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The loss of Virender Sehwag for at least the first two Tests against England will make life harder for India as they look to retain the No 1 spot in the Test rankings.
The loss of Virender Sehwag for at least the first two Tests against England will make life harder for India as they look to retain the No 1 spot in the Test rankings.

India must prevail in style to be one of cricket's greatest teams

India need to do more to prove they should be remembered as one of the great sides in world cricket.

Just how far has Indian cricket come in a short space of time? A younger generation of fans expects victory each time the team plays. Older supporters can recall a time when even the isolated triumph was celebrated.

Consider this: until the first decade of the new millennium, when they won 40 Tests and lost only 27, India did not even have a winning decade in the five-day arena.

In the 1980s, when the team won a World Cup in the 50-over format and set in motion the events that have seen the country become the game's financial hub, the win-loss record in Tests was 11-21.

In the 1990s, when the Sachin Tendulkar phenomenon took root, it was a modest 18-20.

Under MS Dhoni's captaincy, India have won 15 and lost only three of 27 Tests.

Since they assumed the No 1 ranking in December 2009 after beating Sri Lanka at home, India have drawn home and away with South Africa, held the Sri Lankans 1-1 on the island and seen off Australia 2-0 in a series where the spoils would have been shared but for a once-in-a-lifetime ninth-wicket partnership between VVS Laxman and Ishant Sharma.

In the 20 months since they reached the top of the tree, their record is nine wins and three losses from 18 Tests.

While the placid nature of the pitches, which have been made for five days of television, has thwarted them on a couple of occasions, it is fair to say that India have not been knockout specialists in the manner of the young Mike Tyson, the former world heavyweight boxing champion.

Instead, they have resembled the lumbering Klitschko brothers - resilient, usually efficient and capable of capitalising on the opposition's frailties.

There have not been the sort of intimidating performances that typified Australia's time at the top.

Great champions set standards that can often seem out of reach. The quest for the perfect game or perfect series is motivation in itself. The best sides do not just win. They keep winning and in the process, they subdue the spirit of those they overcome.

The Brazilian footballers of 1970 went through qualification and the World Cup proper winning every game. What's more, they did it with some style.

The final goal of the 4-1 victory over Italy in the final is considered one of the greatest of all time.

Cricket, too, has seen such juggernauts, teams that brooked no opposition.

In the days before the West Indies and the Asian sides became forces to be reckoned with, there was Don Bradman's Invincibles from Australia (1948).

In the modern era, we have seen the West Indies under Clive Lloyd and Vivian Richards and Australia under the captaincy of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting.

The West Indies won 11 Tests in succession between March and December 1984, and their record in the 1980s, when the fire raged most strongly, was a remarkable 43-8.

Under Waugh, Australia surpassed that, winning 16 in succession before being ambushed by Laxman and Rahul Dravid at Eden Gardens in 2001.

The great teams are also remembered for not being constrained by boundaries, for making the near-impossible possible.

The Invincibles chased down 404 in a day at Headingley in the English city of Leeds.

Gordon Greenidge's dazzling 214 saw the West Indies hunt down 342 in 66.1 overs at Lord's in England in 1984.

Shane Warne's mastery transformed a certain draw into an Australian victory at Adelaide in 2006. On such feats does greatness rest.

The stop-start nature of the performances in the Caribbean, when half the team's leading lights were missing, gave some clues as to the challenges that India face to stay No 1 in the coming months.

The pace-bowling stocks are decent, but there are few spinners around to threaten Harbhajan Singh's place in the side.

In the past decade, as India sought to crack the code to winning away from home, the emphasis was on unearthing quick bowlers.

Spin, India's strength for so long, has not seen the same sort of investment.

Piyush Chawla, Amit Mishra and Pragyan Ojha have all played Tests in recent seasons, without enjoying the sort of success that their predecessors had.

Having to excel across formats has not helped their development. With limited-overs cricket emphasising the importance of economy rates, the instinct is to contain rather than attack, and conservative captaincy that seldom sees fielders surrounding the bat has not helped.

Victory in England will not make this India team worthy of comparisons with the best in the history of the game, but it will silence the doubters of a ranking system that is not as easy to understand as a league table.

India's quest will start without one of their most intimidating weapons. Virender Sehwag will miss at least the opening two Tests, and it is hard to see who else will be able to do what he does in terms of upsetting the rhythm of the bowlers.

Cricket has seen several game-changers in more than 130 years. Sehwag, who averages over 50 while scoring at an unprecedented strike rate (81.91), is one of them.

His contribution to the drawn series in South Africa may have been minimal, but even when he failed, his presence was enough to affect the opposition's thought process.

Had the Sehwag threat not been there, South Africa would have declared earlier in Cape Town, and had more of a chance of pushing for the series win. But the fear of him unleashing the sort of innings that he played against England at Chennai in 2008 - 83 off 68 balls, to make a mockery of the pursuit of 387 - influenced Graeme Smith's decision.

Winning without him will be the challenge for a side that aspires to be remembered for more than the achievements of individuals.

 

sports@thenational.ae

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