Champion Indian ODI teams: Which is the best among them all?
India’s victory last week in the Champions Trophy 2013 brought back memories of another title 28 years ago. No, not the World Cup – that was 30 years ago. This was the win in the World Championship of Cricket (WCC) which was held in Australia in 1985 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the State of Victoria. For an Indian fan, there are some striking similarities in the two tournaments. Both the CT13 & the WCC 85 featured the top teams of the world pitted against each other (though the WCC had only 7 teams competing, as against 8 in the CT, since South Africa wasn’t part of world cricket in 1985). India entered both tournaments as winners of the World ODI title held 2 years earlier. Like in the CT 2013, India won 5 matches on the trot to lift the WCC trophy in ’85. Then too, India fielded an unchanged side almost all through, until Roger Binny fell ill before the final against Pakistan, and Chetan Sharma had to take his place.
For those of my generation, the WCC triumph will always be symbolized by images of Ravi Shastri winning his Audi as player of the tournament and the entire Indian team somehow managing to pile on the car and taking it for a spin around the MCG. The WCC was also the first time we started getting live cricket coverage from Channel 9 in Australia. Coloured clothing, out of the world images, classy commentary.. and of course, bikini-clad girls among the spectators… for someone brought up on DD and AIR drabness, this was like getting access to paradise. Sigh.
For my money, that WCC winning team was the best limited overs side that India ever put out on a cricket field. After the victory in Australia, they won the Rothmans cup in Sharjah a few weeks later, which featured wins over Pakistan ( a rampaging Imran Khan, with figures of 6 wickets for 14 runs, shot out India for 125, but they fought back and surreally bowled out Pak for 87), and Australia in the final.
The first obvious comparision is with the ’83 heroes. Though the core nucleus of the team from 1983 remained, the emergence of exciting new talent like Azharuddin and L Sivaramakrishnan in the ’84-85 season added considerable meat to the batting and bowling in the ’85 squad. These guys were of far better calibre than bit-players like Kirti Azad, Yashpal Sharma, Balwinder Sandhu – gallant contributors all in the World Cup win, but of limited cricketing ability. The boisterous Sadanand Viswanath brought additional dash to the batting over Syed Kirmani. The batting order was also re-jigged – Gavaskar moved into the middle-order, leading to a very successful opening combination – the solidity of Shastri and the dashing boldness of Srikkanth. Skill-wise, this outfit was definitely a notch or two above the ’83 one.
A couple of games into CT ’13, I tweeted that this current Indian team reminded me of that WCC ’85 Indian side. (luckily, I didn’t end up jinxing anything with that tweet, like it has happened umpteen times before). And minutes after Ashwin bowled that final ball and Dhoni uncharacteristically jumped around with whoops of joy, I tweeted again, and this time I pronounced judgement. “5 on the trot to win WCC ’85. 5 wins on the trot in CT ’13. This team is better than that one. Best ever Indian limited overs side, IMO”.
I guess some of that judgment was influenced by the elation and thrill of watching India clinch a nerve-wracking cliff-hanger. So, with the sobering light of reason three days later, I ask myself, is this team really better than the ’85 one?
Lets stack up the batting line-ups first. The aggression of the Dhawan/Rohit opening combination easily bests Srikkanth-Shastri. Then the middle-order – Kohli (who will probably end up as one of the best ever in ODIs), a resurgent-Dinesh Karthik, Raina, Dhoni, all of whom found their calling primarily as limited over specialists first, must find favour over a line-up of Azharuddin, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohinder Amarnath and Sunny G (he of the infamous 36 not out in 60 overs).
The bowling is more evenly matched. Bhuvaneswar Kumar with his swing and control is the 2013 version of Roger Binny in ’85. Kapil is in a league of his own, and Madan Lal was an able ally in the pace department. Umesh Yadav & Ishant fall a bit short in comparision. But 2 top-class tweakers in Ashwin & Sir Jadeja score over Shastri’s left-arm spin, Siva’s guile mixed with a leg-spinner’s profligate tendencies and the gentle medium pace of Amarnath (the joke those days was that Jimmy’s bowling run-up was faster than his bowling speed).
The defining feature of that side however, was the plethora of all-rounders they had. Kapil as one of the best ever in the history of the game, Shastri & Amarnath bringing solidity at the top of the line-up along with their bowling, Binny & Madan Lal as competent bowling all-rounders. That team almost did not have any tail. Before Ravindra Jadeja became his go-to man, MS Dhoni often expressed his fond wish of finding an all-rounder who would bring that all important balance to his side. The team of ’85 had an embarassment of riches in this department and was a huge factor in making that team what it was.
Fielding wise, it’s a no contest. Only Azhar and Kapil from that team will come anywhere near the likes of Kohli or Raina. The rest were mostly in the Ishant Sharma category. But I feel that this is a bit of an unfair comparision – fielding in those days was not the key strategic asset in a team’s arsenal the way it is now.
Overall, it’s a close call. A much stronger batting in this modern India team, the allrounder advantage for the senior generation. What I think tilts the balance in favour of the current team is MS Dhoni. Not just for his batting and wicket-keeping – again, he will go down as one of the greats in ODI history, Sadanand Viswananth doesn’t even merit a comparision – but for his captaincy, the culture and vision that he brings to this side. Clearly, this 2013 CT winning squad is HIS team. As the senior most leader of the squad, he would want to mould and nurture this bunch to even greater glory.
And, for me, that is what will lay this debate to rest. If this team manages an encore in 2015, then any lingering doubts about this being India’s best ever ODI team can be safely discarded. But even if they miss the pinnacle of glory in 2015, I would rate this team very high on the pecking order.
PS: I have intentionally not brought the 2011 WC winning squad into the consideration set. While the amount of pressure that team soaked up on the way to their victory was immense, I think that playing in home conditions was a key factor in that win. That attack, and that batting line-up, would have been found sorely wanting if the WC had been played in another continent. And all those oldies were a big liability while fielding (think 20 runs every game). On sheer cricketing ability, they don’t measure up.