Stuck in the blue zone

Looking back: Wins were rare for Indian cricket, leading to a change at the helm in the end

Stuck in the blue zone

At times, they fought like champions. At times, they fought like insistent and irritated children. At times, individuals enthralled us with sublime solos. Many times, they disappointed us with collapses beyond logic.

The Indian cricket team gave us extremes of every emotion in 2014. But the year’s penultimate day offered the biggest surprise when M S Dhoni decided to quit Test cricket after the third Test against Australia at Melbourne.

India began the year in the faraway, windy, cold New Zealand, and the results on that tour too were equally bleak.

They did not win a single match there. More frustratingly, India never really managed to shrug free from defeat’s cold clutches away from home, especially in Tests, since that trip. It wasn’t that they were blown away every time, but India lacked the strength to land that one final punch on the opposition.

New Zealand trip offered the clearest examples of this weakness. Chasing an improbable 407 at Auckland, India came as close as 366. Ishant Sharma, for once, seemed to become the bowler we all wanted him to be in the second Test at Wellington.

His six-wicket haul helped India restrict Kiwis to 192. Zaheer Khan’s vicious spell saw New Zealand tottering at 94 for five in their second innings. Redemption was just five more wickets away at the Basin Reserve.

But India never got those wickets. Brendon McCullum (302) and Corey Anderson (124) added 352 runs for the sixth wicket and from that point nothing was left for India in that match. Jimmy Neesham’s 154-ball 137 exposed a team that was robbed of its soul.

Their inability to run a bold final lap resurfaced in the first Test at Adelaide against Australia in December. Adelaide Oval bore a fresh look after its extensive renovation, and India under their stand-in-captain Virat Kohli showed a new attitude. They matched Australia in deeds and words.

It never really seemed to bother the Indians that Australia were well ahead in the race for the first four days of the match. India were asked to chase 364 on a fifth day track against a set of bullish pacers and an ever-improving Nathan Lyon.

Capitulation had written large on the wall, after all, that has been the trend save for a few exceptions. But one man loathed that uncomfortable past. He believed this Indian side could step into a new dawn.

It reflected in Kohli’s batting. He had made a hundred in the first innings. But in the second innings he bettered it -- for quantity and quality. Kohli also told us through those two knocks that he’s ready for Indian captaincy. Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris were pulled and cut away with confidence, while Lyon was driven away like an irritant fly.

Suddenly, the target of 364 looked achievable. But India withered away along with Kohli’s dismissal, handing the Aussies a 48-run win, sliding to another defeat from the doorstep of victory. The mid-year tour of England exposed this shortcoming on a larger canvas.

India battled gallantly for a draw in the first Test at Nottingham, and then registered an epochal win at Lord’s after Ishant bounced out the Englishmen in their second innings. At that point, India were well on course to script a series win in England. But glory eluded them. 

Rather England snatched it away through the swing of James Anderson and the spin of Moeen Ali. India were drubbed at Southampton, Manchester and the Oval.

Their prestige too got hurt on that tour. India and Dhoni were adamant that Anderson was the instigator of the flare-up with Ravindra Jadeja during the first Test.

But after a fortnight of dogged pursuit of a case that did not have any evidence to prove Anderson’s guilt, India were left seething as the ICC-appointed enquiry officer let go the English pacer.

However, there was more assurance about them once they exchanged flannels with coloured clothes. Of course, they were a massive failure against New Zealand, but months later India managed to board the flight from Heathrow with a one-day series victory in the bag. There was a World T20 final appearance at Dhaka, where they lost to Sri Lanka.

However, they needed a thumping win -- to heal the deep wounds that England cut. In came the West Indies. Just as India found their mojo, their Caribbean rivals flew back home after a bitter row over wages.

The BCCI, caught in its own legal mess after the betting and spot-fixing allegations during the IPL 6, was forced to hastily cobble together a one-day series against Sri Lanka.

The Indians trounced an out of sorts Lankans 5-0, and Rohit Sharma’s second ODI double hundred -- an enormous 264 at the Eden Gardens -- was the highlight of that series. But all the feel-good thoughts from that series soon evaporated Down Under as Aussies wrestled them down at Adelaide and Brisbane before drawing at Melbourne to win the series. 

So, what has 2015 lined-up for us? The World Cup is the most important destination. But the defending champions have already parted ways with Yuvraj Singh, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh – men who were vital to their triumph in 2011.

Now, India have a new generation team and their situation is analogous to Christopher Reeve’s lines: “Our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and when we summon the will, they become inevitable.”

Hopefully, India show the will to realise the dreams – theirs and ours.

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