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Rich Seams, Sweet Spots

Tempered over years, it’s ideal that Indian cricket burns brightest at its 100th Test versus England

Rich Seams, Sweet Spots
Getty Images (From Outlook, August 01, 2011)
Rich Seams, Sweet Spots
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Indian Milestones

In 99 Tests over 79 years, success had been hard won

  • 1932 The first Test match between India and England is played at Lord's. Led by the legendary C.K. Nayudu, India loses by 158 runs to Douglas Jardine's side.
  • 1952 India defeat England for the first time in Chennai, riding on Vinoo Mankad's 12 wickets in the match and Pankaj Roy's 111.
  • 1962 India win its first-ever series against England. Salim Durrani, M.A.K. Pataudi, Chandu Borde, Vijay Manjrekar and captain Nari Contractor are the star performers.
  • 1971 India win their first series in England, propelled by its spin bowlers through the series. Chandra paves the way for the historic win at the Oval, bagging 6-38.
  • 1986 India win their first Test at Lord's. Dilip Vengsarkar, Chetan Sharma and Kapil Dev are top performers. India clinch the series 2-0.
  • 2007 India win the away series again, 1-0. Anil Kumble and Zaheer Khan star performers.
  • 2008 With 26/11 cutting short the series to two Tests, India win the series 1-0, chasing 387 for the triumph.

***

St John’s Wood in northwest London, holiest of holies for the cricket aficionado, is abuzz with excitement. In this region lies the Lord’s cricket ground, and it is hosting the Indian cricket team, including the man they call god, and several minor deities. By reputation and ranking, it is strong like it has never before been in England; it’s the No. 1 team in the world. But it faces a resurgent England, unbeaten in their previous eight series and victorious in their last five. A lip-smacking prospect, and the excitement has spread across this realm. As an Indian journalist put to England captain Andrew Strauss, it’s possible St John’s Wood would be “taken over by us”. Us? The British-born resident Indian supporter walks around with a puffed chest because the Indian team is a pushover no more, the way it was in 1932, the year in which India and England played their first Test, as well through most of the decades since then.

The Test you are watching is the 100th match between India and England—the 2,000th overall in all Test cricket. Their clash didn’t need to be hyped, but it has been from the time the visitors landed here. The feeling that an extraordinary event is going to occur—a remarkable feat of mind and body, likely with a bat and likely performed by Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar—is inescapable. The cricketing centres of London are awash with hoardings and posters proclaiming the advent of the supreme power of cricket—India. England, holders of the Ashes, are now desperate to beat India. If they win the series 2-0, they will replace India as the No. 1 team. India are the team they respect and want to beat.

That wasn’t the way things were, not even as recently as 2007, by which time India’s ascendancy in Test cricket had begun. Yes, Indians of the past possessed magical wrists and flashing bats, they could work the ball past the man at point or square leg with a swish of the bat in the blink of an eye, but they lacked resilience. But now, for the first time in England, India’s team, long befuddled by the swinging and the seaming ball and the cold and rain, is considered at par with the home team, if not the favourite. And there is universal appreciation of this Indian team, for its core has changed perceptions about Indian teams abroad.


A full circle Andrew Strauss, M.S. Dhoni at the toss before the Lord’s Test on July 21

Before the Lord’s Test, India had lost 23 of the 48 Tests they’d played in England, winning only five times. They waited 22 Tests and 40 years before their first win in England; they had to wait another 15 years and 11 Tests before their next win, in 1986, when they won twice. There have been only three Test wins since then, and one series victory, in 2007.

“Past teams didn’t have self-belief. Now we have world-class batsmen, fast bowlers. And they are mentally tougher.”
Sourav Ganguly, Former India Captain

With a few honourable exceptions, visiting Indians mostly couldn’t cope with the swing, the cold and the caprices of English weather. Jonathan Agnew, the tall fast bowler who played a few practice games against the touring Indians, apart from a handful of one-dayers in India, remembers Indian cricketers as largely “lackadaisical”. He almost says that they didn’t seem particularly serious in their approach. “They never seemed...well, I suppose they took themselves seriously, but they never seemed to be in the hunt.” As a fast bowler, he says, the feeling in the English dressing rooms was that India would struggle against speed. “I took the view that the Indians didn’t play fast bowling terribly well...because they did not face very much of it,” he says.

