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India on verge of being on top?

For the first time in 15 years, Australia is no longer the top team in the world. As the Champions Trophy begins in South Africa on Tuesday, we look at cricket’s new world order, and explore where India might fit into it. Full Coverage

india Updated: Sep 20, 2009 10:58 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

India on top?Look, I’ll tell you about myself, but I know it’s not merely about me.

For 34 years, I have been a masochist. Being an Indian cricket fan is hard work: skiving off work to watch India be walloped; inviting derision and anger for neglecting family duties and watching India, so near to that incredible win, blow it; switching on the TV at 3am to watch India be decimated — again.

But then, what to do? For the true fan, there is only this or nothing. And nothing is so much worse.

Who’d let oneself in for it? No, it’s not just me. Hundreds of thousands of us are doing it, have been doing it, for years and years. Are you one of them? Cricket is not only our most popular sport: it is at the centre of our lives and popular culture and discourse; for us, it is catharsis, participatory spectacle, a theatre of dreams and ambitions.

What we need to do to be No. 1 in ODIs

India must win all their Champions Trophy matches
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At the time of going to press, Australia is on top, followed by South Africa at No 2. India is at No. 3, separated from South Africa by a single point. All that could change if Australia beat England in the final game of their one-day series on Sunday.

So it will be a fight between Australia, South Africa and India for the top spot. India must win all their Champions Trophy matches to remain in contention.

IN TESTS

The heat for the first rank in Tests has already begun with only six points separating the first and the fourth.

India, currently third, play only three more Tests this year, against
second-ranked Sri Lanka at home. India needs to win all the Tests. India next play South Africa — the current
No. 1 Test side — in February 2010. That series will be crucial.

For those of us who grew up following India play in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, watching us lose many, many more matches than win, what-if and only-if and oh-so-close-but bad-luck-again were the phrases that defined our lexicons, our lives.

We find our team’s sudden success in the new century unsettling.

And now, there is all this unexpected talk, so giddying, disorienting and unprecedented, of whether India can — whisper it — become the best team in the world. India can. But will India?

Someone who happens to know rather more about these things than most of us thinks so. “We want to be there at the top,” Sachin Tendulkar told CNN IBN in an exclusive interview on Saturday. “We definitely have the ability, spirit, desire and hunger to get there [the No 1 spot in the ICC rankings].”

At the moment, India is No. 3 in the ODI rankings. Australia has, after routing England 6-0, reclaimed the No. 1 spot. South Africa is at No. 2, but it has — in the complicated rankings process — exactly the same points as Australia. India is merely a point behind. It’s that close up there; you could slip in a cigarette paper between the three top teams.

In Tests, India stands at No. 3, with South Africa and Sri Lanka ahead of us. Australia has slipped to No. 4. India play so little Test cricket in the coming months that that status is unlikely to change dramatically. But the promise of change, tantalising, hovers over the team.

Tendulkar thinks so. “I see good days for us,” he told CNN IBN. “If you look at our performance in the past couple of years, it has been terrific. We have been working towards it [becoming the top team in the world]… we have our team target, and we want to achieve that.”

India has certainly been working towards it.

In 2007, India won a Test series against England in England after 21 years; earlier this year, we beat New Zealand in New Zealand after 33 years. From September 2006, we have played 30 Tests, winning 11 and losing seven. We haven’t lost a Test since August 2008.

In the abbreviated formats of the game, India won the World T20 Championship in 2007; since the end of the last Champions Trophy in Novem-ber 2006, we have won 11 of 17 ODI series; and as it begins its campaign against Pakistan on Saturday, it has won six consecutive ODI tournaments — a sort of trot it has never had before.

It is not merely the past two or three years. The change began at the beginning of the century. If we want to look for the moment when it happened, it was when Sourav Ganguly became captain of the Test team in November 2000.

Indian cricket had been about silky strokeplay and puckish spin bowling. It took Ganguly — who went on to become India’s most successful captain ever — and his look-you-in-the-eye-and-won’t-blink approach to put the steel into it.

Think about this. India started playing international cricket in 1932. In the 68 years between 1932 and November 2000, India won 13 Tests away from home — the truest indicator of a team’s worth. Between then and now, in nine years, we have won 19 Tests abroad.

In these years, India has gone from being a team that terrorised opponents at home on turning tracks and was, largely, wimps when it toured, to a formidable side that has won games across the world, playing with a toughness and a confidence that are often impossible to believe for fans like me.

Finally, as it used to be in the dreams of millions of followers for so many years, India has in reality the chance of becoming the best cricket team in the world.

OUR STRENGTHS

How has this happened? What exactly has changed?

