New Delhi: It is perhaps a measure of the performance - or the lack of it - of the Indian team that controversies relating to it hog more limelight and create a greater impact than its achievements on the field. In 2000, the sensational disclosures about match-fixing activities of cricketers - certainly a phenomenon not confined to India alone - had overshadowed everything else the game had to offer.
And so it was this year (2001) too, when the acrimonious row between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the International Cricket Council (ICC) over the controversial punishments to six Indian players by match- referee Mike Denness relegated every other cricketing activity to the background. Like the match-fixing scandal, this confrontation shook the very foundations of world cricket and brought the ICC dangerously close to a split.
But unlike the match- fixing scandal, public sympathy lay with the cricketers this time. And the reason was not far to seek. Among the six players punished was Sachin Tendulkar whose impeccable integrity is matched only by his legendary exploits on the field. The person with perhaps the most clean image in international cricket was punished with the most serious of charges - that of ball-tampering - and it justifiably enraged an entire nation of cricket-crazy public.
The BCCI saw in it an opportunity to press for long-felt reforms in the ICC rules and the ensuing battle between the two saw the cricketing world divide on racial lines. The unprecedented uproar over the referee's decision forced ICC into coming out with a belated clarification that the master batsman had been found guilty of not informing the umpires before cleaning the ball and that he was never charged with ball-tampering. However, the power games continued for another few days - with the unsuspecting Virender Sehwag, also among the six punished, finding himself in the centre of bitter controversy - before the two sides reached a settlement.
Cricket survived another serious crisis, just as it had survived the match-fixing scandal, and the focus shifted to the home series against England, which too had come under threat in that bickering. It was a very important Test series from the point of view of India, which hardly had any achievements to show in the year apart from that magnificent 2-1 victory against Australia at home. It had taken a battering on the successive tours of Sri Lanka and South Africa and this was their opportunity to redeem some pride with a comprehensive win against a mediocre English side.
However, the year ending series proved to be another disappointment for the Indian team with the 1-0 victory hardly justifying its reputation of being tigers at home soil. Neither did the result reflect the fact that the Indians had to actually struggle to draw the last two Tests after winning the first one at Mohali by 10 wickets. That left the Indians to try and find solace in just one remarkable performance in this year, though that feat was worth lifetime achievement for many.
After losing the first Test by 10 wickets and following on in the second, the Indians had scripted the most sensational comeback in the history of Test cricket by winning the three-match series against Australia 2-1. It was an epoch-making series in many ways and would perhaps be best remembered for that majestic knock of 281 by V V S Laxman in the Kolkata Test and his marathon 376- run partnership with Rahul Dravid that really marked the turning point of the series.
The confidence of winning a nail-biting Test series had its effect on the One-day matches also with India putting up a good performance in all the five games even though it was edged out 3-2 by the Aussies. But it was a downward slide after that. India failed to win the Test series in Zimbabwe - actually losing one match to the home team to settle for a 1-1 draw - and the tours to Sri Lanka and South Africa were disasters. The dream of recording its first Test series win overseas in 15 years remained unfulfilled.
It did no better in One-dayers too managing to win only 12 of the 24 matches played during the year. Earning the dubious distinction of losing nine One-day International final matches in a row was just a part of that woeful record. It meant it has not won a Limited Overs tournament since 1998-1999. But perhaps the nadir was reached in South Africa when India lost to Kenya by 70 runs to become the only team to have been beaten by the African minnows for a second time. Amidst the mediocre results of the team, individual brilliance thrived and there were quite a number of milestones reached by the Indian players.
Prominent among them were the achievements of Tendulkar, who became the first batsman in the world to cross 10,000 runs in One-day cricket, and off spinner Harbhajan Singh who claimed a record 32 wickets, including the first hat-trick by an Indian in Tests, in three matches against Australia and contributed significantly to that historic win. In fact, Harbhajan was the best thing to happen to Indian spin bowling after Anil Kumble.
Tendulkar only re-emphasised his genius as he continued to score at a prolific rate and accumulated 30 centuries in One-day Internationals and 27 in Test cricket for the highest aggregate in the history of the game. His reputation as the best cricketer in the world got the final seal of approval when he became the only present day player - and the only Asian - to be included in Sir Donald Bradman's 'Dream Team'.
However, Tendulkar was no exception when it came to the injuries that plagued the Indian team and the young master had to miss out on international cricket for nearly two months and skip the tour to Sri Lanka due to a toe injury. In fact, injuries were the bane of Indian cricket this year despite the team having services of an internationally acclaimed physiotherapist. The worst hit was the squad for the Sri Lankan tour, which was devoid of five frontline players, including Laxman, Ashish Nehra, Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan.