No offense intended here but ever since the Indians shook up the then invincible Aussies in Sydney in 2008, I have been heralding the rise of the ‘Third Reich’ in modern day cricket. Kerry Packer, ODI cricket, day and night games with coloured clothing, teams with ‘physios’ and of course the advent of the now ubiquitous helmets rang in a new era in the gentleman’s game in the 1970s.
The first cricketing empire of this era was built by a bunch of all-conquering athletes from the West Indies. Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Gordon Greenidge, Dessie Haynes, Richie Richardson, Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh had made the islanders an invincible force for nearly two decades. Then in the mid-90s, Stephen Waugh’s Australians out muscled the ageing champions from the West indies and made the crown their own. Steve Waugh’s grit and vision, the ruthless power of Mathew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, the menace of McGrath and the sheer brilliance of Ricky Ponting and Shane Warne translated into three World Cups, Test series wins against every country both away and at home and multiple ODI championships all over the globe. This second wave, some would say, was even more dominant than the first reich. The Australians were ruthless, often toying with even high quality opposition and winning tournaments without dropping a game or breaking a sweat. The quality of their cricket and their bench strength was so good that in the mid-90s, Australia fielded their A team (the Australian second XI consisting of promising fringe players and the odd veteran) in a four nation tournament. The A team edged out full strength English and Zimbabwean teams to face the Australian team in the finals.
Then, in the Australian summer of 2008, in Sydney, India knocked the reigning world champions down for the count. A long count by Steve Bucknor allowed the champs to survive the challenge but the Indians had thrown down the gauntlet. Perhaps betraying more patriotic myopia than cricketing common sense, I began announcing the advent of the third great cricketing empire under the Indian tricolour ever since.
Admittedly, in Test cricket, the boys in blue haven’t really danced like champions, especially on those seaming and bouncy green tops in England, Australia and South Africa. But in limited overs cricket, from the T20 World Cup in 2007 onwards, India has built the nucleus of a team that has now announced itself as the greatest team in the short game over the last half decade. If tri-nation trophies, a World Cup, and ODI victories in a bunch of bilateral rubbers reiterated their greatness in the shorter versions of the game, then their dramatic triumph in the ICC championship put the pyjama cricket crown firmly on their heads.
There have been occasions in the past when an Indian team has been as dominant through a tournament. In the magical 80s, the Indian team not only won the World Cup but also the Benson & Hedges World Championship of Cricket. And they won both without dropping a game. But between these championships, they were often beaten rather comprehensively. One had the feeling that the Indians didn’t really stride forward and take their crown by right. In those days it was more like they were smart opportunists who took advantage of their opponent’s hubris. But this Indian team, emerging from the shadow of greats, the fab four and Sehwag, Zaheer and Kumble, has taken its trophies by right. It has won matches and tournaments, often dominating and at times snatching victory from the gnashing jaws of defeat. It is a team that refused to capitulate in the face of unfair decisions, biased weather gods, ugly controversies and a nosy media that thought nothing of pestering the team and the captain with a smear campaign even as it prepared for one of the biggest battles of the year. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that the issues raised were not pertinent or relevant, but is it fair to bully and worry a team in the middle of tournament as big as the Champion’s Trophy?
Sure, Indian teams of the past have also won tournaments of similar stature but what is different this time is this team’s hunger for not just the big prize but its hunger for total domination in every battle. In the past, the after-glow of victory would often become an excuse for mediocrity and capitulation. The West Indies for instance travelled to India in the wake of the 1983 World Cup loss and thrashed the champions at home. And this is why no one raised an eyebrow when the Indians got walloped in Jamaica. After the rigours of the IPL and the euphoria of the ICC triumph, even the fans were a little fatigued. But the Indians, hungry for domination bounced back to top the table and enter the final. It doesn’t matter who wins the final tomorrow, for the Indians have already shown both hunger and character. And supremacy in the limited overs game is now theirs by right.
But the more important question, if this Indian juggernaut is truly to be the third great empire in the modern game, is can this team translate their ODI success in the longer version of the game too? This question will be answered once and for all when the Indians set out for South Africa this winter. But does India have the firepower to overcome the current No. 1 ranked Test team in their own backyard?
With the willow, they definitely have the pedigree. No run mountain is too high for a line-up that boasts of names like Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar. And with the rise and rise of Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara and the grim determination with which Rohit Sharma and Murali Vijay are keeping their inner demons at bay, the batting holds both promise and power. As long as they have the heart for battle, these boys surely have the potential to dominate any attack on any wicket. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is a man with Midas’ golden touch and the blistering helicopter shot, and is arguably amongst the greatest keeper-batsmen and captains in the history of the game.
So it is the bowlers that are a worry. Do we have the firepower to bowl out quality oppositions on foreign pitches? I can’t remember the last time an Indian seamer who consistently ran through batting line ups as often as Bhuvaneshwar Kumar has done. This lad from UP has troubled the best in the world on all sorts of surfaces with his movement in the air and off the wicket. And he bowls with a maturity that belies the fact that this is only his first season in international cricket.
R. Ashwin’s intelligence is more potent than his spin and he will surely become one of the premier tweakers of his time. But would these two have enough in their armoury to dominate sides as comprehensively in Tests as they have in shorter formats? Of course not! They would need either the pacy Umesh Yadav or the injury prone but even quicker Varun Aaron to be the battering ram. And the team would need a stock bowler who hits the seam to keep things tight when neither swing nor pace seems to work. Here, though Ishant Sharma seems to be Dhoni’s go-to man for the job, on the basis of the little that we have seen of him, Shami Ahmed seems the better bet in the long run. Bowlers like Joel Garner, Courtney Walsh and Jason Gillespie are the benchmarks in this role and either Ishant or Shami would have to really lift their game to fill in this role if India is to touch the greatness that now seems within reach.
And last but not the least, Ravindra Jadeja’s evolution from an itsy bitsy allrounder to being a genuine match winner in games of all lengths augurs well for this November and the seasons to come. And if you still have doubts about India’s impending greatness, just check out these tigers when they take the field and stride on it like they own it.
As Indian cricket fans, it is a rare privilege for us to see our team on the cusp of immortal greatness. As for the boys in blue, their hour has come, let’s just hope they believe it too.