January 4, 2011

A year of comebacks

India showed the sort of toughness and determination that they have rarely displayed previously

India's 2010 was always going to be defined by the last three weeks of the year, on tour in South Africa, where they had won just one Test in 12 previous attempts. And when they started the second week of December, it didn't look good at all. Bowled out in 38.4 overs, India disappointed themselves more than anybody else. They had worked hard, they had been waiting for it (except those who drew up a schedule that didn't have a warm-up game), and on the first day of the series, on a damp pitch, they couldn't limit the damage enough to be able to draw what would be a rain-affected Test.

For themselves, more than anyone else, they needed to salvage the hard work of the last decade that had taken them to the top of the Test rankings. If the start was typical India, the response was typical new India. Put in on a pitch as green as they had seen, that bounced as steeply as any they had encountered, and where the ball seamed and jagged all day long, India hung in for their lives, getting just about enough runs to fight. If they were hanging from a cliff, those fingers were holding on tight. Three days later, Durban was conquered, capping off an immensely satisfying year, during which they didn't lose a Test series (in fact, they haven't lost a series since Sri Lanka 2008), and with at least three other comebacks earlier in the year, showed the kind of mental toughness rarely associated with the Indian teams of the past.

It was only fitting that at the heart of their final comeback were two of their best Test players of the year, VVS Laxman and Zaheer Khan. Laxman made contributions to all four of India's most memorable Test wins of the year. In Kolkata against South Africa, after India had been outclassed in Nagpur, he was one of India's four centurions. In the other three, he did it almost all by himself, and in the second innings. P Sara Oval, Mohali and Kingsmead saw Laxman at his best. Two of those were series-levelling efforts, and one - on injections and painkillers - the most extraordinary chase with the tail for company.

The Indian team has no qualms in admitting that Zaheer is their best bowler, bowling captain and bowling coach. In a striking resemblance to Laxman's efforts, Zaheer has had to fight his own body so that his skills could shine. And what skills he has shown: he swings both old and new ball, he knows exactly how to extract reverse swing, and even at his less-than-threatening pace, he averaged 22 in 2010. And all but one of his Tests were on the subcontinent.

Not to be forgotten is that the team somehow dug in enough to win P Sara and level the series even in the absence of Zaheer. Also not to be forgotten is that India won just one toss in 14 Tests this year, which means they have invariably had the worse of conditions. That can be a severe handicap, especially in places like Sri Lanka, who are better than anybody else at batting oppositions out once the toss is won, and South Africa, where one bad session can cost you a Test, as it did India in Centurion.

While Laxman and Zaheer produced the sterling, memorable performances, it was not easy to forget the others. Sachin Tendulkar, in his 21st year in international cricket, scored seven Test centuries. He saved India embarrassment in Chittagong in their first Test of the year. One of his doubles saved India the SSC Test, and another set up a win in Bangalore against Australia. Virender Sehwag unfortunately had to take on the classical Tendulkar role of watching his centuries go to waste: in Nagpur, in Galle, in Ahmedabad. In isolation the 109s he scored in Nagpur and Galle were lovely innings. For lack of support they were not enough to avert losses: the first two of MS Dhoni's captaincy.

The calmness Dhoni and Gary Kirsten brought to the leadership played a huge role in minimising the pressure that comes with being India and being No. 1. Dhoni has always maintained that his side approached three of their biggest Tests this year, Kolkata, P Sara and Durban, like they did any other match. While it might sound impossible to put that approach into practice, it helps the team to see their captain and coach not adding to the already existing pressure.

The captain and the coach also got the board to assist in achieving the side's Test ambitions as far as was commercially feasible. India played 14 Tests in 2010 to six in 2009. The selectors played ball, resting the key players for ODIs, giving the Test team the best possible chance to defend its status as the top team in the world. However, in commercial terms it proved to be too much to ask for warm-up games and acclimatisation time before the South Africa tour and the World Twenty20 in the West Indies.

India went to the premier Twenty20 event tired from the IPL, which had finished just five days earlier. They were rusty, the younger batsmen not prepared for the short-ball barrage, and the result was not surprising. In the 50-over format, India didn't play a single game with their first-choice XI, but finally got rid of the habit of losing finals in multi-nation tournaments, winning the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka, along the way beating Pakistan in a thriller. It was also fitting that Tendulkar, the most complete batsman in the format, scored the first double-century in 39 years of its existence.

New kids on the block
Cheteshwar Pujara came into Test cricket with a reputation to defend and a reputation to beat. He came in with a first-class average of over 57, accompanied by doubts that the numbers were bolstered on the low and slow pitches of his home ground in Rajkot. In the men's world, in the Two Tests that he got, Pujara went a long way in backing up those numbers and deleting the doubts. If he was youthful and without a care in the world in scoring a match-winning 72 in the fourth innings in Bangalore, his gutsy 76-minute fight against arguably best new-ball attack in the world, on the second day in Durban, received the stamp of approval from none other than Laxman.

By all evidence, Abhimanyu Mithun was the other new star on the horizon. A strong fast bowler, a natural athlete, he busted his gut in the unhelpful conditions in Sri Lanka, playing an important role in the series-leveller. As a reward, he has not played another Test. That's one the selectors need to answer for.

High point
The wins at Eden Gardens, P Sara Oval and Kingsmead. All of them levelled series, all of them were riveting comebacks, and in none of them did India win the toss. Add to it the Mohali miracle and you have four for the ages.

Low point
The World Twenty20 embarrassment. As they say, failing to prepare is preparing to fail.

What 2011 holds
Another big year, with the World Cup and tours to the West Indies, England and Australia lined up. Also, it could be the last time Laxman, Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid tour those countries. It should be a matter of concern that all the stellar performers over the last year have been the experienced cricketers. A bigger concern should be the reliance on Zaheer in the bowling department. And the poor starts to series. It is all good to celebrate the comebacks, but a thought has to be given to why India find themselves 0-1 down so often. Time is running out for this particular group of cricketers, and over the course of 2011 they would love to go from being fighting champions to dominating ones.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo