Column | A mixed bag for Team India

Numero uno
Under Virat Kohli, India has become the leading Test playing nation. File photo

The second decade of the present century was a mixed one for Indian cricket. The decade started with India clawing its way to the top spot in Test cricket which was soon topped with the biggest prize in international cricket - the ICC World Cup - in 2011. However, this high was followed by a sudden and abrupt fall in the fortunes of the side, which saw it getting blanked in two back-to-back Test series against England and Australia. A slow recovery started after this which saw India reaching the last-four phase of the 2015 World Cup. The last year of this decade saw the team striking a high winning quotient, the only discordant note being the loss to New Zealand in the semifinal of the World Cup.

Retirement of 'Fab Four'

The decade saw the retirement of 'Fab Four', that superb set of batsmen who had ensured that Indian bowlers invariably had formidable scores to defend in international cricket. Though Sourav Ganguly had retired from international cricket in 2008, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V V S Laxman and Virender Sehwag were all on top of their skills when 2010 dawned. India climbed to the top slot in Test cricket riding on the strength of the performances of these legends with the bat. However, they started showing the effects of advancing age as the decade progressed.

Dravid was the first to leave, announcing his retirement in 2012. 'The Wall' had a superb series against England in 2011, scoring four consecutive centuries in Tests, but failed to sustain his form subsequently. The series against Australia Down Under in 2011-12 turned out to be the last one for Dravid. Laxman also announced his retirement in 2012 following poor performances during the tour of Australia, a country where he had always performed well. Sehwag too went out of the national side by early 2013 though his formal retirement took another two more years to materialise.

Tendulkar, undoubtedly the greatest and most popular Indian cricketer of his generation, also slowed down post 2011. But Tendulkar continued to play international cricket till November, 2013, when he announced his exit from the game in his home town Mumbai, at the end of a Test series against the West Indies. He had conquered the last batting peak that had eluded him, of scoring 100 centuries in international cricket, before bidding adieu from the game.

Kohli rises to the challenge

The departure of these magnificent batsmen left a huge void in the Indian batting line-up, and the big question was who would step into the shoes of these brilliant willow-wielders. Virat Kohli had not made his Test debut when the decade started, but had shown immense promise in limited overs cricket and was a member of the playing eleven that triumphed over Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup final. He suffered some initial hiccups when exposed to the brutal world of Test cricket but soon found his feet and emerged as one of the best batsmen in the world.

Run machine
Virat Kohli has been the star batsman for Team India in the past decade. File photo

Rohit Sharma, though hailed as the brightest talent to emerge out of Mumbai after Tendulkar, could not live up to his potential in Test matches though he evolved into a top drawer batsman in limited overs cricket. On the other hand, Cheteshwar Pujara blossomed into a reliable top order batsman, who places a very high price on his wicket, particularly in pitches outside the Indian sub continent, where he has been the mainstay of the Indian batting in Test matches. The emergence of newcomers such as K L Rahul, Hanuma Vihari, Prithvi Shaw and Mayank Agarwal offer fresh hopes for Indian batting as one moves to the next decade.

If the batting faced difficulties due to retirement of a superb quartet of cricketers, the bowling department could boast of a surfeit of riches during the second half of the decade. When the history of Indian cricket is written, this decade would certainly be hailed as the period when India emerged as a powerhouse in the arena of fast bowling. In 2010, the Indian attack was led by Zaheer Khan, who, though widely respected for his craft and variety, was not the sort who would make batsmen scurry away in panic and fear. Zaheer was supported by S Sreesanth, Ishant Sharma and Munaf Patel, all masters of swing, seam and cut but did not fall under the category of tearaway pacers.

Huge change

However, this changed as the decade progressed and one found a new breed of fast bowlers who could make the opposition hop around the crease in anxiety on account of the speed at which they delivered the ball. Leading this bunch is Jasprit Bumrah, a tall, unassuming speedster from Gujarat with an unorthodox action and a deceptively short run to the bowling crease.

He made his entry to international cricket only in 2016 but has created a huge impression within short span. His 62 Test wickets at an average below 20 and 103 scalps in One-Day Internationals at a strike rate lower than 30 demonstrate his effectiveness in both versions of the game. His yorkers are lethal and even batsmen who face him at nets are not spared when Bumrah decides to treat them to this speciality.

One of a kind
Jasprit Bumrah, second right, has been simply sensational for India across formats. File photo

Giving admirable support to Bumrah are Mohammed Shami, Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav. The quartet picked up 95 wickets in Test matches during 2019, despite Bumrah being sidelined with an injury during the latter half of the year and five out of eight matches being played at home, where conditions are not favourable for fast bowling.

In 2018, Bumrah, Ishant and Shami had bagged 135 Test wickets, making them the most successful pace bowling trio in the history of Test cricket. The firepower of these pacers ensured that India bowled out the opposition by picking up all 20 wickets in 19 out of 20 Tests they played in the last two years, a far cry from the days when our bowlers found it difficult to dismiss the opposition even once. The arrival of fast bowling all-rounder Hardik Pandya has offered further options for the captain in this department.

Among spinners, Harbhajan Singh’s place as the leading off-spinner was taken by R Ashwin, who quickly matured as a top exponent. His tally of 362 wickets in Test matches and 200-plus scalps in limited overs cricket stand as testimony for his wicket-taking prowess. However, an inability to come good on pitches abroad has been Ashwin's Achilles heel, which he needs to set right if he is to be mentioned in the same league as his more illustrious predecessors who purveyed this craft.

Ravindra Jadeja, the left-arm spin bowling all-rounder, proved his mettle with both ball and bat whenever he was given the opportunities by selectors and team management, but has not been able to cement his place in the playing eleven.

Wridhiman Saha slipped unobtrusively into the slot vacated by Mahendra Singh Dhoni behind the stumps after the latter retired from Test cricket in 2015. It was only after Dhoni took a sabbatical from the game post 2019 World Cup that the side seriously started looking for a suitable replacement for him in limited overs format.

Rishabh Pant, who scored centuries in England and Australia in Test matches, has been the first choice of electors to step into the breach. However, Pant, despite his reputation for big-hitting, has not been able to deliver the goods with the bat in international games nor has he been proficient behind the stumps.

If one were asked to pick the “Indian cricketer of the decade”, the choice would trickle down to these three - Kohli, Dhoni and Bumrah. Each had contributed substantially during the decade that went by and left behind indelible footprints on the game. It is true that Kohli is one of the best and most destructive batsmen in all formats of the game. Similarly, it was Bumrah's arrival that gave the extra sting to the national side’s pace bowling armoury. However, my personal favourite for this honour would be Dhoni for his all-round contributions to Indian cricket during this period.

In the first place the team won the World Cup in 2011 and the ICC Champions Trophy in 2013 under his stewardship. But more importantly, he took over the arduous challenge of supervising the rebuilding of national squad following the retirement of the 'Fab Four'. It was a testing assignment and many a time it appeared as though the pressures would get the better of him.

Critics who had been effusive in their praise following the World Cup win, went after him with vigour, their quills dripping venom. But Dhoni stood unfazed and ensured that he could accomplish what he had set out for before handing over the baton to Kohli. It is a pity that this contribution of Dhoni has not received the attention and appreciation that it so richly deserves.

As we look forward to the new decade in hope and anticipation, let us doff our hats and salute all these wonderful cricketers who did us proud during the last ten years.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)