Insofar as we ever had a golden era in cricket, it just got over. Say it started November 2000, with a Yuvraj Singh blitz and a Zaheer Khan yorker in Nairobi, and ran up until M S Dhoni’s Fred Astairish bat twirl at the Wankhede in April 2011. We weren’t kings – when ever have we been? – but we had class, we were contenders, we were somebody.
The kings were Australia. We beat them at home three times, and twice came close in their house. We won our first Test series in England in 21 years, in West Indies in 35 years, in New Zealand in 33 years and won, at last, Test matches in South Africa. We won in Pakistan for the first time, both formats. We won a World Twenty20, and a World Cup, and got to the final of another. At home we lost only seven Tests out of 52; and in all conditions, against all opponents, won 48 to 27 lost.
The first-person plural is not used to convey partisanship but affection for a set of players who became a part of our lives, in whom a nation recognized their own increasing aspirations and, sometimes, their best selves. Like a good national integration project, they converged from everywhere (though not from every strata): from the south Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman; from the north Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir; from the west Sachin Tendulkar and Zaheer Khan; and they were led with most success, improbably, from the east (Sourav Ganguly) and the heartland (Dhoni) – with a little collaboration from overseas (John Wright and Gary Kirsten).
They were old and young, cussed and carefree, short and tall, bald and hirsute, consumers of orange juice or buffalo milk or vodka, and could greet or abuse you in about eight languages. If you lined them up – two seamers, two spinners, a keeper and seven batsmen – they made a XII more strong and exciting than probably any other in Indian history across formats. Cumulatively they played about 1,200 Tests and 3,000 one-dayers, so the mirage of intimacy felt reasonable for most cricket watchers.
One by one, they began dropping out. Srinath went first, back in 2003, after spearheading the attack in his own grumbling, honest-toil manner. In 2008, the man with whom he shared a wedding mandap, Kumble, retired on an impulse after injuring a finger on his favourite ground, Feroz Shah Kotla. In the following match, at Nagpur, the Ganguly soap opera finished with a near- hundred, a golden duck and a series win over Australia. As last season ended in unsurpassed misery, Dravid left after his Dickensian tale of two countries: three heroic centuries in England, but bowled six times for an average of 24 in Australia.
Of those left standing, Tendulkar looked preoccupied, Sehwag flaccid, Laxman middle-aged, Dhoni jaded. Yuvraj was diagnosed with cancer. Harbhajan was not even in the squad. It was unmistakable: with 0-8, the era was shattered to smithereens. Other parts of this book will doubtless do the autopsy. This is a praise burial.
The era has no obvious name. Though it spanned the 2000s, naming rights for the decade could hardly go to India. Call it, if you will, the 281 era. VVS Laxman’s innings came at the top of the Ganguly-Wright partnership, and the Kolkata victory it engineered was so grand and textured that every subsequent success felt like a homage. The innings itself wasn’t just the virtuoso performance in modern Indian cricket, it was also the most moving representation of its potential: fight, beauty, patience. To submerge oneself into that day (or days), that Test, that fortnight, was to make a discovery that felt somehow profound and fresh: we can play!
A decade on, to watch India fall apart in England and Australia was to confront the sinking suspicion that, no, maybe we cannot play anymore. Dhoni and his band-aided bunch attempted Test cricket from memory, as though searching for a language they no longer spoke. Two Indias took the pitch: the one they thought they could still be, and the one they had become. It was age, yes; it was also era. The Indian way of looking at cricket had changed. The attention of administrators, players, commentators and spectators had shifted elsewhere. The hard graft and hard knocks of Test cricket were like nightmarish 5 a.m. cold showers haunting the silk-robed on Jacuzzi evenings.
The generation of 281 had worked hard on being hard. Young domestic cricketers were pointed to the morning upon morning that Tendulkar and Kumble, 20,000 runs and 800 wickets under their belt, put in at the Middle Income Group in Mumbai and the National Cricket Academy facilities in Bangalore. As a team they played through a period of tumultuous change. They learnt to contend with bleep tests, news channels, “mental disintegration” and Greg Chappell.
For reporters, observing that bunch offered oddly illuminating moments. At Lord’s in 2002, Ganguly was interviewed by a venerable magazine editor. More unimpressed with the British press than they were with him, he answered every question with a single word or sentence. The magazine carried the conversation verbatim. And it was, actually, one of the more revealing interviews by an Indian captain.
Ganguly had the humour, abrasiveness and angularities which could shelter the more sober ambitions of others. Earlier in that summer of 2002, in the West Indies, a Bajan journalist asked him if the great Sachin Tendulkar was scared of fast bowling (Tendulkar had failed in four successive innings). Ganguly’s reply in its entirety, accompanied by the Ganguly smile that either charmed or annoyed its recipient, was: “You’ve got guts, man, you’ve got guts.” You couldn’t imagine another Indian putting it that way.
But, surprisingly, Dravid, the yin to Ganguly’s yang, once almost did. This was two years further on, during the memorable 2004 tour of Pakistan. The team had grown in confidence and achievement, and in Lahore Dravid with Mohammad Kaif made a superb floodlit chase to level the one-day series. Asked straightforwardly by a Pakistani journalist if the match was rigged, his response was equally straightforward: “Somebody please get this guy out of the room.”
This was another reason why we cherished that generation. It rescued us from the basest insult to sport, match-fixing. The voluminous CBI report had been made public shortly after the 2000 ICC Knockout Trophy in Nairobi, where the “new India” had their first outing. To wade through its muck was to throw yourself doubly behind the promise of a fresh beginning. Laxman’s 281 itself began its journey on the same day as another Laxman, Bangaru of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was exposed in a famous sting, accepting a bribe for considering national defence contracts.
As this goes to press, five domestic cricketers have been banned for spot- fixing negotiations or “bragging” about shady IPL deals; indeed, every facet of Indian life is under a cloud of corruption. One feels a gratitude to the men who kept cricket honest. Kumble refuses to share the studio with a popular TV pundit tainted in the original match-fixing scam and you want to cheer.
Eras end, and better ones do not always begin. David Rudder wrote his brilliant song “Rally Round the West Indies” at a time, 1988, when the first signs of vulnerability in that extraordinary dynasty were beginning to show. Though every bit the rallying call its name suggests, beneath even the most soaring notes, the most rousing lines – When the Toussaints go, don’t you know, the Dessalines come? – there runs a firefighter’s anticipation of impending loss.
In the tributes that poured in after Dravid’s retirement, the lament was not merely for a departing great. “When this honourable man called it a day,” wrote Mukul Kesavan, “middle-aged fans across the subcontinent shivered: they felt a goose walk over Test cricket’s grave.” Dravid’s former team-mate at Kent, Ed Smith, concurred. “It is not an exaggeration to say that a whole strand of the game – a rich vein that runs through the game’s poetic heart – departs the scene with India’s greatest ever No. 3.”
These anxieties resurfaced when Laxman retired: we mourn the immemorial rhythm of all those played and unplayed innings which, though sometimes quick and often urgent, never felt hurried or strained. When Tendulkar goes, everybody will know they have gotten just a little older.
“The elegiac note . . . belongs to cricket,” Mike Marqusee demonstrates sharply in Anyone But England. “From nearly the beginning, people have said the game is not what it used to be.”
India’s golden era was turmeric compared to the West Indian or the Australian, and, who knows, to the one around the corner. Yet for the generations who found in it pleasure and nourishment, the question is not if or when, but simply: now what?
From the Wisden India Almanack 2013. Buy it here.