When touring overseas, the Indians always seem to get lost in a maze. The victory at the Wanderers was a welcome exception after a long drought of wins away from home.
After the second test match at the Centurion which India lost by 135 runs, Virat Kohli was breathing fire. In the post-match press conference, he got himself into a wrangle over the term ‘best XI’. Should Rahane have been picked instead of Rohit Sharma? Why did they lose on a pitch which was very sub-continental in nature? In the heated exchange that ensued, no logical answer seemed forthcoming. What made that day even more bittersweet was that he was anointed ODI player of the year that same evening. By then, all the good feelings from his star-studded wedding to Anushka Sharma at the eve of the series had evaporated. All the talk of ‘intent’ and a ‘legacy defining series’ had been quickly shelved and in its place was a lot of ire and defensiveness.
If home felt far away, even the victories at home over the past season were just a distant memory.
Here’s what has happened from time immemorial – Indian batsman fill their coffers with runs at home, only to have their technique and averages demonetized on foreign shores. They came to South Africa and didn’t bother playing a preparatory match. Their preparation consisted of an inconsequential series against a below par Sri Lanka. When history repeated itself, everyone went up in arms.
Indians have always been bad tourists. On and off the field.
We are accused of being rude, untidy, bargaining at 5 star hotels and talking too loudly. We stand out and create a nuisance, almost like it is some sort of a default setting.
Before India became the financial hub of World Cricket, it was a place where a few dared to tread. The weather was prohibitive, the hygiene suspect and the food, undecipherable. When Australia toured India in 2001, Shane Warne carried with him an entourage of baked beans to see him through the final frontier.
Back in the 90s, before online streaming and live commentary, alarms would be set to rise at ungodly hours to watch India do battle in foreign shores. The disappointments of those times are still fresh. Not raw, but fresh.
You woke up in the morning and India were all out for 66 against the merciless pace of Allan Donald.
You woke up in the morning to see Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid fighting a lone battle, warding off Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee.
You woke up to see VVS Laxman come into his own, scoring a fluent 167 when the rest of the side capitulated around him.
You woke up to see Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad toiling, their shoulders spent, looking for the non-existent third bowler. Sourav Ganguly steps in to try his hand at pace bowling and the results are there for all to see.
Capitulate. Abject surrender. Whitewash. That’s how it all ended. But we never gave up hope, an entire generation trudging to work and college and school bleary eyed, disappointed, yet hopeful that one day their heroes would turn in all around.
Kolkata 2001 will always be the watershed moment in Indian cricket, the moment when David beat Goliath. Though it was played at home, the series assumed epochal proportions due to the near invincibility of the Australians. Hadn’t VVS Laxman played that Haley’s comet like innings, no one knows the course Indian cricket would have taken. What would the future edifices on?
The decade would give fans what they had woken up to see, but had never came to pass thus far.
It all came it bits and pieces, like water seeping through a crack.
In 2002, the side beat England at Headingley. Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid and Sanjay Bangar contributed with the bat, and Kumble and Harbhajan completed the formalities with the ball. It was Ganguly’s first victory away from home. The test series ended in a draw. Prior to that tour, India had toured England in 1996. On their return, Mohammad Azharuddin was sacked as captain for their abysmal show.
How the times had changed.
As 2003 wound down, Steve Waugh announced that the series against India would be his last. During the first test at Brisbane, Sourav Ganguly dug into his reserves and struck a gritty 144. At Adelaide, history was made Rahul Dravid carried his bat in both the innings, scoring a masterful 233 in the first and a celebratory 72 in the second.
We got what we had woken up to at last – victory in Australia, against Australia.
Steve Waugh, a man whom Dravid modeled himself after, personally picked the ball after it had crossed the boundary and handed it over to Rahul Dravid, the man who would later write the foreword for his autobiography. Though India would go onto lose the next test and then wait too long to enforce a declaration before putting Australia into bat in the 4th and final test, Waugh’s final international appearance, a tour that was written off as a predictable 4-0 whitewash, ended in 1-1 draw.
The bad travelers cloak was beginning to slip away.
India toured Pakistan in 1989, the series that introduced the world to a curly haired tyro called Sachin Tendulkar. When India toured Pakistan next, it was 2004. Since 1989, India had gone from a closed economy and embraced liberalisation, televisions had gone from 2 channels to infinity and its cricket board had gone from peasant to king. Many termed the series as an election ploy and then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee personally met the players before they departed. Rahul Bhattacharya’s Pundits from Pakistan is one my favourite sports books ever and it brings back some wonderful memories about that tour.
Virender Sehwag brought up his triple century with a six.
Sachin Tendulkar was left stranded on 194 and made a big deal out of it.
Rahul Dravid chalked up one of his many career defining knocks at Rawalpindi.
India won the series 2-1, beating the fearsome Pakistanis in their own backyard.
Imran Khan reportedly stormed into the office of the president of the Pakistan Cricket Board and gave him a piece of his mind on the ‘humiliating’ loss. On their return, the team couldn’t get out of the airport as it was teeming with crowds. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s gamble of the conducting the series had paid off. His government, the Bharatiya Janata Party coined the now immortalised slogan ‘India Shining’, a call to the upward trajectory that they felt the country was on. So confident were they of winning that they went in for an early election, thinking they were riding on a wave of optimism. Much to everyone’s shock, they lost.
