India's recent crowning as number one Test-playing nation had some people discussing whether or not they've ever been number one before - was it when Gavaskar was also the best in the world, or maybe when Kapil Dev was thrilling the fans? As some of you may recall, I applied the ICC rating system retrospectively and these ratings can be used to answer just such a question.
Early Days, Early Promise
India's first Test was played against England in 1932, India losing by 158 runs and as might be expected they were at that time the last-ranked team out of the six Test-playing nations. The troubled tour in of England of 1936 could have been more successful but for the appointment of the Maharaj of Vizianagram as captain after ingratiating himself with the Viceroy - "Vizzy" was a poor cricketer who sent home Lala Amarnath after he questioned the constant tinkering with the batting order, and there were further charges of Vizzy bribing opposing captains (though not in the Tests, where he only averaged 8.25 thanks mainly to two not-outs). Though many of their better pre-war players (CK Nayudu, Mushtaq Ali, Amar Singh and Mohamed Nissar) had by then retired, things began to change for the better with the 1-0 defeat in England in 1946, when Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad made their debuts - highlights included Hindlekar and Sohoni holding out for a draw with India 152 for nine, 125 behind, and Dennis Compton running out Vijay Merchant (128) with a soccer-style kick onto the stumps.
A 4-0 drubbing of the newly-independent India by an Australian team soon to be known as the Invincibles in 1947-48 saw the debut of Dittu Phadkar, and although India were soundly beaten in most of the games, Hazare recorded a century in each innings of the fourth Test (though Bradman's 201 and Hassett's 198 saw India lose by an innings once again). India's first non-losing series came against England in 1951-52, Polly Umrigar now being a regular in the side, and in truth India could have won this series - in the first Test, Merchant (154) and Hazare (164*) had put India in a commanding position, however a stoic nine-hour 138 by Allan Watkins saw England safely home. Still India, having leap-frogged England were by now up to third position in the rankings, behind only Australia and the West Indies. The following winter India won its first Test series, albeit against the debutant Pakistanis, with Mankad becoming by far the quickest to reach the double of 1,000 runs and 100 wickets, achieving this in only his 23rd match (a record beyond even the great Garry Sobers, and not broken until Ian Botham did it in just 21 matches).
The 3-0 defeat by England in 1952 saw them begin to slip back down the rankings, until by the time of their 5-0 thrashing by England in 1959 they were seventh and dead last, Hazare, Phadkar and Mankad having retired, although CG Borde had by now made his debut. They did manage their first ever victory against an Australian side that winter, built on the back of Jasu Patel's fourteen-wicket haul, and the narrow 2-1 series defeat saw them move ahead of New Zealand in the rankings. 1961-2 and the visit of England saw the debuts of MAK Pataudi, Farokh Engineer and EAS Prasanna, although it was the play of more established players like Manjrekar, Durani and Umrigar (who passed 3,000 runs in test cricket) which sparked India to a 2-0 win, their first against England. This moved them up to fourth place, which was consolidated with a 1-1 draw against Australia in 1964-65 and a narrow defeat to world-leaders West Indies.
A string of poor results (0-3 England, 0-4 Australia and 1-3 Australia) including seven consecutive defeats saw them slip once again to seventh and last, epitomised by the troubled New Zealand tour of 1969-70. In the 1970-71 series vs West Indies, one Sunil Gavaskar made his debut, and this signalled an immediate upturn in India's fortunes with a 1-0 series win. Gavaskar's phenomenal performances from his debut in the second Test read 65 & 67*, 116 & 64*, 1 & 117* and 220 & 124 (774 runs at 154.80), becoming in his fourth Test only the second player (after Doug Walters) to score a double and a ton in the same Test. This success was followed by a 1-0 defeat of top-ranked England, though rain on the final day of the second Test probably saved India from defeat, as they required 420 in their fourth innings - nonetheless it's important to note that, up until their third Test defeat by India, England had gone a record 26 Tests without defeat.
