On Thursday, at the spectacular theatre that is the Eden, India’s angry young man was back. He thumped his chest, screamed in equal measure with frustration and joy, beguiled the opposition with flight and drift, and let out a blood-curling yell when he made sure the good guys had won.
Back on his favourite stage, in front of a Kolkata crowd that forever feeds off his theatrical persona as much as he feeds off its impassioned appeal, Harbhajan Singh made sure India ended the cricketing year No. 1 --- for the first time ever.
The record books will show that India beat South Africa, the world No. 2, by an innings and 58 runs, but it was much closer than that. Fifteen minutes more and Hashim Amla, the last man standing, battling heroically with the tail, would have broken a gazillion Indian hearts.
But he didn’t --- and Harbhajan and India got their fairytale ending. “We have learnt that if we fight till the end we will do special things,” Harbhajan said later. “There has been a lot of talk that it was a fluke (for India) to be the No. 1 side. It was not… we have worked really hard to reach the top and today we showed the world we deserve to be number one.”
They did really. The hallmark of this team has been their ability to regroup and to fight with their backs to the wall and never give up. Anil Kumble, the man who, as captain, is credited with first putting down ‘the No. 1 team in the world’ as a stated aim, told the Hindustan Times that “the ability to come back, consistently,” was critical to India’s success. “That and the fact that this is no longer a team of individuals, it’s all about the team. That’s been the major change for me.”
Gautam Gambhir, the world’s No. 1 Test batsman of the moment, agreed. “For all of us, the team comes before individual performances. We want the team to be No. 1, personal records are secondary.”
Having lost the previous Test, India had to win this game to hold the series and keep the No. 1 ranking. The weather wasn’t with them and on Thursday, neither was Zaheer Khan. India basically played with three bowlers on the day and each, Harbhajan, Ishant and Amit Mishra, like the four senior batsmen before them --- Sehwag, Tendulkar, Dhoni and Laxman --- who got vital centuries, played a part in this win.
“We enjoy each others’ successes and it’s showing in everything we do,” said Gambhir. “All of us have done well over the last year-and-a half. As a result, we have lots of match-winners, anyone can turn the game at any time.”
Gambhir said “doing well overseas” was India’s biggest change of late yet there are things to be done before this team can stay at the top. Like beating Australia in Australia or the Safs at home, ours or theirs. India’s major test will be this yearend, when they travel to South Africa for a full series.
“There will be ups and downs,” agreed Rahul Dravid, widely acknowledged as the backbone of India’s Test team for a decade. “There is still a long way to go, but at this point, most bases are covered. We have world-class batsmen and a very good bowling attack. To me, our greatest strength is the great balance we have, the confidence to hold our own wherever we play, whatever the conditions, whatever the situation.”
Dravid said that while he considered the ascent to No. 1 "a journey", it was difficult to pinpoint a moment or a time for when it began.
“Did it all begin in 1971, when we won a first Test series in the West Indies and England? Or in 2001, when we came back to beat Australia at the Eden? Or did it begin in 1983, when we won the World Cup and people like Sachin or I were 10-11 years old and being inspired by what we were witnessing?”
He called it “a process, a series of changes on several fronts”, a reflection of India. “India has grown as a country, grown in confidence and in the exposure its youngsters are getting and all that is reflected in its cricket. By the time an under-19 cricketer plays for India, he’s travelled the world. The IPL ensures he’s interacting with quality international players. The money coming in has ensured that facilities have improved beyond recognition. We have foreign coaches and trainers, while their Indian counterparts are also world class. And then there’s television. In 1990, with India opening up and Star Sports beaming cricket into little towns and villages, three-four year old boys could watch and learn and dream. Those same boys are now playing for India.” And, as Harbhajan, the son of a Jalandhar man who literally made nuts and bolts in a small, home-run business put it, “Winning for India.”