For practically the entire decade of the 1990s, the Indian cricket team acquired the unfortunate moniker ‘tigers at home, lambs abroad’. It was cruel, but, sadly, not without its justification. Much of India’s reputation as meek, submissive tourists was founded on the ten years at the end of the 20th century and the raw numbers back that up.
India played 38 Tests away from home in the 1990s, winning precisely one of them (against Sri Lanka in 1993). That is a staggering statistic, and after an unhappy second stint as captain towards the end of the decade, Sachin Tendulkar also resigned. The match-fixing scandal seemed to be the icing on the cake of misery, and Indian cricket was at one of its lowest ebbs.
But in the 2000s, a pair of captains dragged their country off the mat and staged a renaissance. It has been 20 years since Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid first played for India, and all that needs to be said about them as players has already been said, but one of their most important legacies is the creation of a winning habit away from home.
They instilled a grit and a fight in the side, the change in mentality aided by some bold selection calls, tactical decisions and the rise of several talented young players who outstripped their predecessors in terms of quality and longevity.
The success arrived gradually. It came, at first, in the form of individual victories, before India progressed to full series wins. That education has held Indian cricket in good stead, for in the four years after Dravid’s decision to step down as captain, up until the joint 8-0 at the hands of England and Australia in 2011-12, India won at least one Test match in every series they played abroad.
GANGULY GETS IT RIGHT
Often accused of being soft touches in the past, of crumbling in the face of adversity, Ganguly set about breeding a sense of fight in his men. It had its roots in the famous Kolkata Test of 2001 and the Indian team’s tight-knit sense of the collective was forged in this blast furnace. Ganguly’s style of leadership was fearless, occasionally confrontational, which often manifested in a series of bold selection calls.
The skipper’s faith in Harbhajan Singh, at times even over Anil Kumble, was duly rewarded – the off-spinner collected 177 wickets under Ganguly (only once did he go wicket-less while playing for the left-hander), with 57 of those coming in 19 Tests away from home. This was abetted by a string of short-term decisions, such as the recall of Javagal Srinath in the West Indies in 2002, where he took three wickets in a famous win at Port-of-Spain (although he was also recalled for the 2003 World Cup, where he endured a torrid time in the final, a sign that Ganguly didn’t always get it right).
Harbhajan was one player but a raft of young stars became regular fixtures in the side under Ganguly and continued to be so under Dravid. India thus acquired a more settled look to their side, developing a consistency of selection in areas that had proved troublesome in the past.
Among them were Virender Sehwag, whose 2193 runs away from home for Ganguly and Dravid came at 47.67 and included a triple hundred at Multan, and Yuvraj Singh, who slammed seven hundreds among 4934 runs in ODIs in this period.
It was also the time Irfan Pathan made a sensational start to his career, collecting 66 wickets from 15 Tests at 26.15, while his batting brought critical unsung performances like a 90 at Faisalabad at 25.92 under the two captains. Pathan’s flexibility also saw him bat number three in ODIs and open in Tests, although the hope he gave everyone fizzled out by the time Dravid quit.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni put an end to the wicketkeeping merry-go-round that had plagued the Indian team for the preceding five years. Although only 23 when he debuted in an ODI against Bangladesh, and somewhat overshadowed by the bigger names in the side, he put in a string of underappreciated performances at the time in Pakistan and England, the latter of which included a resolute 76 not out as India staved off certain defeat at Lord’s in 2007.
It was, however, the ascension of Dravid to almost mythical status under Ganguly, as a batsman and a committed team man, that really caught the eye. His flawless technique and extraordinary powers of concentration were critical to the team’s success abroad. It was during a period of about four years under Ganguly that Dravid was in the form of his life, averaging over 63 in Tests and registering over four thousand runs in ODIs. All this while often asked to keep wickets.
Yet it was not simply the bulk of runs and admirable team ethic that Dravid demonstrated in this time. Much of his mystique is credited to a string of monumental performances away from home. Fighting displays away from home, including memorable knocks at Headingley, Rawalpindi and Kandy, all resulted in victories for India, and have become a byword for Dravid. Even as late as 2011, with Indian batsmen falling like ninepins in England, Dravid finished the series with 461 runs at 76.83. Quite staggeringly, it was par for the course for him.
And the entire essence of Dravid was perhaps best captured in the trip Down Under in 2003-04 – perhaps the closest an Indian team has come to winning a series in Australia, against the greatest side of the day. He averaged over 120 in the series, driving his side to the threshold of victory, a sublime 233 in Adelaide the catalyst for India’s excellent win there.
He was not the only senior player to play out of his skin in alien conditions. Kumble’s career graphs show a dramatic improvement away from home in the new millennium, at the beginning of which he was 30 years old. As the bowling constant in the side of the 1990s, Kumble managed 101 wickets in 30 matches at 39.46. These figures drastically sharpened to 140 wickets in 32 games at 32.64 under Dravid and Ganguly, as Kumble became the old head among a battery of young fast bowlers.
All in all, Ganguly’s team were troublesome tourists in both formats of the game. A total of 28 Tests played as captain away from home brought 11 wins, 10 draws and 7 defeats. They contributed to three wins in full series abroad. As for ODIs, the figures indicate Ganguly captained the side in 111 ODIs, of which 58 were victories, giving them a win percentage of 52.25%.
Besides the regulars in the team, India were aided by a series of fly-by-night cult performers who are best remembered for a few scattered performances at international level. Dinesh Karthik was one of them, as was Wasim Jaffer (who scored a double hundred in the Caribbean, and another at home to Pakistan). Sanjay Bangar’s 68 in Leeds was the underappreciated grunt work that paved the way for a tremendous innings victory over England. Ashish Nehra was aother such figure in limited overs cricket, notching an outstanding 6/23 against England in the 2003 World Cup, while Mohammad Kaif is remembered for his excellent fielding and the wonderful, unbeaten 87 in the 2002 NatWest final.
But a player who did manage to outlast the honeymoon period and become a bowling spearhead was Zaheer Khan. The stats are well known: although he had played 56 Tests and gathered 160 wickets by the time he jetted off to Worcestershire for an invaluable spell in county cricket, he was still one of many in a pace production line that later threw up Shantakumaran Sreesanth and RP Singh.
The improvement was evident – another 151 wickets followed in 36 games. He became a quite dependable performer overseas, gathering 123 wicket at 31.22 away from home under Ganguly and Dravid combined. The tour to England in 2007, which ended in a 0-1 victory for India, was especially significant – it was India’s first series win in England for 19 years, and Zaheer was at the heart of it, collecting 18 wickets, including nine in India’s only win at Nottingham. He was named Man of the Match.
It is through the disciplined efforts of the senior players and the arrogance of youth that India became a serious touring side. Several players enjoyed the best spell of their careers, while several other time-slot hits also made vital contributions to a generally optimistic time for Indian cricket.
The teams of Ganguly and Dravid had a grit, fight and quality not seen in India for a long time. Perhaps it speaks of the extent to which India had become effective and dangerous tourists that, despite the draws that were among them, they secured 0-1 wins in both the West Indies and England under Dravid, for the first time in a generation.
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