On the eve of the third Test at Birmingham, I was speaking to Rahul Dravid about the threat to India’s Test status and what it would mean to lose the No. 1 ranking if the team’s performances remains sub-par in the remaining two matches as well.
“It would be disappointing certainly, because the team has done well to reach the top,” said the batting maestro, whose two superb centuries in the preceding Tests have gone in vain. “But should it happen, it would also be fresh incentive. There is no clear-cut leader, and three or four teams are jostling for the top spot, which makes it competitive.”
Maestro: Rahul Dravid (right), 38, has so far scored two centuries in the Test series against England. Photograph by: Philip Brown/Reuters
Dravid’s reading of the situation does not run contrary to the ambition of the team or the desire of the Indian cricket fan; rather, it is a pragmatic assessment, devoid of the fatuous fanaticism and jingoism that seem to have engulfed the sport in India.
It does not absolve the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) of petty arrogance, poor standards and practices, little accountability and conflicts of interest, et al, either. Instead, it marks out a goal and spells out the need for a proper game plan. If India want to be recognized as the best in the business, they need to not just get to the top, but remain there for some length of time.
Only two teams in modern cricket history can claim to have been world champions, though for the large part they played when there was no ratings system, the ICC (International Cricket Council) rankings being a fairly recent development. For sheer breadth and consistency of performance, the West Indies under Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards between 1976 and 1991, and Australia from 1993 to 2005, are clearly far ahead of any other side.
True, both these countries were blessed with extraordinary talent in the periods mentioned. But what made the teams so powerful was that so many talented players came together at the same time as youngsters and most of them then grew together in a symbiotic quest for excellence—this is a crucial aspect because a great team by definition must have longevity of tenure and success. This is hardly likely to happen if the young talent is not good enough and needs to be replaced every now and then, or if there are too many ageing players who may not last long enough. Essentially, a team in constant churn simply cannot be great.
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Consider the West Indies in the late 1970s and 1980s. Barring supremo Lloyd, who was in his 30s, all the others—Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes, Jeffrey Dujon, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner—were 25 years old or less when they came together. It took them a little time to gel together and they were soon beating all sides in all conditions for the next decade and more.
Similarly in Australia’s case, Mark Taylor—and subsequently Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting—inherited a core of exceptional young players who came together at virtually the same time and stayed together for more than a decade: Taylor/Matthew Hayden, Michael Slater/Justin Langer, Ponting, Mark Waugh, Damien Martyn, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath.
In India’s case, the rise to No. 1 coincided with their iconic players—Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman—being on the wrong side of 30, with the major part of their careers clearly behind them. Other vital constituents of this side are Virender Sehwag (32), Zaheer Khan (32) and Gautam Gambhir (29)—not old by the standards of modern sport, but injury-prone and irregular participants over the past 18 months.
From players who have been around for a decade, Harbhajan Singh (31) seems to have hit a trough, while Yuvraj Singh (29) has never shown the mettle in Test cricket that makes him such a devastating player in One Day Internationals. On this tour, skipper M.S. Dhoni appears to have lost form, adding to the team’s woes, while Suresh Raina’s technique against seam, swing and short-pitched bowling remains uninspiring.
All things considered, therefore, the Indian team’s tenure at the top of the Test rankings was always going to be rickety and tenuous because the best players may not be around together for much longer, and the new bunch are yet to find their groove in conditions outside of home.
But, as Dravid put it, this is a challenging situation, not an impossible one. The one other crucial facet of great teams— apart from extraordinary talent—is robust collective ambition and a sense of pride. If the Indian team can dig deep within themselves to get out of the hole they are in currently, there might be a twist to this story yet.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters. He is writing weekly during the course of the series from England.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org