In June 1932, two Yorkshiremen batted through a day and a half at Leyton, the home ground of the Essex county, to put on 555 runs for the opening wicket. Just over a week later, these two, Percy Holmes and Herbert Sutcliffe, walked out again, this time at Lord’s and against India playing their inaugural Test. In his second over, fast bowler Mohammed Nissar clean-bowled both batsmen, and in 20 minutes, England were reduced to 19 for three, setting Neville Cardus off on that much-quoted flight of fancy: “In my mind’s eye, I saw the news flashing over the air to far-flung places in India, Punjab and Karachi.... to dusky men in the hills, to the bazaars of the East, to Gandhi himself and to Gunga Din.”
India lost the Test by 158 runs, but it was the most dramatic start to a nation’s Test career. It would be two decades and 24 Tests before they recorded their first win and another two decades before they finally beat England in England. Now, 80 years and 462 Tests later, India have won Tests in every cricket-playing country, claimed the number one ranking both psychologically (in the ’70s) and mathematically (in this decade), played out only the second-ever tied match, been seen variously as the saviour of Test cricket and its most likely destroyer, entered their players’ names in the slots reserved for achievers of individual landmarks in batting, bowling and fielding, driven their fans to distraction by their inconsistency just when everything seemed to be in their favour or been cheered for their predictability and following the straight and narrow. They have plumbed the depths of match-fixing, played out variations of the infighting theme and emerged as both the team most likely to collapse without explanation or, equally, to command the unexpected victory.
But it all started with the maharajah. The Maharajah of Porbander led the first team to England 80 years ago. His average before the first Test earned him the none-too-snide sobriquet of the man with more Rolls Royces than runs on the ground. This was literally true, and he wisely handed over charge to C.K. Nayudu. The Maharajkumar of Vizianagram was India’s second captain, a manipulator whose thoughtful and expensive presents to rival bowlers before a match made neither a dent in his bank balance nor a bulge in his batting average. Nawab Iftikhar Ali of Pataudi, by then well past his prime, was India’s third captain.
Viewed from the perspective of 2012, there is a historical inevitability about the evolution of India’s captaincy. Its story reflects the story of the rise of the different layers of Indian society. Cricket did not merely reflect the change; in many cases, it even anticipated it. After the reign of the maharajahs came the turn of those in their service: Lala Amarnath (Patiala) and Vijay Hazare (Baroda)—as India gained independence and with it a modicum of self-confidence.
The ’50s were probably the worst period for Indian cricket although the fledgling nation’s first-ever victory came in that decade. The players became insecure (with the cricket board contributing to this sense of impermanence for its own ends), and in one series against the West Indies, four different captains led. The great all-rounder Vinoo Mankad was told of his elevation in the toilet.
It wasn’t till Tiger Pataudi took over at the age of 21 that there was stability. He was in the maharajah-nawab tradition, but for one crucial difference: he was a world-class player who, in the words of Trevor Bailey, the England all-rounder, might have been in the Bradman class were it not for an accident which cost him an eye. Tiger led the self-respect movement in Indian cricket, pumping into those under his charge dignity and the importance of taking the field against any opposition on level terms. If the Virat Kohlis and Harbhajan Singhs, or for that matter any Indian player, takes the field today with a sense of entitlement and a confidence sometimes verging on arrogance, it is the result of Tiger’s example.
His style of captaincy was the reverse of Steve Waugh’s much-touted ‘mental disintegration’, which focused on demoralising the opponents. Tiger’s was more mental integration and aimed at his men. As Bishen Bedi is fond of recalling, “Under Tiger, for the first time, we played as ‘India’.”
Tiger was followed by Ajit Wadekar and the middle-class revolution. The next set of captains was mostly educated, salaried men reflecting the rise of the middle classes in the country as a whole. Mohammed Azharuddin straddled the decade of economic liberalisation that put more money into more pockets, including some unfairly into his own, and led India to 14 Test wins, mostly at home. The Ganguly-Kumble-Dravid generation was unique in that they were captains with choices beyond cricket on account of wealth or education.
In the new millennium, Indian cricket underwent a further change, which surprised many but was actually quite inevitable. The small-town boy’s willingness to work hard overlapped with the soft city boy’s greater choices and easy success at different levels. Non-traditional centres produced players like Dhoni, who emerged from Jharkhand, Munaf Patel (Bharuch), Piyush Chawla (Moradabad), Harbhajan Singh (Jalandhar), S. Sreesanth (Palarivattom), R.P. Singh (Rae Bareli), Pragyan Ojha (Khorda).