But at least the Indian cricket team, now slowly leaving its mark even on foreign shores, was shining.
Unlike the 100 pipers commercials, Greg Chappell won’t be remembered for good in the hearts of Indian fans but in his tenure, the side won a series in West Indies after 35 years, again owing to another grittier than gritty knock from Rahul Dravid. A few months later, Sreesanth, in one of his rare moments of lucidity, cast a spell on the great Jacques Kallis, his spell considered on of the best by an Indian bowler overseas. No less than a legend like Allan Donald was in awe of his ability to swing the ball. The side went on to lose the next two matches, throwing away a great start to the series.
In his last series as captain, Rahul Dravid finished off with a flourish, something that was rarely afforded to him in his celebrated career. Zaheer Khan, back after fitness worries and being blindsided by Chappell, took 18 wickets and staked his claim to being the ringleader of the pace attack. The side went up 1-0 and in the third test, they sat on a lead, playing tamely for a draw. Even if losing was a mathematical improbability, it wasn’t an option. After that historic test series victory, Rahul Dravid would abruptly quit captaincy, bruised by its demands, exhausted by its lead weight.
In late 2007, India toured Australia and gave the cricketing world a new scandal to chew on – Monkeygate. The Sydney match was a disgrace no doubt but what followed was even more disgraceful – the high handedness of the Indian cricket board, a flight waiting to fly the players back to India if the ICC didn’t withdraw the ban on Harbhajan Singh for an alleged racial slur. What followed at Perth was magnificent, the balm the team needed. Playing on one of the most feared and hostile pitches, Tendulkar, Dravid, Pathan, Laxman and Sehwag, all played their part in a historic win. The series was lost, but pride was restored.
In 2010, India toured South Africa and VVS Laxman played what would be one of his last defining knocks in test cricket, giving India a victory. In the third test, Sachin Tendulkar also played one of the last of his defining knocks in test cricket, staving off a marauding Dale Steyn in his prime.
The end of an era came swiftly.
From June 2011 to January 2012, India lost 8 test matches on the trot, signalling the end of the Golden Era. Dravid and Laxman would retire in 2012 and Sachin Tendulkar in 2013.
Free from the shackles of the past, a younger Indian side toured England in 2014 in a bid to make some amends for the 4-0 drubbing they received a few years back. And they almost succeeded. They created history at Lord’s, Ishant Sharma coming up with a spell for the ages. After that, it went downhill, faster than even an avalanche. The side capitulated in the next 3 matches, each loss worse than the previous one and Virat Kohli’s off stump weakness was exposed to the whole world.
2014 ended with MS Dhoni abruptly resigning test captaincy, the accumulation of overseas losses probably too much of a cross to bear. In the first test of that series, Virat Kohli nearly pulled off an impossible heist. Requiring 363 to win, the side pushed for a victory and nearly got there. After years of resorting to defensive tactics and sitting on massive leads, it was a sight for sore eyes. Of course, the twist in the tale was waiting round the corner with a collapse that led to 8 wickets falling for 73 runs. I personally rate that as one of Kohli’s best knocks ever, even though there was no victory rainbow at the end of the effort.
The overseas test series victory against Sri Lanka in 2017 , though welcome, doesn’t compare to a win against Australia or South Africa. Sri Lanka are a side in search of new talent and stability, a far cry from the crouching tigers that they once were. Every time the board needs to squeeze in a series, the have Sri Lanka on speed dial. The preparation for the South Africa tour was a dead rubber series against a depleted Sri Lanka. It’s like looking for facebook likes to boost your self-esteem. Winning against a side down on its morale isn’t adequate preparation.
That’s why, when the side won the test at the Wanderers, that too with 5 pacers steaming in on a pitch on which play was thought to be impossible on day 3 when Dean Elgar received a blow on his forehead, it showed tremendous character. The sides could have called it quits, shook hands and walked away. The series wasn’t in the balance, the criticism over the India team selection was unabating.
The blueprint for the survival of test cricket has many loopholes. The advent of T20 cricket has ensured more results, but they are also one-sided. India clean-swept New Zealand and England at home. Australia put up a commendable fight while the Ashes, one of test’s greatest rivalries ended in a 4-0 annihilation for England. Getting a result is one thing, the result being a foregone conclusion is another.
Everyone likes a good scrap, a fight to the finish, a match hanging in the balance over night, waking up to possibility, not resignation, and a scoreboard that doesn’t tell the entire story. After the match at the Wanderers, the press conference didn’t feature landmines for Kohli to walk through.
Anger had given way to possibility, retribution and a smile.
Kohli and his team will embark on tours of England and Australia later in the year. There will be the legacy defining jingoism that will be thrown in every time they set foot overseas, there will be recriminations and calls for people’s heads when the script doesn’t go according to plan. It is said that a player, captain or side can truly call themselves great only when they begin to win overseas. But no side has been doing that consistently in international cricket for a while now. If that is the benchmark, it may as well be a flawed one in the modern era.
We all root for a side.
But deep down, we all root for a contest; between bat and ball, between tactics, between captains, between sworn enemies.
If all of your favourite test wins were to pass you by in a flash, what would you remember?
I’m not sure. But I’ll bet it will be the matches where both sides put up one hell of a fight.
And in the end, isn’t that what we seek?
So when you wake up at some ungodly hour to root for your team doing battle in a land far, far away, it will all be worth it.