It took 35 minutes on Sunday morning, but India’s journey to the top of the Test world has been decades in the making.
Anyone who followed Indian cricket through the 1990s, the decade of home dominance and defeat away, or the early 2000s, sporadic successes dotted by embarrassing debacles, will savour the sweet taste of a team coming together and rising to the top of the charts.
While Test cricket’s return to Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium was hardly an epic, the match certainly lived up to the occasion. Virender Sehwag’s brutal 293 took him to the verge of putting Sir Don Bradman in the shade as the only man with three triple-hundreds. Zaheer Khan who has improved steadily since returning from injury, applied the finishing touches with a five-wicket haul.
When Muttiah Muralitharan was caught behind off Harbhajan Singh, signalling an innings victory and a 2-0 series triumph, the joy on Sachin Tendulkar’s face, as he called the support staff and reserve players on to the field to share the moment, was proof of the journey this team has taken.
“I think Sachin was probably dying for this day. He started in 1989 and has completed 20 years in international cricket,” said Sunil Gavaskar. “This is a big moment for Sachin. I would think this is as big as all his personal records.”
As Tendulkar later stated, in 20 years of cricket, this was the first time he’d been part of a team that was No. 1. And he’s seen it all — from the painful period of matchfixing, his own troubled captaincy, the revival under Sourav Ganguly, a period of consolidation with Rahul Dravid at the helm and then the caretaker captaincy of Anil Kumble, who brought a quiet dignity and steel to the team.
Through this process of churning, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was finally handed the reins in 2008, and given charge of building on the successes of his predecessors. And Dhoni built a team that he can now call his own, despite stalwarts like Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman in the mix.
From being a group that always had exceptional individual batsmen, the team has shaped into one that barely has a weak link.
What helped is that the core of the team remained the same these last two years. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have bonded into the most formidable opening partnership in the game. The re-emergence of Zaheer as a world-class bowler who can lead an attack in any condition has ensured that penetration was never an issue. Ishant Sharma, who provided the attack with such freshness and verve, is on the sidelines at the moment, but the prodigal Sreesanth has returned to shore up the attack. With the retirement of Kumble, it was left to Harbhajan to bolster the spin stocks, and at every opportunity Dhoni has backed his offie.
Dhoni, who incidentally, has repeatedly said that his team did not play with an eye on the rankings, re-iterated that view after reaching the top.
“It was a constant process for the last 18 months. Whatever Test cricket we have played we have played really well,” said Dhoni. “We believe in short-term goals and I try to live in the present. I would rather think about the next game, the next day or the next session. I feel small steps are very important because every small step leads you to the big goal.”
The baby steps that Dhoni took, from the cricketing outpost of Ranchi to the Indian captaincy have coincided quite happily with India's rise to No. 1. Along the way there have been many who helped, but the moment belongs to MSD and his team.