With Sri Lanka still needing 59 runs to make India bat again, and just four wickets to go, the ICC world No 1 Test ranking is tantalizingly within reach.
If achieved, it would be a fitting slot for a team that hasn’t lost a Test series since August 2008 in Sri Lanka and has since proceeded to sort out ‘mystery spinner’ Ajantha Mendis in no uncertain terms.
Before that, they lost narrowly to Australia in Australia – and even that was a bitter, scrappy affair in which they ran the then world champions down to the wire and would probably have drawn the series, but for the intervention of Steven Bucknor at Sydney.
India may have lost that series, but it was clearly on the right track, with the batsmen no longer cowed by lively tracks or short-pitched pace. Remember, during that series India beat Australia at Perth, considered a fast bowler’s dream pitch. Just as importantly, the team finally had an attack that could match fire with fire, while also boasting the traditional Indian strengths of guile and tweak.
Long described as tigers at home but lambs abroad, India had briefly turned the tide under Sourav Ganguly. Even after he left the hot seat, India notched up some important wins, like the series win in England. But Rahul Dravid’s abrupt resignation plunged Indian cricket into a fresh round of confusion after the chaos of the Greg Chappell era.
Enter Anil Kumble, the first bowler to captain India since Ravi Shastri led in a single Test in 1987-88. Kumble’s vision document conveyed the need for focus and dedication. His mantra: Play fearless cricket and stop quibbling about factors you can’t control, like the toss or the wicket. During his stint, the team found its feet again.
Kumble’s exit paved the way for M S Dhoni. Having led India to victory at the first T20 world championship and the final Australian tri-series, Dhoni had already established his leadership credentials. His calm-but-ruthless style has worked equally well in Tests.
India, if they seal victory against Sri Lanka on Sunday, will become the world’s No.1 Test team. The climb to the top began almost two years ago under the captaincy of Anil Kumble.
Pakistan were comfortably beaten under Kumble but the sole blip came in Sri Lanka, a 1-2 loss made possible by the confounding deliveries of the freakish Mendis. Since then, the team hasn’t looked back.
Back at home, Australia were decisively humbled even as the smoothest of transitions, from Kumble to Dhoni, ensured there would no hiccups. England were beaten after an emotional Test that saw Sachin Tendulkar make arguably his greatest century ever, which he promptly dedicated to the victims of 26/11.
The final frontier was then conquered: victory in New Zealand after 41 years. Sri Lanka arrived in India ranked world No. 2 but has been decisively dominated; Murali defanged, Mendis hit out of the playing XI.
Some sections in the foreign media have already begun questioning whether India deserves to be No. 1. Well, Team India might not be head and shoulders above the opposition like Australia used to be, but they can certainly lay claim to being first among equals.
India made Australia look pedestrian in India and matched them Down Under. South Africa have been held here and memorably, in Johannesburg, given a scare.
India’s batting lineup is arguably the best in the world, having delivered against all attacks, in all conditions. Tendulkar and Sehwag would walk into any World XI right now, Dravid and Gambhir would be strong contenders at the very least. While the team might not have the most potent attack around, it’s one of the most versatile. And Dhoni is one of the canniest and most confident captains around.