Well, two things actually have. First, there is Australia’s fall from its position of pre-eminence after ruling the game for 15 years. “No team can stay at the top for too long. It happened to the West Indies, and it has now happened to Australia,” says former Pakistan opening batsman Aamir Sohail. “There is a time when players who win you matches have to go. If you don’t have adequate replacements, a slump is inevitable.”

Our weaknessesOver the past couple of years, Australia has lost four match-winners: Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist. No other team in world cricket, perhaps, could have lost four contemporary legends and still been where Australia is today: very nearly at the top, and in the hunt for the title of the world’s leading cricket team.

“They dominated world cricket; they will be there again because they have the knack of getting the team together quickly,” says former India captain Gundappa Viswanath.

But the chinks are showing. Over the past couple of years, Australia has lost in Tests to South Africa, India (on several occasions, including a 0-2 defeat in a series over here in 2008, Australia’s worst series defeat in 25 years) and, perhaps most gallingly to Australian fans, to England this summer.

Something critical has changed in the nature of Australia’s game: the team has shed its cloak of invincibility. When it was in its pomp, it never looked as though it might lose. It was the aura that staggeringly successful sides have. Now, playing well and on its day, any good team (or even mediocre team, as England showed during the Ashes) fancies its chances against Australia.

And while Australia has gradually loosened its stranglehold on the contemporary game, other teams — notably South Africa and India (Sri Lanka is magnificent at home but erratic abroad) — have got tougher, better and more consistent. That is the second thing that has occurred to throw wide open the field in world cricket.

So what of India now? Will the present good run last? Can it? In sport, where a little change can change a lot and where the clichés of all for one and one for all can — in the case of genuinely great sides — become demonstrable realities, where luck and pluck and talent and timing are all needed in almost equal measures for continued success, it is always risky to predict.

We do know certain things for sure, though.

We know that in M.S. Dhoni we have a settled captain in both forms of the game, a captain who leads with gumption and grace, who leads from the front as much as pushes from behind.

We know that we have (still have, even after two decades) Sachin Tendulkar, the man whom Wisden called the “most wholesome batsman” of the modern game. Tendulkar has subjugated his savagery to circumspection, and his early instincts of the hunter have been subsumed by those of the gatherer, but, as he showed in the ODI final against Sri Lanka earlier this week, he can on any day win a match on his own.

We know that we have in Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag the most explosive opening batting combination in the contemporary game in Tests and ODI.

We know, too, that V.V.S. Laxman is still there as is Rahul Dravid. Yuvraj Singh is a delight on his day. The pace attack, with Ishant Sharma in fine fettle, Zaheer Khan having reinvented himself (like Sehwag, he won’t play in the Champions Trophy, but we aren’t talking about a single tournament here), and Ashish Nehra coming back so strongly, seems like something India fans used to fantasise about till some years ago: a genuine pace attack that could unsettle any batting lineup.

Harbhajan Singh has been growing in skill and stature and although it is unlikely that we shall ever find a replacement for the great Anil Kumble, our bowling cupboard is hardly bare.

Most importantly, we seem to be working towards a succession plan once Tendulkar, Dravid and VVS quit. “India has already tested a few youngsters who have showed promise,” Sohail says. “I am sure it won’t hurt India that much when the likes of Tendulkar and Dravid retire. But they need to be consistent.”

Ah, consistency: that most un-Indian of cricketing qualities. We’re getting better at it, helped by the admirable Gary Kirsten (who has built on what John Wright did in the first half of this decade) but we are still nowhere near where we should be. Which is why, even in this, our golden run, we have managed to not win more than two Test series away from home. We have led in series — against South Africa as well as Australia — and then surrendered the lead.

There is time, though. The possibility of the No 1 Test ranking is still some distance away. India needs first to win every Test it plays against Sri Lanka later this year to have a decent shot at it. But the ODI ranking could, theoretically, be within reach: an unbeaten run in the Champions Trophy is what it will take.

The debate about rankings, though, is a bit of a fans’ parlour game, something we dredge up when we are near the top; it is something to feel self-congratulatory about. As Dhoni said on the eve of the team’s departure to South Africa: “If we keep playing consistently, the rankings will take care of themselves. We should worry more about our performance than ratings.”

Fans will worry. And as the tournament gets underway on Tuesday, we, India’s millions of followers, will be in that familiar frame of mind: hoping, then not daring to hope lest the opposite of what we hope for should come to pass. It often has in the past. We’ve had enough practice at that sort of thing. Some of us would love nothing more than a change from that.

(With inputs from G Krishnan and Bivabasu Kumar)

All That You Can’t Leave Behind, Soumya Bhattacharya’s new book about how cricket defines India, will be published by Penguin in December.

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