Be it batting for time or chasing down even middling targets in the early 200s, the Indians just didn’t seem to possess the mental strength or wherewithal to tackle the situation. Stunning collapses in Barbados in 1997 when only 125 were needed for victory, and more damningly at home in Bangalore against Pakistan (2005) and Mumbai against England (2006) further drove home the truism that in the last innings of a Test, India were more vulnerable than most other teams.
How things have changed since! There is greater steel in the side now, and both batting time for a draw and scaling down totals have become almost second nature. As is the norm in such cases, there is no one thing that has been responsible for this turnaround, though an increased hunger, greater self-belief and oodles of progressive experience have all played their parts.
It won’t be unfair to trace the genesis of this new facet of Indian cricket to the grim determination with which the team hunted down a massive target in Chennai in December 2008 against England. A couple of months prior to that, at the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore, India thwarted Australia’s bid for victory on the final day with a stoicism not always associated with them then, but it was at Chepauk that they emphatically turned the corner.
Kevin Pietersen had thrown down the ultimate challenge by asking India to make 387 on a track that, through natural wear and tear, made batting last a hazardous proposition. Virender Sehwag mocked the nay-sayers with a blistering assault on the fourth evening, setting the stage on day five for Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh to take the team home.
For all his greatness, Tendulkar’s critics had always harped on his lack of ‘match-winning’ hundreds. His unbeaten 103 – the winning boundary also took him to three figures – was an emotional, exhilarating effort and he immediately dedicated it to the victims of the 26/11 attack in Mumbai in a touching, understated gesture so typical of the man.
The monkey off the back, India staged tremendous rearguard actions in Napier in early 2009 and in Cape Town earlier this year, Gautam Gambhir the lead act on both occasions, to escape with unlikely draws. No longer did the fourth-innings bogey daunt the team, the VVS Laxman-inspired chase of 258 at the P Sara stadium in Colombo last year lending further credence to that belief.
At the Feroze Shah Kotla over Tuesday and Wednesday, India once again showcased their batting-last skills. As much as the pitch settled down because of the growth of grass that bound it together, 276 was never going to be easy, not for a team that hasn’t touched 300 in an innings nine straight times. That’s precisely why the clinical manner in which they eased past the line was commendable.
Every one of the top five had a role to play in the five-wicket victory achieved despite conceding a potentially decisive 95-run deficit. Sehwag was again the enforcer, getting the team off to a positive start alongside Gambhir, but when both were dismissed, only 95 had been put on the board.
Old guards Rahul Dravid and Tendulkar steadied the nerves with a half-century stand on the third evening, though Dravid fell early on the fourth morning. Another scalp then could have exposed the soft underbelly, but Laxman strode out and picked off boundaries at will early in the piece to settle queasy stomachs in the changing room before easing off to allow Tendulkar to put on a master class.
Value of experience
The top-five reiterated the value of experience, of the feel-good factor which emanates from having ‘been there, done it’. There was no suggestion of panic, no trying to hit their way out of trouble. You couldn’t miss the competitive edge, or the acute embarrassment of having been bowled out for 209 in their first innings in their own backyard.
There’s no gainsaying what the result might have been without the collective, intimidating experience of the Indian top-order. It’s debatable if the young turks would have shown as much nous and awareness, no matter how impressive their limited-overs form might be. Admittedly, unless they play, they won’t gain the experience, but it will be foolhardy to blood youth for the sake of it, especially with the so-called old legs are still working fluidly.