Jamie Alter: There were a few memorable highs and some forgettable lows for Indian cricket in 2011.
It was indeed a year of contrasts in Indian cricket. In January 2011, India's Test team was ranked No 1, a spot they had occupied for over a year. That same month they famously drew a rare away series in South Africa, and proceeded to march into the World Cup as favorites. In a memorable run, they stormed to the final and lifted the coveted trophy after a gap of 28 years. A series win over West Indies followed, and then the team landed in England for four Tests having won there four summers prior.
Then it all went pear-shaped. An unprecedented 4-0 whitewash, followed by a winless streak in five ODIs. Gone was the coveted No 1 ranking in Test cricket. Players fell like nine-pins, resulting in a series of mad-dash replacements, one of whom happened to be vacationing in Miami. The woefully inadequate preparations and apparent ignorance of injuries to key players highlighted the BCCI's lackadaisical approach, and left the Indians smarting. India's inability to show up turned what promised to be a marquee series into a stroll in the park for a top-class England outfit.
India returned home licking their wounds, and when England visited a few weeks later a re-jigged team whitewashed them in the ODIs. A series win over West Indies followed, during which the debut performance of R Ashwin in the Tests and Virender Sehwag's 219 – just the second time the 200-barrier had been breached – in the ensuing ODIs gave the fans something to cheer about. However, the crushing defeat to Australia in Melbourne has left Indian cricket in disarray going into the New Year.
What then, is there to look back at with pride? Largely: the World Cup. April 2, 2011 will go down as one of the most significant dates in India's sporting history. That magical night was the culmination of an effort that began under the tutelage of the Indian cricket team's coach, Gary Kirsten, and its captain, MS Dhoni, from the time they paired up in 2007 to steer India from a team prone to capitulation to a band of world beaters.
That result ended a 28-year draught of lifting the World Cup and with it lifted the nation's cricketers to a new height. Winning the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 in 2007 and scaling the peaks of the Test rankings were special, but winning the World Cup was a dream harboured by the likes of Sachin Tendulkar since he debuted on November 15, 1989. This was what Indian cricket teams had aspired for since Kapil's Devils raised the trophy on the Lord’s balcony in 1983, and it helped erase the bitter memories of 1992, 1996, 1999 and, most famously, 2007.
Twenty-eight years on from the match that transformed the history of world cricket, India recaptured the crown in their very own back yard. They had been expected to do so, being a form team and co-hosts of the tournament, but the manner in which they usurped Sri Lanka at the Wankhede Stadium was stirring. Their performance in the final was a magnificent coming together of the unfinished points that had been a feature of their campaign until then.
Gautam Gambhir had until then scored three half-centuries in the tournament without stamping his authority. His 97 in the pinnacle was his most dominating innings as India recovered from 31 for 2 to clinch victory by six wickets. Dhoni had until then contributed a personal best of 34, but having promoted himself he played the innings of his career. The image of Dhoni hitting the winning runs with a six is indelible.
Central to India's run to the final were, most importantly, the Player of the Tournament, Yuvraj Singh. Coming into the World Cup Yuvraj had been dogged by injury and poor form, his image as a cricketer tattered and taunted at. He answered his critics in stunning manner: 362 runs at 113, 15 wickets and four Man-of-the-Match awards. Throughout the competition he was the fulcrum of India's batting; the centre that has held it together through top-order wobbles and Powerplay collapses.
He was supported by Virender Sehwag, Virat Kohli, Tendulkar and Suresh Raina, who all played key innings. Zaheer Khan ably led the bowling attack –his three consecutive maiden overs in the final banished the ghost of the 2003 final – and there were useful hands from Munaf Patel, Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Ashish Nehra.
The entire narrative of the tournament was about India, because they earned their success the hard way while living up to the massive hype and expectancy and moving past 28 years of failure. When they played, everyone watched. They did not do dull contests – how can we forget the tie against England? – and that they knocked out four-time holder Australia in the quarter-finals and archrivals Pakistan in the semis added to their allure.
At the end of the day, their resounding success made for arguably the best World Cup of all time, while helping to sweeten the bitterness of the pre-tournament chaos around ticket sales and the lingering feeling that the whole spectacle was too long. April 2 has rightfully earned its place in the pantheon of India sport.
If there was one more figure that gave Indian cricket a defining positive in 2011, it was Rahul Dravid. As Indian cricket fans waited with breathless expectancy for Tendulkar's unprecedented 100th international century, Dravid went about doing what he does best. In a year highlighted by propaganda and noise and controversy, he reaffirmed one's faith in the old-fashioned values of strength and truthfulness, Dravid's best traits. He was an inspiration and the manner in which, having been recalled to India's ODI squad two years after he was last dumped from it, Dravid selflessly went about his task spoke volumes of his character. No fuss, no complaints, just straight-batted proficiency.
In fact, 2011 defined his spirit. Dravid finished the year's top run-getter in Tests with 1145 at 57.25, including five centuries. It is the third time he has scored 1,000 runs in a year, but by his own admission it has been the most satisfying because few expected him to still be going near the age of 39. These runs have been scored in trademark Dravid fashion, sedately and with great subtlety, and in conditions as different as Kingston, London, Nottingham and Kolkata. They have not always resulted in success, but their impact cannot be understated. The class has been unmistakable, the fluency staggering.
Whether we see Dravid a year from now is doubtful, and as the New Year beckons we can only thank him for his services. Similarly, we can thank Dhoni and his team for winning the World Cup, but the lingering feeling is of 2011 being a portent of things to come once Tendulkar, Dravid and VVS Laxman retire. But here's hoping for more highs and less lows in 2012.