Number One At Last
A second success over England, with Chrandrasekhar claiming 35 wickets, leap-frogged them up to second place only one ratings point behind Australia, which would soon become top spot after the Australia-New Zealand series of 1973-74. After 40 years of Test cricket, India were at last the number one-ranked side. This first Indian world-leading side was fuelled by the recent debutants Gavaskar and Viswanath, alongide Pataudi, Prasanna, Engineer, Venkat, Chrandrasekhar and Bedi. Unfortunately this lofty position only lasted until their next series, when they lost all three Tests in England in 1974, and by the winter of 1975-76, having lost Pataudi and Engineer to retirement, a draw against bottom-ranked New Zealand saw the two teams exchange places - India were once again in last place, compunded by the humiliation of handing New Zealand its first ever innings victory.
Despite a successful run-chase of 403 against West Indies in the third Test of their 1975-76 tour, this came in a losing series (largely due to meeting a Viv Richards very much in his prime), and India did not win another series until victory against the same team, by now top-ranked, in a six-Test series in 1978-79. India's ranks were now swelled by the additions of Vengsarkar and Kapil Dev, and further successes that winter against an inexperienced Australia and Pakistan saw India back up to second in the rankings, just behind England. When England lost to West Indies this left the way clear for India to become top-ranked for the second time with a draw against Australia in 1980-81 - this draw could so easily have been defeat however; when Gavaskar was given out to what he considered a dubious LBW decision and fuelled by comments from Dennis Lillee, he tried to persuade fellow opener Chetan Chauhan to leave the field and forfeit the game, however the intervention of India team manager Shahid Durrani before the players reached the boundary prevented this and allowed India to achieve a drawn series. Interestingly, if Durrani had not intervened, India would have remained in second place in the rankings and not achieved number one at this point in their history. Despite no longer being able to call on Bedi and Chandrasekhar, this team boasted the talents of Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Viswanath, Venkat, Kirmani and the all-rounders Kapil Dev and Ravi Shastri, though it must be noted also that the top teams had been decimated by WSC defections during this period.
Their top ranking was short-lived however - a loss to New Zealand in their very next series pushed them back to second. A series of heavy losses to Pakistan and the West Indies (twice) and a loss to Sri Lanka saw them gradually slip back to sixth place by the summer of 1985, with Viswanath and Venkat by now having played their last Tests.
India spent the next decade in the mid-to-lower reaches of the world rankings, losing during this period the services of Gavaskar, Vengsarkar, Ravi Shastri and Kapil Dev. However the late eighties and early nineties saw the debuts of Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath, and together with the additions of Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman and Harbhajan Singh India would hit the heights for the third time - from their 3-0 whitewash of England in the winter of 1992-93 until their defeat of South Africa to reach number one four years later, India lost only two Tests out of 18. Once again, the top spot was not long held, and a period of decline followed, such that by 1999-00 India, who had won only two series from eleven played, ranked above only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh of the ten Test-playing nations. Considering the difference in their respective ratings points (77-121), their thrilling series win over top-ranked Australia in 2000-01 has to be one of the biggest upsets of modern times, the second Test turnaround signalling a similar turnaround in their world ranking.
And So To The Current Team
Since the winter of 2004-05 India has only briefly been outside the world's top four, although with Australia's dominance that hasn't necessarily meant they were challenging for number one, however the additions of the mercurial Sehwag, Gambhir, Irfan Pathan and MS Dhoni set them up once again for success. In December 2005, the 2-0 victory over Sri Lanka saw India ranked second 13 points behind the Aussies, however the defeat by Pakistan saw India slip back down to third. The next time they were second was in January 2008, although the relative log-jam in the middle of the table meant that they were twelve points closer to seventh-place New Zealand than they were to Australia one place above them. Their 1-0 defeat of England at the end of 2008 meant that India were just ahead of South Africa and inching ever closer to the declining Australia, setting them up for the final thrust to return to the top with the recent 2-0 triumph over Sri Lanka.
While the current team is deserving of their ranking, India has managed to rank number one on four separate occasions (1972-73, 1980-81, 1996-97 and 2009-10) but has never dominated in the way other top-rated countries have - history suggests that India will not stay at the top for long. Indeed, a South African success over England will see India back down to second. Despite that, it's fair to say that the current Indian team is the first which can be considered a match for anyone - the Border-Gavaskar trophy is now a worthy rival to the Ashes as a potential world title clash. One thing we can say though about the current Indian Test team - judged on total of ICC ratings points at least, this is the strongest Indian side ever to take the field and it may, after all, stay at the top for more than a single series.