Watching the first Test between India and England at Chennai, one felt a sense of deja vu. The Indian team after a good series with Australia always tends to drop in terms of performance. It happened in 2001 when after defeating Australia in one of the greatest series, they lost a test match against Zimbabwe. It happened in 2004, when the team performance spiraled down dramatically after the good series against Australia (albeit it was followed by victory over Pakistan). It seemed to happen against England as well. The Indian batting collapsed on day two and the Englishmen were playing well and piled on the runs. The same script was being played out.
In spite of the match situation, Gary Kirsten was optimistic and actually went on record saying that this team can achieve a lot. Overconfidence, one felt. Kirsten is not a man to boast but India's track record in fourth innings does not reflect his confidence. India has collapsed badly in fourth innings many a times. Even in India, we have seen the team collapsing to 100 all out from 75 for 3 just two years ago in Mumbai against the same opposition whose bowling was weaker on paper than the current one.
On day three a glimmer of hope could be seen in the second session. Zaheer Khan showed why he is the best reverse swing operator in the world today by bowling a great spell. He was supported by Ishant and India controlled the England scoring and limited them to below 400. Even then a target of 387 on the last day on a turning pitch was daunting. It was a 113 more than the highest successful run chase in India. And that run chase was controlled by the King of Calypso cricket, Viv Richards. It required a monumental performance. By God, it got one.
Sehwag started it by whacking the ball as if it was a 20/20 game. People say Sehwag takes too many risks for an opener. They do not know that we are mere mortals who do not understand how a genius thinks. If Sehwag were a blind risk taker he would not average over 50 runs over such a long span. He knows how he plays best, and when he plays like he can, we should just shut up, watch and marvel at the wonder that is him. Here, his stroke play and aggression blunted the bowlers into a defensive mindset. It was such a damaging innings that the England team and not fully attack again even after Sehwag got out. How he did it, I do not know as I am just a mortal.
Dravid failed again early on the fiifth day. However he contributed by not allowing the other in form batsmen to get exposed late on the fourth day. Dravid looks in a bad shape mentally and needs a break. I hope he is not retired soon as he is a great and seems to have a lot of runs. He just needs to get his mojo back. With him gone, in came the Little Master. Tendulkar has got bitter memories of fourth innings in Chennai in 1999 when his one man show against Pakistan took India to the doorsteps of a great victory only to be locked out by the abysmal performance of the tail. Like hell he would have let the same thing happen. He played his innings watchfully without taking any risk whatsoever. Like his 194 in Multan in 2004, it was a "masterpiece in minimalism" (Quote inspired by Pundits from Pakistan by Rahul Bhattacharya). He guided his partners on the crease superbly especially Yuvraj no doubt recounting the pain of 1999. Gambhir also played an important part playing support to Sehwag and combining well with Tendulkar. Yuvraj was a revelation. I always thought him unfit for Tests due to his temperament and weakness against spinners. However his performance here should shut his critics up me included. Laxman played a beautiful cameo. His next great innings seems around the corner.
These batsmen combined achieved a target thought to be too much on Indian wickets. This was in spite of a spirited performance by England who have won hearts by their willingness to come here and to fight to win a Test. Above all it has given hardcore Indian Test cricket fans reasons to dream.
I have been a cricket fan since 1992. I have seen India getting whacked overseas and win on Indian dustbowls in the early nineties. I have seen Tendulkar's emergence as a great batsman and his team's pathetic overdependence on him. I have seen Dravid and Ganguly debuting and making the Indian team a great batting side with bad bowlers especially overseas. I have seen Kumble and Srinath toiling hard without any adequate support from others. It was tough being an Indian cricket fan especially when the match fixing saga started and my earlier favourites, Azharuddin and Jadeja were caught while cheating me and other Indian fans.
I then saw Dadagiri and could finally see Indian players confidently play overseas to win. However even then, they were inconsistent with great performances followed by pathetic ones. The years 2005-2006 were bad considering the high expectations that were built by the great performances in 2001- 2004. The same was capped off by a disgusting performance in World Cup 2007. It was depressing. However since then, things have looked up. India has won a World Cup (20/20 in 2007), performed heroically against Australia in Australia, won a Test against Sri Lanka inspite of Mendis and Murali (I bet no other country can win a game there if Mendis and Murali keep bowling like they are doing now) and beat Australia at home. There have been setbacks like the drawn series against South Africa and the lost finals in some two insignificant bullshit ODI tournaments. However these setbacks have been minor. A lost Test match against England would have meant that the Indian team was still in the same cycle of victory followed by defeat. This victory showed that this team may have finally learnt one great trait of all time great teams – consistency and hunger to keep on winning.
I may be overly optimistic. Maybe the future matches could show up this team as being the same as the earlier versions of new India – brilliant in patches only. However this time one gets a feeling that now is the real deal. Maybe it has to do with Kirsten being so confident. The figure 387 may just be one milestone in a fascinating journey to come – a journey which an Indian cricket fan has been dying to take for since a long time.