Richie Benaud, who knew a thing or two about Indian cricket, having visited this country twice, the second time as captain, wrote in his magnum opus Willow Patterns published about 45 years ago about the disparity between the Indian team’s record at home and away.
According to him, one reason was the 'amazing' crowds that thronged the stadium to watch Test matches in the pre-television days. The legendary Australian cricketer was of the view that the spectators’ infectious and unbridled enthusiasm boosted the confidence of the players and helped raise the standard of their game to a level that they could never match out of India.
Whether it was lack of support from the crowds or the alien wicket and weather conditions which exposed the Indians technically that was responsible for India’s dismal away record in the formative years of cricket in this country from the thirties to the sixties is a moot point but the fact remains that India were repeatedly thrashed by England, Australia and West Indies whenever they toured these countries leading one to believe that it was the vastly different conditions prevalent in these countries that also led to the debacle besides not having the support of a vociferous home crowd.
At the time when Benaud viewed his opinion, India had won just three Tests abroad – all in New Zealand who were the only team ranked below India in those days. All the victories came in the course of their first series played in that country in 1967 – 68 but apart from the historic aspect there was little to celebrate. In fact cricket followers questioned the one loss in the series more than they discussed the three wins!
The first turning point in India’s away record came about in 1971 when Ajit Wadekar and his boys pulled off a double – a series win in the West Indies was followed by a series win in England. The year marked the entry of Sunil Gavaskar into international cricket and with greater solidity in the batting, vast improvement in the fielding and with the famed spin quartet consolidating their position as a force to reckon with, it was thought that happier days would be ahead as far as victories abroad were concerned. But the lack of pace bowling proved to be a severe handicap and the triumphs were few and far between.
With the emergence of Kapil Dev in the late 70s, the mood became optimistic once again but by now the spin quartet had retired and the gallant paceman frequently had to plough a lonely furrow even as the batting ranged from the sublime to the other extreme.
The result meant that victories abroad were again restricted and it was not until 1986 when India got the better of an England side that was being routed by almost everyone else that the team won a series abroad for the first time since the watershed year of 1971.
In the last 25 years, dating back to the advent of Sachin Tendulkar, there has been a marked improvement in the away record. Greater balance in the bowling attack, a lustrous batting line-up and fielding standards that have at times risen to dizzy heights meant that India could challenge the best abroad – and sometimes come up with a series triumph.
India have won Test rubbers in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, West Indies (twice), England and New Zealand and shared contests in Sri Lanka, South Africa and Australia. The crowds don’t seem to be a factor anymore for there are a large number of Indian supporters wherever the team plays. More frequent tours have meant the team is more conversant with the conditions abroad and at times the opposition being weak has helped.
Still, the overall disparity between the record at home and abroad is quite striking. Somehow the results have not been in keeping with the growing reputation of Indian teams or the high rankings they enjoy.
Even at full strength, the team has had to endure humiliations like losing Tests in Zimbabwe both in 1998 and 2001, being shot out for totals of 100 and 66 at Durban in 1997, being bowled out for 81 after being set 120 to win in West Indies a few months later, going down in all three Tests in Australia in 1999-2000 and losing both Tests in New Zealand three years later inside three days playing time after mustering up meagre totals of 161, 121, 99 and 154.
The latest string of setbacks abroad has only confirmed the long felt view that Indians are tigers at home and lambs abroad. India has lost ten of the last eleven Tests they have played in England, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. This has not happened since the nightmarish 1959 – 1968 period when India lost 17 Tests on the trot in England, West Indies and Australia.
Contrast this with the happiest home phase when India had ten straight victories during 1988 – 1994, the opponents being New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, England and West Indies, and one gets the general picture. Unless India pulls off an unexpected victory at Wellington, the tigers at home and the lambs abroad tag will be firmly imprinted on the Indian players.