| Kaifís catch to dismiss Englandís Nick Knight in Oval, July 2002
Thereís a buzz about Gangulyís team. The word is that itís different. Not simply that itís improving or that the batting is more resilient or the fielding less sloppy...nothing incremental like that. No, this difference is meant to be a difference of kind, not degree. Unlike Indian teams in the past, this one is seen to be professional, committed and fit and pulling as a unit for Ganguly. Its balance between experienced players in prime form and hungry, aggressive newcomers is meant to have given it both stability and the edge that the teams of the last fifteen years have frustratingly lacked. It is led, say its boosters, by a captain mercifully free of regional prejudice who has Dalmiyaís ear. It is coached by a methodical, stubborn, low-profile Kiwi who values substance and discounts flash. And, with the World Cup looming early in the new year, people in the know have decided that this team has begun to roll.
Indiaís magical Boys-Own-Paper triumph in that three-test series against Australia at home is where this talk of a New Model Army, this swelling chorus about a new-look team, born again into self-belief, has its roots. If it werenít for that win, there would be no great prize that this team could gesture at, no landmark triumph. Since that fabled victory, Gangulyís team has been up and down, unbeaten at home in the series they have played but unable to win a series abroad. Still, his team has won four tests abroad in the past two years (two of them in England and the West Indies) which is more any other Indian team or captain has done in fifteen.
In England this summer, the Indians won the one-day series, breaking a run of losing finals. Young men, like Virender Sehwag, Mohammed Kaif and Yuvraj Singh played as important a hand in this victory as did Golden Oldies like Rahul Dravid and Tendulkar. Ganguly dropped Tendulkar down the batting order in the one-day internationals without the world coming to an end. Tendulkar produced two finely paced centuries and Sehwag performed his Tendulkar imitation to such good effect that people mistook the stunt-man for the hero. Then India came home and killed the West Indies in the Test series, and the clamour of acclaim began to build.
But when you consider the series defeats Gangulyís team suffered in South Africa and then in the West Indies and the fragility of its bowling attack, you begin to wonder why the press is so excited about this team. The answer is a complicated one. Some of this excitement is about promise rather than performance. Mohammed Kaif mightnít have set the world alight with his batting, but his energy, athleticism and intensity are so apparent in a side of stately sluggards, that everyone who cares for Indian cricket, wills him on to do well.
This wishfulness is even more obvious with Yuvraj Singh. I watched him win the first one-day match against England for India this last summer and then repeat the performance later in the tournament. In form, heís an electrifying hitter and, like Kaif, heís electric-heeled in the field. After decades of butter-fingered sloppiness, you canít help wondering if these two, together with the aggressive Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag, are heralds of a new, more purposeful era in Indian cricket.
Sehwag, of course, is the most substantial reason for hope because his promise has been so rapidly fulfilled. His capacity for matter-of-fact mayhem moved one writer to speculate, blasphemously, whether Sehwag had moved from being Tendulkarís understudy to becoming the better batsman on current form. But it isnít just how well Sehwag plays that has made him a mascot for Gangulyís Goers; itís also what he stands for. He is famously from Najafgarh, a satellite township on the margins of Delhi, where he was born to a family that knew nothing about cricket. The triumph of the provincial in Indian public life is a subject much discussed in recent writing and Sehwag, Yuvraj, Zaheer and Kaif are often held up as examples of this general tendency in the world of cricket.
None of them was raised in the great cricket nurseries of metropolitan India; they donít come across as English-speaking college boys, and they seem to play with a natural belligerence that is balm to the Indian fanís soul. After years of accusing over-civilized players with engineering degrees of lacking the killer instinct, we can settle back to savour Zaheer Khan eyeballing batsmen with casual menace.
Increasingly I hear the opinion that under the professional supervision of Wright, le Roux and Leipus, the Indian team has been forged into a focussed fighting unit. But imported expertise doesnít establish the differentness of this side. Only wins against first-rate sides outside of India will do that. So far, the best weíve done in that direction is a drawn series against an England side lacking some of its best players. Outside of India, what weíre good for is a drawn series against a middling team.
We have a wonderful batting line-up that looks better by the day. Apart from the established batsmen, we have Sehwag, who, like Gilchrist, is a freak: a kamikaze pilot who refuses to die. Take Hayden away and our batsmen are as good as the Australians. We want to believe. The World Cupís round the corner, weíve done moderately well in the past six months, who knows...We want to believe. Weíve got a touch of that well- known sub-tropical disease: World Cup fever. Anythingís possible, anything could happen.
Well, it wonít. The rules of one-day cricket might load the dice against bowlers, but you still canít win the World Cup without a bowling attack. Zaheer Khan, who is currently our spearhead, has, in test match cricket, taken 62 wickets at nearly 37 runs apiece and he has never taken five wickets in a match. Harbhajanís wickets cost 36 runs apiece abroad, and Kumbleís cost 40! Nehra is a talented seamer who canít get his head together and Srinath doesnít really want to bowl at all. Their one day figures arenít much better.
This is the cue for some nostalgist to remind us that Kapil Dev won the World Cup with bits-and-pieces bowlers. Doesnít it follow that Zaheer, Srinath, Harbhajan and Kumble, backed up by Yuvraj, Sehwag, Ganguly and Tendulkar, can match what Kapil, Sandhu, Binny, Mohinder Amarnath, Kirti Azad and Madan Lal pulled off twenty years ago' With every fibre of my being, I hope they do, but I donít think they will. Simply because lightning doesnít strike twice. True, we won the World Cup in 1983; itís even truer that the West Indies lost, because of hubris, a tournament that was there for the taking. The hard men of modern cricket have history down on their hardware, run by run, ball by ball...to make sure it doesnít repeat itself. We arenít going to be given it again.
The greatest Indian side in the last fifty years was the team Wadekar led between 1971 and 1974. It beat England in England and the West Indies in the Caribbean. It had Gavaskar and Vishwanath, but that wasnít the main reason it was different. It was different because it had the greatest spin attack the world had seen. Till we dig up a couple of bowling geniuses, all the batting in the world will make no difference. Wadekar had no specialist brains trust, no Wright, no Leipus, no le Roux. He did, however, have Bedi, Prasanna and Chandrashekhar. Now, they were different!