Each step was a necessary milestone for the next one. The future will belong not so much to specific regions or economic class, but to what may, and with ample cause, be called the ‘call centre’ generation with its fake accents, homogeneity of cultural responses—inspired, scripted even, by television—and genuine talent. The Virat Kohli generation, perhaps, intensely self-aware while being students of the game, a combination that could see India back to the top.
The second phase, from the 1960s and the arrival of Tiger Pataudi, till the end of the 1980s saw Indian cricket finding itself, changing from the dull dogs of the 1950s into an exciting group of attacking players. Successive series wins, in the West Indies and England, gave India bragging rights, and sure enough they anointed themselves the world champions. The logic went that South Africa, who had thrashed Australia, were no longer in the game, England held the Ashes and India had beaten England thanks to Bhagwath Chandrashekhar’s magical spell (6 for 38) at the Oval.
The crucial change in this phase (which could be named after Pataudi, Sunil Gavaskar or the Spin Quartet) was the arrival of the Mumbai master who began his career in the West Indies with 774 runs in four Tests, and the peaking of the quartet of Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, Chandrashekhar and Srinivasa Venkataraghavan. Between them, the foursome claimed 853 wickets and played a pivotal role in 23 Test wins. Crucially, India’s fielding too attained world-class stature, with Eknath Solkar, the prehensile forward short leg, virtually making the quartet a quintet. Wadekar and Gavaskar in the slips, Abid Ali at backward short leg and Venkataraghavan, the brilliant catcher with the big hands at gully, ensured that a catch dropped made national news—rather than in previous years when a chance that was taken did.
Basing an entire attack on spin was a necessity since India had few fast bowling options. With the arrival of Kapil Dev, ironically under Bedi’s captaincy, in Pakistan in 1978, balance was restored. Kapil picked up the baton dropped in the pre-Independence days by Amar Singh (who, in the memorable words of Walter Hammond, the English batsman, “came off the pitch like the crack of doom”) and led a medium-pace revolution in Indian cricket; its flagbearers were the gifted Karsan Ghavri and later Zaheer Khan and the basket of quicks who have been in and out of the team.
And then, came Sachin Tendulkar. On a November day in Karachi, he made his bow in Test cricket, and ever since, India have won more Tests than they have lost. Till that day, India had lost more than twice the number of Tests they had won, a mere 43 victories in 257 matches. Since then, they have won 69 of 205 matches (58 losses). But it wasn’t all Tendulkar’s doing—although he has played in 188 of those matches. Very quickly around him, India built a team, many of whom could be slotted into an all-time India XI. From Bangalore came Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and Javagal Srinath; from Calcutta Sourav Ganguly, from Jalandhar Harbhajan Singh, from Hyderabad V.V.S. Laxman and from Delhi Virender Sehwag. Their deeds are too recent and too well-known to bear out repetition here, but even as their superhuman powers seemed to weaken against the kryptonite-divining attacks in England and Australia, there were enough individual consolations for a public used to looking for small triumphs in large defeats.
Given his mixed heritage, who then is the Indian cricketer? What do we know of him after eight decades? The neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran once remarked that if you took all the people in America and shoved them into a giant mixer, what would emerge would be the Hollywood actor Tom Hanks, the quintessential American. Who would emerge if you put the 274 Indians who have played Tests through a similar blender?
The raw athleticism of Kapil Dev, the grace of Bedi, the hunger of Tendulkar, the grit of Dravid, the sheer toughness of Kumble, the elegance of Ganguly, among others—it’d be a creature out of William Blake. Not surprising, since there has always been something other-worldly about Indian cricket. Well, might we ask, what immortal hand or eye could frame its fearful symmetry?
My All-time Dream Team
Anil Kumble (capt)
Who would you pick in your dream team?
My Six Best
Suresh Menon, is editor, Wisden India Almanack
Suresh Menon’s run through the past of Indian cricket (A Backward Point Glance) was a joy to read. But in his dream team, he includes Virender Sehwag—a generous choice. Furthermore, he chooses Kumble as one of his favourite captains!
Eighty years of enlighentend cricket. True to form,
Outlook brought enough cricket in this issue even
envying sports magazines.Indian Cricket's quantum leap
has been well accounted with statitics. Small wonder then,
that you mentioned the great giants who made that possible.
A gr8 history retold........
You are too generous for Virender Sehwag to add inAll-time Dream Team and top batsman, Anil Kumble in 6 best captains otherwise great article.
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