Crushing wins over South Africa and Bangladesh (in the first Test) have not only consolidated India’s position at the top of the ICC Test rankings, but also provided a slew of records for Virat Kohli and Co that may be difficult to better.
So is the current Test team the best ever in Indian cricket history? The debate is as confounding as it is riveting, but can’t be resolved conclusively on figures alone.
Stats do matter a great deal in cricket but is not the only index to greatness, individual or team. It is by no means a walkover for Kohli and Co. Some other teams also stand out with hugely impressive performances, which became major inflection points in the saga of Indian cricket.
I’ve restricted my scrutiny starting from the 1971 twin wins against West Indies and England. Prior to that, India’s record was poor and inconsistent, barring the odd win and some outstanding personal performances.
Unfortunately, this eliminates teams that won India’s first-ever Test (v England, Madras, 1951-52), beat Pakistan at home (1952), won a home series against England (1962), and most significantly won the first ever overseas series (v New Zealand, 1968).
This, however, should not obscure the contribution of stellar players like Vijay Merchant, Vijay Hazare, Subhash Gupte, Vijay Manjrekar, Chandu Borde, Salim Durrani, Nari Contractor, and particularly Vinoo Mankad and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, etc.
Here are my picks from past Indian teams to rival the current one. Their performances over a period of time have been considered to rationalise a fluke success:
1) 1971-73, led by Ajit Wadekar: Stunning away victories against West Indies and England gave Indian cricket new identity. India had never beaten West Indies, and never won a Test in England. Ray Illingworth’s 1971 team was fresh from an Ashes triumph and rated the world’s best. In 1972-73, India made it three in a row, beating England at home. The prowess of Indian spin earned world renown in this period.
2) 1986-87, led by Kapil Dev: Beat England 2-0 in an away series after 15 years. England were humbled by a terrific all-round performance by India in which Dilip Vengsarkar (then No.1 batsman) shone along with his brilliant captain. From late 1985 till the defeat to Pakistan at Bangalore in 1987 India did not lose a series.
3) 2001-2007, led by Sourav Ganguly, then Rahul Dravid: Despite a few setbacks, Indian cricket got fresh thrust. Emerging from the trauma of the match-fixing scam, India thwarted Steve Waugh’s marauding Aussies (2001), drew in England (2002) and Australia (2004), won in Pakistan (2004) for the first time, beat West Indies away (2006) after 35 years and England in England (2007) after 21 years.
I believe, however, Kohli’s team may have nudged ahead of those mentioned above, not so much because of the impressive string of wins, but because of the composition of the current side and hunger to win.
Wadekar’s team sorely lacked fast bowlers, and Kapil’s in 1986 did not have spin calibre of the 1970s. Between 2001 and 2007, the batting line-up was extraordinary, but bowling did not always seem complete.