Australia were the king, but India were not far behind. They were the prince, waiting for the coronation. In fact, India were the only team not to lose a Test series against Steve Waughs all-conquering Australia Down Under.
India were privileged to have arguably the best batting line-up in the history of the game. Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly formed the Fav Five. The emergence of Ashish Nehra and Zaheer Khan made the seam attack potent, and there were Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh to take care of the spin bowling department. The team concept took precedence and Team India were determined to better their poor overseas record.
Ganguly always judged his team by its performance away from home after he became the captain at the turn of the millennium. He and his teammates laid down the marker.
Before that, the Indian team was all about being tigers at home and paper tigers abroad. The 1990s was the period of tea-biscuit culture, shady offshore venues and overseas losses. John Wright described in his autobiography how a vast majority of Indian cricketers used to get cold feet, as soon as they were on board a flight for an overseas assignment. India won just one Test series away from home in the 1990s and that, too, in Sri Lanka.
The record improved drastically in the next 10 years, as India won Test series in Pakistan, England, West Indies and New Zealand, and drew level with Australia and South Africa in their lairs.
The challenge for Mahendra Singh Dhonis young brigade will be not to take Indian cricket to the dark days of the 1990s.
India would be playing 13 overseas Test matches in the next one year or sotwo each in South Africa and New Zealand, five in England and four in Australia. The tour of duty begins in Johannesburg from December 18. The world will be watching.
For all their success at homeclean sweeps against Australia and West Indiesthe present Indian team would be judged by their performance in the 13 overseas Test matches.
This is a very young Indian team and apart from Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Murali Vijay and Dhoni, the batting line-up doesnt have the experience of playing Test cricket in hostile seamer-friendly conditions. Also, Pujara has played just two Tests outside the subcontinent, Kohli has played seven and Vijay four. Rohit Sharma and Shikhar Dhawan, newcomers to the Test side, have played none. But inexperience cannot be a deterrent when youre playing for your country.
Gangulys team had fearless young cricketers. Sehwag never complained when he was taken out of his comfort zone in the middle order and thrown in at the deep end. He scored a century on his Test debut in South Africa, opening the innings. Laxmanstill not an automatic choicetoo took the challenge head on. That epic 281 against Australia at Eden Gardens transformed him as a batsman. It also helped transform Indian cricket.
All young cricketersHarbhajan Singh, Khan, Nehra and even Parthiv Patel, after he made his debut at 17 years of age, rose to the occasion. The team atmosphere encouraged them to revel under pressure. Dhonis fledglings looked clueless in the two one-day internationals (ODIs) they played in the ongoing South Africa tour. But much shouldnt be read into their limited-overs performance. Its a huge shift from playing Tino Best at Eden Gardens and Wankhede, and facing Dale Steyn at Wanderers. The youngsters should be allowed some time. But by the time the first Test starts at the Bullring, they should be mentally ready to play eyeball to eyeball with the South African quicks. Its all about the attitude.
If the Kohlis and Sharmas can play fearless cricket, performance will follow.
India did miserably on their last two foreign assignments. A 4-0 loss in England was followed by another 4-0 whitewash in Australia. But that team was going through a transitional phase. Almost all the greats were in the autumn of their careers.
The generation change is complete after Tendulkars retirement. The young turks have arrived with considerable promise. But their real test starts now. This is a kind of task that separates the men from the boys.