The Test team that isn’t

One of the members of the Indian team, to whom I had sent a congratulatory SMS Sunday evening, responded with this: It’s been a long time coming — we’ve dreamed of this and worked towards this all our playing lives; feels good. Now to maintain it.

Therein lies the catch: sometime early next year if not sooner, India will find itself overtaken in the rankings, for no fault of the team’s.

When a Simon Wilde writes that India does not “deserve” to be number one, it’s difficult not to take issue. The team has worked towards this; it has gone from a group labeled the worst travelers in cricket to a side that holds its own even when playing away from home. And it made it to the top of the table thanks to a points system it did not devise — the same points system, incidentally, that saw England being named the number two side in the world even as it was on a hiding to nothing in the Ashes series Down Under.

While Wilde, thus, is easy to dismiss, Jamie Pandaram’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald is more on the money. Ignore the bit about surveys showing that only seven percent of Indians like Tests — a survey is as good as the sample, and a 500-or-so sample size is no way indicative of the mood of a nation of one billion plus [besides, checked out the crowds that turned up, especially in Kanpur and at the Brabourne?]. Ignore, too, the bit where Pandaram keeps talking of the paucity of home Tests — the larger point is, we are just not playing enough Tests, period.

A Rahul Dravid or VVS Laxman, for instance, will get to play two Tests against Bangladesh in December this year. They were then slated to play three home Tests against South Africa in February — but the FTP cryptically says they will be ‘rescheduled’ — a euphemism for maybe some other year, if at all. Effectively, thus, the Test team will wait till May 2010 before, hold your breath, playing Zimbabwe in two Tests. Then we wait till sometime in November, when we host New Zealand for three Tests, before going to South Africa in December 2010 for three Tests. That is a grand total of 8 Tests over a 12-month span, including a — with all due respect — no-account series against Zimbabwe. In that same span we will play 17 ODIs besides the Asia Cup — and the schedule for India makes plenty of room for the IPL and Champions League.

While Pandaram’s piece gets side-tracked [incidentally, the likes of SMH and Wilde might want to note that as this is written, Australia at home has been outplayed, and is struggling to stave off defeat against a West Indies side currently ranked number 8 — the lowest in its history], Cricinfo nails the main point down:

During the period in which India have only two Tests – against Bangladesh – to maintain a hold on their No. 1 position, South Africa play at least four and Australia eight. A 2-0 win against Bangladesh isn’t likely to give India too many ratings points either, so they could be overtaken depending on how South Africa do against England, and how Australia go against West Indies and Pakistan at home, and in the away series in New Zealand and against Pakistan in England.

”We just go out and play whatever is scheduled,” Gary Kirsten is quoted as saying. A current member of the side put it more pithily: “We’ve dreamed of the number one rating from the time John (Wright) [whose effusion here is, knowing the man, not pro forma but comes from the heart] took over as coach. Seems a pity we finally got there only to lose it by default. Not because we are not good enough, but because we won’t play enough.”

That point about working towards a dream was well taken. Anil Kumble — who has done more than his fair share in pushing the team to the top and who, sadly, retired before the final step was taken — writes of just how much the team wanted this, in his latest column:

Almost two years back we sat down and planned for this day, so you can imagine the feeling among all concerned now that the task has been achieved. Back then, we knew that in the next 18 months or so we would play almost every team in the world, either home or away. We made a conscious effort to sit down and discuss the way to the top. The team goal was simple. We were fifth in the rankings and said to ourselves: “Let’s go out there and win every series from here on, as that is the only route to the top.”

The team has done its bit. As, come to think of it, has the BCCI, by its own lights: Rs 25 lakh per player as reward, there you go, quit cribbing and keep in mind we are able to pay you this money because of all the billions we earn through the IPL and assorted ODIs [seven of them against Australia next year, after seven against the same team this year].

Ask the players, and they’ll tell you they’d rather have more Tests. Ask the fans, and they’ll tell you if the BCCI schedules series against South Africa and Australia, billing them as the games that will settle this argument for good and all, we’ll queue up outside the grounds.

The real pity is that captains beginning with Sourav Ganguly, and coaches starting with John Wright, have worked with focus towards building a competitive Test team. Now we have one — but thanks to the Board, we won’t get to see it play as much as it should.