They did struggle in England. Up to 1980, India had lost eight Tests by an innings; seven by six wickets or worse, and another four by over 100 runs. They were bowled out for 42 in the terribly cold summer of 1974, when they lost the series 3-0. Indians could be pushed over the precipice with the greatest ease, especially with shivering bodies under inexpensive cotton pullovers provided by the cricket board. They were not neither athletic nor fit, and the fielding could be appalling. Cricket writer Dicky Rutnagur, who has watched Indian cricket from close quarters from the 1940s, recounts that India had excellent individual players who were hobbled by the lack of playing opportunities and a professional set-up. “There were times when they struggled against New Zealand, for god’s sake!” Rutnagur chuckles.

When India did win for the first time in England, in 1971, it was because of an extraordinary spell of bowling by B.S. Chandrashekhar. And though they won again in 1986, with a more convincing margin, 2-0, Rutnagur says that even then, Indians weren’t really accustomed to winning. “Dilip Vengsarkar got two centuries, but I’d say that even in 1986, they didn’t know how to win. They did not know the winning feeling, except one man, and that was Kapil Dev.”

Derek Pringle, the former England all-rounder, made his Test debut against India in 1982. He remembers that the feeling in the dressing room then was that the Indians were fragile in English conditions. “We felt that there were a couple of very good batsmen, like Gavaskar and Vishwanath, etc,” he says. “We thought we had the better of them in the English conditions. And we felt that apart from Kapil, they didn’t have much of a bowling either.” It was against expectations that India won in 1986. “Actually at Headingley, the conditions much suited us,” Pringle says. “Typically English conditions. But India had Kapil, Madan Lal, Roger Binny and Chetan Sharma, and they bowled well in those conditions, they deservedly won the series.”

Pringle wonders if that could have been the point when India turned the corner. It very well could have been. Indian players from the previous generation were less intense and competitive, with the exception of someone like Gavaskar, Pringle and Agnew believe. “My friend Bishan’s (Singh Bedi) bowling, for instance,” Agnew says. “He’d toss the ball up, higher than before, and say—hit it further if you dare! He was a brilliant bowler, but I can’t imagine him bowling like that if he were from somewhere else.” But Indian cricket was transformed when people like Kapil came in, and Vengsarkar and Jimmy Amarnath began to play to their potential. Agnew adds, “Steely people like them came in, and that’s when they turned the corner, didn’t they?”

“Our talent pool now is increasing, we’ve more players to pick from—a reflection of facilities and resources available.”
Rahul Dravid, Indian batsman

The advent of Sachin Tendulkar brought greater attention and respect to India than ever before. But it was perhaps the addition of Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly in 1996 that put steel into the Indian spine. Dravid was particularly correct in his batting technique, essential to succeed in England. That, Pringle says, is the reason behind new India’s strength: “The batsmen don’t panic when the ball goes off the seam. You need to be technically adept to play against the moving ball and I think India now have several key players who’re technically adept.”

Qamar Ahmed, long-time journalist and former first-class cricketer from Pakistan, agrees it’s the all-time greats—Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag— in the Indian batting line-up that have earned honours for India. He believes the current team is treading the path their predecessors cut. “When you produce players like Gavaskar and Kapil and Vengsarkar, kids try to emulate them, and this got more talent into the game in India,” Ahmed says.

Dravid agrees, referring to the talent emerging from smaller cities and says the future of Indian cricket lies therein. “Our talent pool is increasing, we’ve got more players to pick up from,” he told Outlook. “That’s a reflection of the facilities available, and the resources that have been created with the increase in the financial health of our board.”

India in the past knew they were like lambs to the slaughter—ready for prompt execution. Now they know, courtesy the great batsmen of the past two decades, that the opposition respects them. “I particularly remember how in 1992 at Perth, Tendulkar went after the bowling as India went for quick runs,” Rutnagur says. “India did not win, but the way he, a teenager, played, it brought new respect for the Indians. Now India has several great players—Dravid, and Sehwag, a man other teams are frightened of.”

Sourav Ganguly, who became captain at the turn of the century, says it’s all in the mind—a team can sink or rise due to fear or the lack of it. “India had great players in the past, but they didn’t have confidence and belief,” Ganguly told Outlook. “Now we’ve produced a number of world-class batsmen, and some excellent quick bowlers like Zaheer Khan. Now they’re mentally tougher.”

For nearly 80 years, India were a bunch of charming losers. But they’ve not lost more than one Test in a series in England since 1974; they’ve not lost to England for 15 years. It’s as good as it gets. It’s cause for celebration, says Ahmed. But, with a twinkle, he adds: “India is on the top of the cycle now. This will change—that’s what we learn from the past. India should enjoy this as long as it lasts.” They’re doing that in this tepid summer, in which India’s legendary bats must fire to make up for their bowling frailties and live up to their new status as equals abroad in England.

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