Play by play: India’s rise as a Test powerhouse
Why did a country with as much cricketing talent as India spend decades losing on the world stage? Part of that initial streak for the India team can be traced to its rather chaotic origins.
In 1926, when India was invited to join the Imperial Cricket Conference in 1926, cricket already had a proper following in cities and in tehsils with English cantonments. But there was a problem. There were world-class cricketers from India playing in and for England (and they wanted to continue doing so) . And in a country peppered with princely states, it was widely believed that only a royal could lead an India team. This led to an awkward phase in Indian cricket.
What the game needed was a charismatic leader who could bind the country’s first official Test squad of seven Hindus, four Muslims, four Parsis and two Sikhs. Either Duleepsinhji (who had played for England) or Iftikhar Ali Khan, then nawab of Pataudi, would have been perfect. They were colonial India’s finest cricket exports at the time, and they were royalty.
But Ranjitsinhji, prince of Nawanagar and then chairman of the selection committee, forbade his nephew Duleepsinhji from taking part. “Duleep and I are English cricketers,” Ranjitsinhji famously said. Pataudi followed suit (though he would lead India later, in 1946).
This turn of events arguably altered India’s Test trajectory, and instead of a strong top-rung leadership, there was a frenzied scramble for power. Amid palace-style intrigue, misplaced ambition and musical chairs, princes with little skill on the field angled for and secured the tag of captain. Bhupinder Singh, maharaja of Patiala (who later helped found the Ranji Trophy), threw his hat in the ring. So did the maharajas of Porbandar (Natwarsinhji Bhavsinhji) and Vizianagram (Vijay Ananda Gajapathi Raju).
Appointed captain by the Indian cricket board for the 1932 tour, Bhavsinhji shrewdly made way for CK Nayudu to lead in the one-off Test at Lord’s (India lost by 158 runs). He didn’t play most matches on that tour because he knew he wasn’t a good cricketer. Gajapathi Raju got the top job on the next tour of England, in 1936, when Nayudu stood down from captaincy. The tour started on a sour note. Lala Amarnath, India’s best all-rounder, was sent home on disciplinary grounds amid reports of dissent in the ranks.
India lost two Tests by nine-wicket margins and salvaged a draw in Manchester because of a record first-wicket stand of 203 between Vijay Merchant and Syed Mushtaq Ali.
THE MIDDLING YEARS
It was only after Independence that a commoner was chosen to lead India’s cricket team. Royal patronage of the game would slowly peter out but the culture of groupism and zonal favouritism would remain. But the leadership issue remained. Between 1947 and 1962, India had 10 captains, with the madness reaching its zenith during the 1958-59 home series against the West Indies, which saw a parade of four captains — Vinoo Mankad, Ghulam Ahmed, Polly Umrigar and Hemu Adhikari.
Between the crisis of leadership and a lack of unity, India couldn’t rise above mediocrity. The country’s first series win, 2-1 against Pakistan , came in 1952, but the rest of the scoreboard was a string of defeats, to the West Indies, to Australia, to England. India’s 0-5 loss to England in 1959 remains the widest victory margin for the latter to date.
What kept the team and its fans afloat were reassuring individual performances. Players such as Mankad, Vijay Hazare and Umrigar would grow to be giants of the game, and long-standing world records such as the 413-run opening stand between Pankaj Roy and Mankad against New Zealand in Madras in 1956 kept India in the headlines.
It wasn’t until 1962 that Indian cricket would discover a true leader, and it happened by accident. Charlie Griffith of the West Indies sent India captain Nari Contractor to hospital with a fractured skull in Barbados. Mansur Ali Khan, the new nawab of Pataudi, stepped in, and in days, a united, cohesive team began to take shape around him.
Unlike previous royals, Pataudi was unassuming and quickly put his team at ease. He also demanded the best of them. Bishan Singh Bedi recalls one of his speeches in the book Pataudi: Nawab of Cricket: “Listen fellas, we are not playing for Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Bengal or Maharashtra. We are playing for India. Think India for goodness’s sake,” Pataudi said.
The results started to reflect on the scoreboard. At home, England were forced to a 0-0 draw in a 5-match series. This was followed by a 1-1 draw against Australia before a first overseas series win, in New Zealand, in 1968. Spin bowling rose to prominence as Pataudi was convinced India lacked a genuine pace bowler. The famous spin quartet of EAS Prasanna, Bedi, BS Chandrasekhar and S Venkataraghavan slowly took shape.
By 1971, India had finally hit their stride, winning 1-0 in the West Indies and then in England under the captaincy of Ajit Wadekar. The win in England was especially gratifying, given that India hadn’t won a Test in six previous tours to the country.
It was around this time that the world got its first glimpse of Sunil Gavaskar. Starting with him, and for decades to come, Indian batsmen would dominate the game — from Gavaskar to the young Sachin Tendulkar and now Virat Kohli.
