got up opposition noses, most famously Steve Waugh's.”
Another development that gave an impetus to Indian cricket from the background was the election of the late Jagmohan Dalmiya as the President of the BCCI in 2001. He had gained quite a reputation during his tenure as ICC chief, but it cannot be denied that Dalmiya’s time at the helm of Indian cricket administration yielded results as well.
Here’s a brief glimpse into how Dalmiya worked, from an excerpt of Wright’s book:
Six days after the election I got a fax from Dalmiya who wanted to know why the team was inconsistent, why our batsmen couldn't turn ones into twos, and why they lost their wickets by getting "caught in the dilemmas of yes and no". Then he got to the point: "Are these a result of natural disability or a lack of proper training programmes?" He went on to talk about India's passion for the game, the BCCI's moral responsibility to the public and the fact that, despite cricket being a game of "glorious uncertainties", India needed professionalism "instead of always putting the onus on the whims of uncertainties". He wanted Andrew (Leipus, the physio) and I to spell out the factors that were hindering the team's performance and the problems we faced and put forward suggestions for addressing them....
The early 2000s was also the time that saw the start and rise of several stars of Indian cricket. Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan were all breaking into the team, the likes of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Anil Kumble were shouldering more and more responsibility, and this combination of youth and experience proved to be the key for the Indian team of early 2000s.
Victories to remember
Ganguly's ascent to captaincy was the beginning of several memorable victories, which continued under the leadership of Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and MS Dhoni. Starting with the famous 2001 ‘Final Frontier’ win against Australia (I will refrain from elaborating on the Kolkata Test because that is an article in itself) and followed by winning Test matches abroad, from Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Pakistan (the much-heralded Friendship Cup in 2004) to England (another masterpiece of a match at Headingley) and Australia (the empathic win at Adelaide.) From not winning a single Test outside the subcontinent for 15 years, India went on to nearly complete a series win over Australia on their turf.
Ganguly’s captaincy ended in 2005 and he retired in 2008, but by then the team was well and truly on the path to notching up some more famous wins — a drawn series in West Indies and South Africa, a series win in New Zealand after 41 years, a memorable win at Perth under Kumble, a Test series win in England in 2007 lead by Dravid and the climb to the top of the ICC Rankings in 2010 under Dhoni. Through all this, there was another coach-captain combination to credit. South Africa’s Gary Kirsten was the perfect foil to Dhoni and together they were responsible for boosting India’s winning momentum.
These wins were the stepping stones that turned the Indian Test team from a bunch of ragtag players to a truly formidable team that could win on foreign soil; and even though today they may seem more like a bunch of formidable players with ragtag performances, the journey over the last 15 years has been satisfying and successful — though anything but smooth.
The year 2011 saw the Indian Test team whitewashed 4–0 in away Test series by England, displacing them from the top of the table. This series was followed by another disastrous 4–0 whitewash in Australia, which ended the careers of Dravid and Laxman in 2012. Kumble had exited with Ganguly in 2008, handing over the reins to Dhoni, and with Tendulkar’s retirement in 2013, the legendary Indian line-up was completely revamped. Dhoni himself passed on the mantle of the longer-form to Virat Kohli in 2014 and the former fabled stars like Zaheer and Sehwag called it a day off-field.
At the same time, India saw the emergence of the next generation of Test-worthy performers. Kohli was the only silver lining in India’s 2011-12 tour Down Under with a century in last Test at Adelaide. The likes of Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara slipped into the position left vacant by the retirements with moderate ease. In the bowling department, Ravichandra Ashwin’s toiling craft and Ishant Sharma’s erratic accuracy made for some crucial, if inconsistent, Test success in the last few years.
The best example of this new, unpredictable phase of Indian Test cricket would be the 2014 England series. Poor travellers once again, India drew the first Test and went on to register a historic win at Lords in the second Test studded by Ishant and Rahane's excellent performances. Yet, they lost the series 3-1 after England decimated them in the next three Tests, the last two being innings defeats.
In contrast, was the Test series in Australia later that year. While Virat Kohli’s first series as captain saw India lose 0-2, the four-match series was keenly contested. With the captain leading from the front, India drew the final two matches, after the losing the first one with a close of margin of 48-runs and the second by four wickets. This performance, despite being in a losing cause, gave hope to Indian fans.
Finally, there seemed to be a resurgence of the fighting spirit that characterised the Indian team at the start of the century.
The ranking graph
If India’s Test performance is seen, purely statistically, through the lens of the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) point-based ranking system, the team’s fortunes have been inconsistent as India’s fast bowlers in the 12 years since it was introduced.
India started at the fifth position in 2003, moved up to the top three by 2005 but then plummeted back to five again in 2007. In 2008, they climbed up to the second spot, but slipped to four in 2009. From the fourth position, India leapfrogged to No one in 2010 and held on to the position for little over a year. However, in the coming year, they fell as low as 5 once again in 2012 and 2014.
Since the calculation of ICC Rankings appear to be give the Duckworth-Lewis method a tough competition in complication, here’s a breakdown of India’s test performance in every year of the new millennium:
From 2000 to 2015, India has played 165 Test matches and won 66 of them, losing 48 and 51 ending in a draw.
The way forward
In the 15 years of this century, India has progressed as a nation. From technology to entertainment, all fields saw this change. Indian cricket was no different. In the words of Sanjay Manjrekar: “As India changed, Indian cricket started to change too. The body language of the players when they are in a foreign country now is not as it used to be in my day, and that is a big plus”
In his column for ESPNCricinfo, Manjrekar surmises the turn of Indian fortunes at the turn of the century as follows:
"As Indian cricket evolved, and started producing some truly world-class players, Indian fans and media went to matches mainly to watch these players perform, to see an Indian stand up to the mighty West Indians or the Australians or English. If an Indian win came along on the way, it was a big bonus. Expectations from the team were low. After 2000, as the self-confidence of Indians grew on the world stage, their expectations from their national team in their favourite sport swelled too. They now want their team to make them proud there, not here.”
As he rightly points out, expectations from the team have risen and from what we have seen of Kohli’s still fairly new team under the tutelage of Ravi Shastri, the expectations are justified. There are several similarities between this team and the one from the early 2000s and they certainly can replicate their surprising success. There is a passionate, talismanic captain in Kohli, there is the mentorship of Ravi Shastri as team director, there is mix of enthusiasm and experience and most importantly, there is untapped potential that can spring a surprise when needed. (Remember Ravindra Jadeja vs South Africa?)
So here’s to the next phase of this century and the best hope I can have for this team is that 15 years later, there will be another tribute celebrating new achievements.