Milestones are curious things in cricket. Round numbers — such as fifty, the century, ten-wicket hauls and career runs in multiples of 1000 allow a measure of achievement in a sport. They also offer a moment’s pause to reflect. As India prepares for its 500th Test — a milestone 84 years in the making — it seems apposite to assess its legacy in the game’s classical form. It is also germane to consider the future, given the fear in some quarters that the shorter versions will cannibalise Test cricket. There was certainly nothing in the early years to suggest India would become the economic superpower it is today. Although the great Wally Hammond said new-ball bowler Amar Singh “came off the pitch like the crack of doom” in India’s first-ever Test, against England at Lord’s in 1932, success proved elusive. While there were moments of individual brilliance — Vijay Hazare’s twin hundreds against Ray Lindwall and Keith Miller at Adelaide in 1948, perhaps the most memorable of them — it wasn’t until 1952 that India won a Test.
M.A.K. Pataudi first pursued the idea of a vibrant, united team in the 1960s, and bequeathed it to Ajit Wadekar. The coming together of E.A.S. Prasanna, B.S. Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi, and S. Venkataraghavan — spinners the cricket world remains in awe of — and the arrival of the indomitable Sunil Gavaskar not long after, formed the nucleus of the side that beat West Indies and England away in 1971. With the emergence of Kapil Dev — a world-class, all-round match-winner — there was more for other countries to be wary of. But it wasn’t until after the turn of the millennium that India became consistently successful, home and away. The rivalry against Australia, birthed in 2001 at Eden Gardens, was transformative. In Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, V.V.S. Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Sourav Ganguly and Zaheer Khan, India had a Golden Generation. M.S. Dhoni was the first of a new era of players to break through from smaller, less traditional cricket centres, and for a period India was the world’s best team.
That crown slipped subsequently, but matters have seldom appeared as encouraging as they do now. At the helm are two men with an empathy for bowlers: Virat Kohli’s declaration last year that bowlers were the bosses in Test cricket was momentous for a culture obsessed with batsmen; and few know more about bowling teams to victory than Kumble. As West Indies and Australia, the only two nations to have put out truly dominant teams, have shown, a lot falls into place when the bowlers are looked after. If the Board of Control for Cricket in India continues being supportive — and it must be commended for laying out a 13-Test home season — the foundation for the next 500 will be suitably robust.