The Indian fan can dream. The Indian fan first started dreaming in 2001 after “that series”! Team India fans will not need to know either the opponent or the score or the city. The term “that series” is sufficient to know that what we are talking about is 2001, Kolkata, Laxman, Harbhajan, 281!
The dreams were premature then.
India was not able to reproduce that 281 intensity in a consistently strong manner. There were several ills in the system that needed fixing. They are not fixed yet! Although the leadership, through Sourav Ganguly, tried to instill a sense of passion and pride, the playing group could still not be accused of either having or yearning for a “winning mindset”.
Although the ills in the system are still not fixed — the BCCI is the only organisation that is capable of making both the Zimbabwean Board as well as the ICC look good — and although these ills still exist, the Indian fan can dream again because of her players and the attitude that they bring to the table these days.
The ills in the system commence from grass roots selection and weed all the way through to talent nurturing, jobs-for-the-boys, organisation and more. Much more.
However, what a cricket fan dreams about is playing well and winning. And winning in cricket is about having the right resources, the right support systems, the right leadership, the right systems, the right processes, the right media, the right talent and the right attitude — not necessarily in that order.
Digging into all of the above-mentioned pillars of success is an article or two at least and perhaps we should undertake a detailed inventory of where Indian cricket is exactly at. But not right now! But briefly, one could argue that the resources in India have improved. We have several Cricket Academies. Every man and his dog has opened an Academy hoping to teach cricket-skills to wide-eyed kids. One could concede that these Academies are producing a truck load of bright young kids that do exceedingly well at the Under-19 level. Moreover, where cricket was essentially for the city-dwelling elite and middle-class in India — when it came to big-league opportunities — newer players have come for far-flung places. Dhoni is from Ranchi (in interior Jharkhand), a place without a single player to have ever played for India! The domination of Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Chennai are no longer present. We have players in the team that used to practice their cricket on railway platforms in Ranchi — indeed, he leads the team today!
The representative level is well-organised and run in India. The Ranji system is strong, although I think that even after splitting the competition into two leagues, the Elite league has 4 teams too many! There is more work to do there, but I do believe that the foundations are better now than they were a 10 years back.
The media in India has always been an issue and a problem. There are sane voices that lead the team towards a better future. But the commercial TV channels and some near-jingoistic broadsheets ruin it for everyone. Unfortunately, there is an audience for sensationalism in India! One hopes that the saner, stronger voices win in the end — and there are plenty of those to give me hope!
As I have said before, in Gary Kirsten, India has the right man. He has no compelling need to be either in the drivers’ seat or indeed, near a microphone! He stays in the background and does his job in much the way that John Wright did. I feel that this man will take Indian cricket forward. Time will tell.
What matters most to me is the right leadership, talent and attitude.
Sourav Ganguly was, in my view, the first real leader of the Indian cricket team. I have been saying that for years. Rahul Dravid would have made a sensational leader of the Australian cricket team! Alas! He was in a place that needed a Ganguly or a Dhoni! He was a cultural misfit! The role needs a leader who was/is able to approach leadership by inspiring inwards and managing outwards! Dravid was a misfit as a leader. Right man, wrong place! Kumble was a “holding pattern” and in Sydney alone he showed qualities that I have not seen in leaders in a long time.
Peter Roebuck has written eloquently about M. S. Dhoni. What he has said does not need repeating.
As a Team India fan dreams again, Dhoni is the right man for the job. Indeed, he is perhaps the one that inspires these dreams!
However, the most important reason for these dreams is the talent and mindset.
The Indian team in Nagpur showed that winning was important for it. Although on day-5 the team did look ragged and confused, the moment they got a wicket or two, neo-normalcy seemed to be restored. Indian teams of old would have caved in. This team regrouped and stuck to its plan again — as it had on day-3 after playing lose cricket at the end of day-2. They had their minds on the job in a focussed manner. In the past, Indian teams could not be accused of either focus or determination, leave alone steely-resolve! This team has all of that in spades and moreover, plays with a hiterto unobserved pride!
There was an almost Australia-like cut-throat edge to its game.
