Roller-coaster ride for Indian cricket

Published: Monday, December 27, 2004, 23:53 [IST]
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New Delhi:The Indian cricket team commenced 2004 by nearly vanquishing world champions Australia in their own backyard, more precisely at the Sydney Cricket Ground, in the first week of the year in the high-profile Test rubber.

With some luck, in terms of umpiring decisions and better catching especially by the now discarded Parthiv Patel, Sourav Ganguly's men could have shocked the world cricket order at the SCG and come away with an epochal Test series victory instead of drawing the four-match series 1-1.

It was not to be on Steve Waugh's international swansong as the Australian captain battled the Indian spinners, especially a fired up Anil Kumble, with determination and ended his career without conceding a Test series loss at home.

India, who started the year on a rousing note Down Under, later went on to create history by outsmarting arch-foes Pakistan in both the Test and one-day series, the country's first-ever Test series win in the neighbouring country, before a form slump saw them plunge the depths midway through 2004.

The bad patch, which also coincided with their talisman Sachin Tendulkar being afflicted with a painful tennis elbow that forced him off cricket action for close to three months, continued from the start of the Asia Cup in Sri Lanka.

The poor run, especially in one-day cricket which came as a dampener after the previous season's highs in Australia and Pakistan, was arrested just in time with the Test series win over South Africa at the Eden Gardens towards the year-end.

More success, although along expected lines, followed with the Test series clean sweep in Bangladesh, but the 1-2 Test rubber loss to Australia at home and the shock defeat to Bangladesh in the second limited overs international remained like a lump in the team's throat as the year drew to a close.

The highlight of the year was indubitably the 2-1 and 3-2 triumphs in the Test and one-day series against Pakistan which were accomplished without the services of two of the Indian team's main bowlers - Harbhajan Singh and Zaheer Khan.

Both the injured bowlers recovered in time for the later battles against Australia and South Africa at home.

But in Pakistan their absence was made up by the spirited efforts of rookie fast bowlers Irfan Pathan and Laxmipathy Balaji and the ever-green Kumble who made many pundits eat their words by capturing 24 Test wickets in Australia.

In fact the Indians owed a large chunk of their success at the Test level during the year to this veteran fighter from Bangalore who, before the year was rung out, also shot past Kapil Dev's previous record wicket tally of 434 during the two-Test series win over Bangladesh.

Kumble was at his best throughout the year - indicated by his tally of 74 wickets in 12 Tests at a cost of 24.83 runs per wicket. He truly led the Indian bowling attack with aplomb and craft and his collection included a haul of 27 wickets in the return rubber against the all-conquering Aussies at home.

Kumble's tally included two ten wickets-in-a-match hauls, indicating his effectiveness and invaluable contribution.

Harbhajan Singh (21 wickets), whose action has come under the scanner for the second time in his career, and Murali Kartik (12) gave the leg spinner good support against the visiting Australians at the Wankhede Stadium to earn India a consolation win that reduced the loss margin to 1-2. If Kumble played the pivotal role in the bowling attack, Virender Sehwag performed a similar act with the bat for India and also earned the distinction of scoring the first-ever triple century for the country in Test cricket.

Sehwag's flashy blade saw him accumulate 1141 runs in 12 Test matches averaging above 63 per innings during the year.

The Delhi marauder's tally included three centuries and four half tons, including the record knock of 309 - in only 375 balls and adorned with 39 fours and six sixes - in the first Test against Pakistan at Multan that set up the innings victory for India.

Sehwag was instrumental in setting up the Test series win in Pakistan, one of the three won by India during the year, and was in great form against Australia too with the bat against a top class attack, and later against South Africa.

The Delhi swashbuckler topped the run-getters' list in the lost four-Test rubber against Australia as well as in the two-Test series won by India against South Africa.

Though Sehwag's one-day form was patchy, earning him only 912 runs in 29 matches with only one century to boot, his ability to perform splendidly in the highest form of the game by batting in his refreshingly carefree manner earned the admiration of one and all.

After clobbering attacks far superior in standards, the converted Indian opener - who batted with four different opening partners (Aakash Chopra, Parthiv Patel, Yuvraj Singh and Gautam Gambhir) during the course of the year - surprisingly failed against the much weaker Bangladesh attack.

In contrast to Sehwag's fantastic run with the bat was the indifferent form shown by the Big Four - Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Venkatasai Laxman and skipper Ganguly - against Australia which cost the home team the series.

Dravid started the year in great style by slamming a career-best 270 to set up the Indian series win against Pakistan in the third Test at Rawalpindi, but then saw a prolonged run drought against Australia.

Dravid who was in great touch against the Aussies Down Under, however picked up momentum in the short series against South Africa by topping the averages with a plus 90 score.

'The Wall' was in dominant form against the hapless Bangladesh attack too, scoring 160 in the second and final Test at Chittagong and during the year his Test tally read 54 short of the 1000-run mark at a high average of 63.06.

The ton helped Dravid in creating the unique record of scoring a ton in every Test playing nation. It also enabled the Bangalore stalwart in joining the elite list comprising Steve Waugh, Gary Kirsten and teammate Tendulkar in scoring a Test ton each against all other Test-playing nations.

Dravid, by playing his 85th Test on the trot during the year, set another national mark by bettering the previous best of 84 held by Tendulkar, during the rubber against Bangladesh.

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