The impending retirement of the Big Three – from left, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman – is India’s biggest concern in their quest to remain on top © Getty Images

 

By Nishad Pai Vaidya

 

When Mahendra Singh Dhoni held on to an edge off Muttiah Muralitharan’s bat in December 2009 at Brabourne Stadium, India registered a 2-0 Test series win over the touring Sri Lankans and thus achieved its dream of emerging on top in the world Test cricket rankings. India gained the numero uno spot in Tests after years of struggle. As Australia struggled to maintain its hold over the top spot, India surged ahead with consistent performances.

 

India had to come back in a Test series on three occasions to maintain their hold over the top spot. When South Africa toured in February 2010 and on India’s return trip in December, India were trailing 0-1 after the first Test, but managed to register wins thereafter to draw both the series. In Sri Lanka in July-August 2010, India managed to win the last Test to square the series. The only times India looked in control of their position was when they toured Bangladesh in January 2010, when Australia toured India in October and New Zealand arrived the following month. The 2-0 victory over Australia made one feel that India were well and truly No 1. But, as Ian Botham said, a few more away wins are required to really make India the “undisputed” leader.

 

India are not the “undisputed” No 1 like Australia were for major part of the 2000s. Australia maintained a stranglehold over the top spot and it was only when the likes of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist retired did they start to struggle. As of the now India may be leading the table, but they have good competition from South Africa (currently ranked second) and England (currently ranked third). Thus, it’s a three- way race for the top spot with India just managing to keep the other two out. Australia is going through a transition-cum-rebuilding phase and will take some time before they can make a re-entry to the race.

 

Graeme Smith, the South African Test captain has said that his team would like to challenge India for the top Test ranking. South Africa can well and truly challenge India, but they would have to wait for a few months in order to do so. According to the Future Tours Program (FTP), South Africa are scheduled to play their next Test series only in October when they are supposed to host Australia for two Tests. The Proteas will then host Sri Lanka for a three-match Test series. Before that, India will play West Indies and England which will give them an opportunity to increase their lead in the ratings.

 

However, South Africa have just named Gary Kirsten as the coach and he knows a thing or two about nurturing a team to the No 1 position. He held the Indian reins for three years which is one of the most high pressure jobs in the world. He is, thus, in an ideal person to take South African Cricket ahead and guide them in the quest for being No 1 in Tests and, possibly, shedding the “chokers” tag.

 

England would be India’s real challenger in the months to come. They won the Ashes Down Under 3-1 and demolished Sri Lanka in the first Test of the on-going series to register a win out of nowhere. These are signs of a fantastic team which is raring to top the rankings. It would be a real challenge for India to beat them at home, and if they do so then South Africa may have to work harder to present their intended challenge.

 

In the long run, it seems that England and South Africa have a better chance of topping the table. This is because India are dependent on their ageing middle order comprising Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar. They are in the twilight of their respective careers and their retirements are really close. Once they retire, India would find it hard to replace that quality although there are a few talented youngsters going around. Thus, it would be ideal if they do not call it a day at the same time like McGrath and Warne.  India have to make sure they do not get themselves into an Australia-like situation.

 

On the other hand, South Africa and England do not have the problem of ageing players. Most of their players have years of cricket ahead of them which puts them in an ideal position to go for the top. India were in a similar position a few years ago and managed to bag the coveted spot, but it took them quite some time.

 

The Test match rankings have never looked so open in recent memory. Australia were the clear favorites till around 2008-09 and the only teams that challenged them once in a while were India, South Africa and England. As Australia struggled, their challengers have come to the fore for a three-way race for the number one spot. If Australia rebuild quickly, the race will intensify. On the other hand India has to build a strong back-up for the batting trinity so that they keep themselves in the race and possibly maintain their No 1 spot.

 

We are moving towards an era of stiff competition at the top.

 

(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.”)