It is always good to have a winning start to the season. In this context India’s emphatic 4-1 victory in the five-match ODI series in Sri Lanka augurs well for them as they prepare for the many challenges that lie ahead during what promises to be a long, arduous and undoubtedly eventful season.
It is never easy to beat Sri Lanka in its own backyard and if their team wears a rather unsettled look much the same thing can be said about the visitors who are also going through a transitional phase.
Virender Sehwag has been in and out because of injuries, Sachin Tendulkar is picking his tours these days, Harbhajan Singh is out of favour, Zaheer Khan is in the evening of his career and the focus is on the young talent who are striving to make a name for themselves and obtain a place in the squad. Under the circumstances it was an encouraging result and there were many plus points that resulted from the series.
The success story has to begin with Virat Kohli who is an emerging giant on the international stage. The runs that he has scored this year, the records that he has set up and the imperious manner of his batting has seen him leapfrog over many eminent names in world cricket and emerge as a star in his own right.
Indeed he has the potential to become the next Indian superstar. Two centuries – both made under difficult circumstances – a tally of 296 runs (easily the best for both sides) and a strike rate of almost 88 underlined the prodigious progress he has made over the last year. Verily the sky is the limit for Kohli.
Equally heartening was the form displayed by Irfan Pathan. For much of the first decade of the new millennium he was the country’s cricketing pin-up boy, the player who was well on his way to becoming the next all rounder that Indian cricket fans had been praying for since the exit of Manoj Prabhakar in 1996.
However Greg Chappell’s decision to promote him in the batting order saw his bowling prowess dip alarmingly and Pathan found himself neither here nor there. For the next few years he was in and out of the Indian team thanks to both fierce competition from younger new ball bowlers and also a spate of injuries. But Pathan never gave up hopes of a comeback and hard work and perseverance has finally paid off.
Vinay Kumar’s loss was Pathan’s gain and he made the most of it by batting and bowling in a manner that has again put him in the forefront when the all rounder’s position is discussed. His hitting was bold and vigorous and he ended up topping the averages coupled with a healthy strike rate of over 92. His timely bits of aggression stood the Indian team in very good stead but perhaps even more encouraging was his bowling.
The old Pathan swing was back together with control and subtle changes of pace. His tally of eight wickets – which included a five-wicket haul – underscored his skill with the ball and even in the face of competition from younger bowlers there should not be any doubts about his inclusion in the side hereafter. Indeed Pathan might have taken a firm step towards a comeback to the Test team too.
Not for the first time the batting played a greater part than the bowling in the series victory and the admirable aspect about the batting line-up is the ability of a couple of players to rise to the occasion whenever the chips are down.
The result was that all the main batsmen – barring the unfortunate Rohit Sharma – pulled in their weight when it came to the crunch situation whether it was rescuing the side from a poor start or coming up with quick runs in the end overs. Suresh Raina, Manoj Tiwari, Virender Sehwag, MS Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir all had their moments and from what was seen in the series there is nothing to worry about the Indian batting.
The bowling has always been in the shadow of the more lustrous batting and this time too it came off second best. But they did have their moments. Pathan was a stand-out performer but Ravichandran Ashwin’s bowling was full of guile. Even the most fleet-footed Lankan batsmen found it difficult to get him away for runs as Ashwin unfolded his assorted back of tricks.
Unfortunately the rest of the Indian bowling did not exactly cover itself with glory. No one can blame Zaheer Khan for not trying but in his 34th year and past his peak it is difficult to see the Indian pace spearhead for so long lasting much longer. Pragyan Ojha and Rahul Sharma had limited opportunities while Ashok Dinda and Umesh Yadav while displaying good pace were profligate. There is still a place for a fit Varun Aaron and he can certainly add sparkle to the attack.
There will be those who will say that too much should not be read into the victory as it was achieved against a Lankan side which was not exactly at full strength with Kumar Sangakkara missing half the series, Mahela Jayawardene sitting out the final game and some of the players showing indifferent form.
But as I said even the Indian team is going through a transitional phase and under the circumstances it was a well-deserved victory over opponents who are always tough to beat at home. Overall there were more positives than negatives in the series and the Indians can take heart from this. The rise to No 2 in the ICC rankings is the icing on the cake.