By R Kaushik

The era began on a low but then Dhoni arrived with the T20 World Cup triumph in tow and India's takeover of world cricket began in right earnest.

They were the worst years for Indian cricket. They were the best years for Indian cricket.

To nominate 2007 as the year of the most seminal turning point for the sport in the country will be no exaggeration. It was the year of the World Cups – the traditional 50-over version in the Caribbean in the summer, and an untested but potentially exciting 20-over variant in South Africa a few months later. India were expected to do well in one and not at all in the other. So it transpired, though few would have foreseen the turn of events that ushered Rahul Dravid’s men out of the 50-over competition at the very first stage, and catapulted first-time captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s young, unheralded bunch to the status of inaugural champions of the T20 World Cup.

Shame and humiliation in the West Indies played a massive part in steeling India for a spectacular, successful assault on the next ODI World Cup, in their own backyard in 2011. Glory in the land of the Protea, meanwhile, provided just the fillip the Indian Premier League, which kicked off with much fanfare in 2008, required in its avowed desire to become the world’s most premier franchise-based T20 competition.

If Indian cricket is vibrant on and off the park in 2022, it’s got much to do with the germination of the seeds sowed wittingly or otherwise a decade-and-a-half back. The financial health of the sport is a direct offshoot of the burgeoning popularity of IPL, which today commands sponsorship and broadcast rights in tens of thousands of crores. The cricketing outlook owes itself to a robust commitment to domestic and long-form cricket, thus ensuring that while there is tremendous investment in the white-ball, and specifically T20 game, the longest version continues to remain a prime focus area for indisputably the most influential cricketing nation globally.

More through design than accident, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has addressed the core issues that have contributed to the sustenance of cricket as the country’s No. 1 sport in terms of visibility, attractiveness, the ability to attract million-dollar deals and, most significantly, on-field performance. After all, at the end of the day, no matter how wonderfully a product is hyped and packaged, it will fall flat on its face if the talk is not backed up by the walk. India have not so much walked as strutted on the world cricketing stage, buoyed by an enviable assortment of pace riches that have allowed them to compete on an equal footing in overseas Tests, even if the long drought in ICC tournaments dating back to 2013 hangs heavily around the neck.

One of the primary reasons for India’s fortunes seldom transgressing the unacceptable is the quality of leadership they have been able to summon. Even when the trait has been conspicuously absent from an administrative standpoint, on-field leadership has repeatedly come to the rescue. The two most dominant icons in the last 15 years are Dhoni and Virat Kohli, the former an almost accidental captain, the latter earmarked for that responsibility from the time he skippered the Under-19 team to the World Cup title in Kuala Lumpur in 2008.

Dhoni’s transition from uncut diamond to unquestioned leader of men was helped by a one-year apprenticeship under Anil Kumble in the Test arena. Indian cricket appeared to be at a crossroads in the middle of 2007, after a tumultuous first eight months which included the Caribbean implosion, the subsequent resignation of Greg Chappell as the head coach, and a first Test series win in England in 21 years. At the end of that English sojourn, Dravid stepped down as captain after two years in charge, seemingly weighed down by the cares of a job that can and does make massive demands on the individual occupying the hot seat.

From the unavailability of Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly for the T20 World Cup sprang the legend of Dhoni. The senior batsmen’s contention was that T20 was a young man’s game – it didn’t prevent them from playing in the IPL for the next six years or so. In a left-field move, Dilip Vengsarkar’s selection panel picked Dhoni to lead the team of the future and into the future. They must not have been unaware that their decision would rustle a fair few feathers, not least because the T20 World Cup team included seniors such as Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, and Harbhajan Singh. But they chose to place their eggs in the Dhoni basket and were immediately vindicated when the charismatic young man with the flowing locks masterminded a sensational campaign that purged the bitter memories of defeats in the West Indies to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka a few months previously in the 50-over World Cup.

The year under the statesman-like Kumble prepared Dhoni, by now the ODI and T20 captain, for the big responsibility when the leg-spinner retired from the international level in October 2008. Even as he stacked up an impressive CV in the white-ball formats – Dhoni is the only captain to have won all ICC limited overs tournaments – the Jharkhandi couldn’t inspire similar deeds in Test cricket overseas, though he did mastermind India’s climb to the No. 1 Test ranking for the first time in December 2009 and stacked up an outstanding record at home against all comers.

By the time he retired, without warning, from the longer format to prolong his international career, the world already had a glimpse of the brand of cricket his natural heir would espouse. In his first game as skipper, admittedly in only a stand-in capacity, Kohli orchestrated a brave if eventually futile final-day chase at the Adelaide Oval against Australia. With hundreds in both innings in his first away Test since a horrendous tour of England in the summer of 2014 which yielded a frugal 134 runs in ten innings, Kohli reiterated that the cares of captaincy wouldn’t shackle his batting. By willing to risk defeat in the quest for victory, he spoke to a fearlessness that would remain his calling card during his seven years in charge.

Apart from a changed mindset to overseas Tests, Kohli’s greatest contribution beyond the obvious volume of mellifluous runs was an uncompromising insistence on peak fitness and the piecing together of a crack pace bowling unit that would facilitate his team’s assault on traditionally foreboding lands. By the time he assumed charge as the national skipper, Kohli had already embarked on a manic quest for optimal fitness, making wholesale lifestyle changes that facilitated his exponential growth as a mean, lean machine, as switched on and fresh in the 90th over of a long day as at its start. His colleagues fell in line, as much because they had a first-hand sighter of the virtues of fitness as because they had no option.

