It would be naïve to suggest that the Indian cricket team's strangle hold of the top spot in Test cricket is absolute. In fact as South Africa are demonstrating at the moment, this Indian team is anything but an heir to the crown of world champions. It's a crown worn by stunning sides. From Bradman's Invincibles, one of the earliest outright dominant Test sides, to the West Indies teams of the 70s, 80s and early 90s. Australia have well and truly come to their end as the most dominating side of our times.
The time is ripe for a natural successor to step forth, and while India may occupy top spot on the ICC Test Rankings, it is South Africa who hold the edge on the long run. India's brittle bowling line-up, aging batting giants, and a young crop struggling to come to terms with the short ball all mean that the world is going to scrutinize every move India make in 2011. But first, let us take a look back at 2010.
In India, this year will always go down as THAT year when Sachin Tendulkar came roaring back to his best. He had been threatening for some time to reclaim his crown as the best batsman in the world, but no one could have predicted this. His Test form this year can easily rival his One Day exploits of 1998.
1998. That will always remain the vintage year, won't it? Sachin Tendulkar, at his peak, sending everyone from Shane Warne to Henry Olanga to the rooftops at Sharjah. A surreal 9 centuries, and nearly 2000 runs, all at a strike rate of over a hundred.
12 years later, the Little Master has been at it again. His blade has never looked broader. The only team to escape his wrath this year has been New Zealand. Tendulkar has reeled off at least one ton against every other team he has faced this year. South Africa must feel especially hard done. In five outings against them, he has smashed four centuries, one of them the famous 200* at Gwalior. Irnoically, Tendulkar has begun to lift his game against a side he has historically been inconsistent against at precisely the point where they have attained the status of being the most fearsome bowling unit in the world. Dale Steyn is the world's best ranked bowler. It only seems to spur Tendulkar on.
As team fortunes go, 1998 was a year which could only be upstaged by 1983. India won more than their fare share of tournaments on the back of Tendulkar's single handed brilliance, most famously the Coca-Cola Cup beating Australia in a mother of all finals. 2010 hasn't been very different. India have only lost three Test matches, two of them to South Africa. Clean sweeps against Bangladesh and Australia have been complemented by competent performances against South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.
Yet the vulnerability has remained. The bowling has been reliant heavily on Zaheer Khan. He hasn't disappointed. He began the year with his best bowling performance, against Bangladesh. Apart from Australia, Khan maintained a sub 24 bowling average against ever team he played against, which included Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka. His performances seem even more impressive when you consider the fact that India has played all these Tests on the harsh surfaces of the sub-continent. The tour of South Africa should offer some respite to Zak.
Outside of Tendulkar and Zaheer, India has seen some stellar performances from the likes of V.V.S. Laxman and Virat Kohli in Tests and ODI's respectively.
Laxman has had one of his best years in cricket. Not just content with raking up the runs, he has been involved in some magnificent backs to the wall partnerships which have seen India home on more than one occasion. His 103* and 73* being cases in point. On both occasion, batting in the fourth innings, with a gettable target, but wickets tumbling, Laxman played the sheet anchor role to perfection.
Virat Kohli has been in similarly scintillating form in the limited overs' version. The 22 year old has reeled off three ODI tons in just 25 games apart from seven half centuries. More than the figures, it's the opposition he has got them against that has impressed. His centuries have come against Sri Lanka, Australia and New Zealand respectively. Despite enduring a tough mid season in the Asia Cup and the following tri-series against Sri Lanka and New Zealand in the same country (Sri Lanka), Kohli bounced back impressively to finish with nearly a thousand runs for the year.
The other impressive display over the course of the year definitely had to be Ashish Nehra. The 31 year old picked up 28 wickets in 20 innings without setting the world on fire. But he formed an impressive foil for Zaheer Khan, harking back the glory days of 2003. In the light of Ishant Sharma's inconsistent form, and Sreesanth's injuries, Nehra's performances could be crucial in the up coming ODI series in South Africa and the World Cup.
Talking of the World Cup, India, currently in South Africa for three Tests, a T20 and five ODIs, will hope to bounce back in the second Test of the series and level it. It is the last match of the year for them, and winning it might be the difference between them being perceived as pretenders to the throne and being hailed as the real deal. Going into the World Cup on their back yard, a good performance against the best bowling unit in their own back yard will go a long way in boosting the confidence of the Indian batsmen. Sachin Tendulkar will play his first ODI since February 2010 in the upcoming ODIs against SA, and his form will go a long way in deciding the fate of the Cup.