Over the last few years, the timidity and servility that represented Indian teams of the past had given way to aggression, attitude, determination, grit, fight and free-spirit. Agreed! All of the above come to the fore compellingly only when India plays Australia or Pakistan. However, there is a new breed of player that is more and more reflective of the new, brash, bold, adventurous, expressive India! I am not a fan of it, but I realise that that is where the country and its people are at this point in time.
Moreover, with the onset of central contracts and the IPL, I feel that India players play with far greater security. This has always been a concern in Indian cricket. In the past, the India player has had to play with the next game and pay-cheque in mind! But today, a Gautam Gambhir is able to play his natural aggressive game without worrying too much about his next contract or his next pay cheque! He has got it, in spades already.
And I do believe that this last element adds significantly to the make up of the winning mindset. Suddenly, Gautam Gambhir’s existence is no longer an issue. His performance is. He can focus more on giving his best to his country. Even a Joginder Sharma or a Praveen Kumar can come in for a game here or a game there and give off his best. The IPL and central contracts ensure that all that the player needs to focus on is in giving off his best in the game that he is chosen for.
Suddenly there are more players for spots!
Let us look at the list of players that are in contention:
- Openers: Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Murali Vijay, Wasim Jaffer, Akash Chopra 
- Middle-order Batsmen: Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, V. V. S. Laxman, Rohit Sharma, S. Badrinath, Suresh Raina, Mohammed Kaif, Yuvraj Singh, Cheteshwar Pujara, Robin Uthappa, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane, Tanmay Srivastava, Shikar Dhawan 
- Pacemen: Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan, Munaf Patel, R. P. Singh, Sree Santh, Irfan Pathan, Praveen Kumar, Pankaj Singh, Manpreet Gony, Ashok Dinda, Siddharth Trivedi, Pradeep Sangwan, Ranadeb Bose 
- Spinners: Harbhajan Singh, Amit Mishra, Piyush Chawla, Pragyan Ojha, Yusuf Pathan, Romesh Powar, Mohnish Parmar 
- Keepers: M. S. Dhoni, Parthiv Patel, Wriddhiman Saha, Dinesh Karthik 
That’s a total of 43 players. It is an impressive list of young players. I may have missed out a few and some may question the presence of players like Mohnish Parmar or Shikar Dhawan or Tanmay Srivastava. This is perhaps nothing more than a list of players who are in contention for both the Test as well as the ODI team. Most of the above players have either played for India already (in any of the three forms of the game) or are about to.
India should expand its contract list to include players who regularly turn out for India-A games. India-A should tour continuously and if no one wants to play with India-A, should play against itself! Match readiness should be the name of the game and not the next central contract! A core bunch of about 50 players needs to be identified, nurtured and maintained. They should also be match-ready so that the careers of players like Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan, Tendulkar, Dravid, Yuvraj Singh and M. S. Dhoni can be well-managed.
Cheteshwar Pujara has scored three triple centuries in his last four games including one in the recently completed Ranji round! One can’t keep him away from the big league for too long. Gavaskar was pushing for young Pujara even when news of Gautam Gambhir’s Nagpur suspension was filtering through. The selectors went for M. Vijay in that instance.
However, Rahul Dravid will need to now work intensely hard to keep players like Badrinath, Pujara, Rohit Shrama, Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina at bay! Kris Srikkanth has said that he has faith in Dravid and feels that a big innings is just around the corner.
I am conservative in this regard — a close friend labeled be “dogged” in this regard. Be that as it may, I am not for a “spill and fill” approach. We have just seen the departure of Kumble and Ganguly from the team. It may be seductive to wipe the slate clean and go for a thrush of youngsters! With important series against England, Pakistan and New Zealand coming up in the next 6 months, if I were selector, I’d give Dravid up until the end of the New Zealand series to make up his mind on the timing of his departure. If he wishes to leave the game before that time, then that would be his call to make. I do believe we need his experience in the team until the New Zealand series at least.
Either way you look at it, it is an impressive collection of players.
After that 281, the Team India fan can dream again!