Enhanced fitness translated not just to a raise in fielding standards and intensity but also smart decision-making. To the outsider, some of that decision-making hinged on the bizarre – Kohli didn’t repeat a Test XI for his first 30 games in charge as he assiduously stuck to the horses-for-courses approach despite strident criticism and backed up his philosophy by stacking up one win after another – but in a sport where success or otherwise is measured entirely on the basis of numbers, who could argue when the ends appeared to justify the means?

Kohli’s quest for the confluence of a pace attack for the ages was facilitated by the presence within the set-up as bowling coach, of B Arun, the former India medium-pacer who had climbed the coaching rungs through the National Cricket Academy and the Under-19 platforms. The arrival in 2014 of Ravi Shastri as the Team Director, with Arun and fielding coach R Sridhar in tow, signalled the beginning of a new era. Kohli and Shastri were on the same page so far as approach and attitude were concerned, and even when their methods were often dissed as brusque, insensitive and unappealing, they stuck to their guns steadfastly.

Kohli played a stellar role in building on Dhoni’s legacy as captain.

Arun’s depth of knowledge of the pace resources across age-groups in the country, his ability to communicate effectively without overloading the bowlers with too much technical analysis, and a growing fascination for fast bowling both in domestic cricket and among the IPL franchises, meant there was a wider, skilled and versatile pool to choose from. The success of India’s talent-scouting system, bolstered by the attention to detail of such specialists attached to the IPL teams, lies in the unearthing and fast-tracking of Jasprit Bumrah, whose initiation into Test cricket in January 2018 triggered the brightest sustained travelling phase in Indian cricket.

Bumrah’s emergence, and that of only slightly less heralded superstars such as Ravindra Jadeja and Hardik Pandya, among others, testifies to the other tangible gains from IPL beyond the financial riches accrued by individual players and BCCI. With a structured process in place and the various cricketing stakeholders working in sync, one had to be extremely unfortunate to slip through the cracks. Through Kohli’s exhortations, Shastri’s unflinching support and the processes put in place by Arun, India went about the task of assembling a gun pace attack piece by meticulous piece.

All changes great and small

The results took a little while coming, but when they did, they shook the cricketing world out of its stupor. India’s home victories had been dismissed as having been secured on “designer” pitches on the back of the outstanding prowess of R Ashwin and Jadeja, but once India stunned Australia on their own turf in 2018-19 to secure their first Test series win Down Under, the profusion, penetration and incisiveness of the fast men could no longer be overlooked. Bumrah and Mohammed Shami were the stars of the show, but unlike in the past when India often had one, or at the most two quality quicks, they were now able to pick from at least a half-dozen bowlers who were more than mere support acts.

As if to reiterate that 2018-19 was no flash in the pan, India completed another 2-1 triumph in Australia two years later, finishing the series with less than half the first-choice personnel who started it. The epochal victory in Brisbane which rounded off the series triumph pointed to the enviable depth India could fall back on. Despite fielding two debutants and a bowling group with less than ten Test appearances, Ajinkya Rahane’s men tamed Australia at the Gabba with a record chase of 329, just two matches after India were rolled over for their lowest Test score, 36 all out, in Adelaide.

Kohli’s role in first building on Dhoni’s legacy and then taking it to stratospheric levels warrants no repetition. Between the end of 2014 and 2019, he was also the unquestioned best batsman in the world across all formats and perhaps the most important figure in Indian cricket. That a giant such as Kumble was forced to step down as head coach once he realised that his continuance with a miffed Kohli was “untenable” is evidence of the hold Kohli enjoyed at a time when the sport was governed by the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) tasked with cleaning up and restructuring the administration of cricket.

The appointment of the CoA came after a murky, sordid tale of scandals that exposed the soft underbelly of IPL. Just when it was coming to terms with the ouster in 2010 of founding chairman Lalit Modi for financial irregularities, among other things, IPL was rocked by spot-fixing and betting charges that eventually led to the arrest of players and two team owners, as well as the suspension for two years of former champions Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings. That the tournament has managed to overcome these setbacks and now commands an astronomical valuation is entirely because the product it delivers more than makes up for everything else.

In as much as it is the national team’s fortunes that find resonance among the fans, the work down at the slightly less rarefied levels have contributed no end towards where Indian cricket is today. The appointment as coach of the India A and U-19 teams of Dravid in 2015 was a huge shot in the arm; the willingness of first Dravid and then VVS Laxman to take charge of the National Cricket Academy while ensuring that they assiduously steered clear of any potential conflicts of interest is reflective of the continued commitment of these stalwarts to the sport that has made them household names.

A new management team is in place now, with all-format skipper Rohit Sharma fortunate to fall back on the wisdom and sagacity of head coach Dravid. Two World Cups lie in store over the next 15 months, and it isn’t without reason that the followers of the Indian team believe the painstakingly long ICC drought will soon come to an end. That will be the immediate challenge for a side that has lorded bilateral series but has of late found global competitions a bridge too far.

(R Kaushik is a senior cricket writer who has covered more than 100 Test matches and every single 50-over World Cup since 1996. He has also authored several books including the recent autobiography of Gundappa Vishwanath)