With batting greats such as Gundappa Viswanath and Dilip Vengsarkar, and fast bowler Kapil Dev, India’s answer to Ian Botham and Imran Khan, and the country had a great team. Victories followed in Australia and again in England, but India were understandably more cautious against Pakistan. Drab draws were always better than defeat.
That changed in 2004. Having derailed Australia’s world-beating run at home in 2001 with a stunning comeback win engineered by VVS Laxman, Rahul Dravid and Harbhajan Singh at a buzzing Eden Gardens, India were prepared to take on Pakistan in Pakistan.
This was a team led by the intense Sourav Ganguly, who had picked talented, hungry youngsters such as Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and L Balaji. With the series set up 1-1, it finally required a polished 270 from Dravid in the third Test at Rawalpindi to ensure India’s first ever Test series win in Pakistan.
The team has become stronger and more combative since, first under MS Dhoni, an now, Virat Kohli.
Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman and now Cheteshwar Pujara have crafted fluid, breathtaking victories, at Adelaide (2003 and 2018), Perth (2008), Mohali (2010), Melbourne (2018), Brisbane (2021). R Ashwin has taken the legacy of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh forward. And with Ishant Sharma, Mohammed Shami and Jasprit Bumrah, India finally look battle-ready with a pace attack for every condition. Consecutive series victories in Australia (2018-19 and 2020-21) are proof that the game has a new kind of royalty.
THE INDIA TEAM SPEAKS ON THE WORLD TEST CHAMPIONSHIP
FOR THOSE WHO HAVE BEEN part of the Test side for many years, this is like an accumulation of all the hard work of not just the duration of the championship, but of the last five to six years. Just very happy to have the opportunity to play in the final.
~ Virat Kohli, captain
IT HAS A DIFFERENT MEANING to those who are only playing in the Test format. It’s as big as any other World Cup final from another format, T20 or ODI. It’s just going to be played over a period of five days.
~ Cheteshwar Pujara, batsman
I THINK TO A LOT OF PLAYERS in that dressing room, it means a lot. Some have not even played in a cricket World Cup. I am very happy for someone like Ishant Sharma who was selected to play the 2015 World Cup and couldn’t play due to injury. For someone like him this will mean the world.
~ Ravichandran Ashwin, all-rounder
I THINK THIS IS ONE of the biggest (matches), if not the biggest ever. Because this is the toughest format of the game. It has not happened over three days, or three months. It has happened over two years, where teams have played each other around the world and earned their stripes to play the final. It is one heck of an event.
~ Ravi Shastri, coach
KEY MOMENTS FROM INDIA’S TEST HISTORY: A TIMELINE
1932: India make their entry into the Test fold, in a 158-run loss to England at Lord’s, becoming the sixth team to be granted Test status.
1952: After 24 Tests in almost 20 years, India beat England in Chennai for their first Test win. Spinner Vinoo Mankad is the hero, taking 8 wickets.
1952: India clinch their first Test series win, 2-1 against Pakistan at home. Pakistan made their Test debut at Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla ground in the series.
1968: India register their first overseas series win. The team led by Tiger Pataudi beat hosts New Zealand 3-1. The win also marks the rise of spin, making stars of Bishan Singh Bedi, EAS Prasanna and Bapu Nadkarni. This remains India’s biggest away series win.
1971: India achieve a historic win at Port of Spain in the West Indies. Sunil Gavaskar scores a record 774 runs in his debut series, which India win 1-0. The Ajit Wadekar-led side go on to clinch another historic first series win at the home of India’s former colonial rulers, England. Leg-spinner Bhagwath Chandrasekhar takes 6/38 in the Oval Test for a 1-0 series win.
1976: India chase down a world record fourth innings total of 403 in the Port of Spain Test, reaching 406/4, with centuries by Gavaskar and GR Viswanath making the great win possible.
1999: Anil Kumble emulates England’s Jim Laker, becoming only the second bowler in Test history to take all 10 wickets in an innings (10/74), against Pakistan at the Feroz Shah Kotla ground, for a series-levelling win.
2001: VVS Laxman setting an India Test record of 281 and Harbhajan Singh scoring the first Test hat-trick by an Indian bowler help India become only the second team in the world to win after being asked to follow on. That win in Kolkata against all-conquering Australia is the spark India needs as it rallies to win the series 2-1.
2004: India score their only series win in Pakistan, from seven visits in a bilateral series played after 14 years. Virender Sehwag hits 309, the first Test triple century by an Indian batsman.
2008: Anil Kumble’s India overcome the Monkeygate scandal on the Australia tour by winning at Perth’s famous WACA ground for the first time. Teenager Ishant Sharma gets Ricky Ponting at the end of a 9-over spell to inspire the team.
2018-19: India, led by Virat Kohli, beat Australia 2-1 to achieve their first series win in that country.
2020-21: India, in skipper Kohli’s absence and following a record innings low of 36, roar back to clinch the series against Australia in Australia 2-1, shaped by great team performances despite a spate of injuries.