One of India's biggest issues in the mid-90s and early 2000s was the lack of quality openers in the Test side. Despite taking the domestic cricket by storm, Amol Muzumdar always remained a story of ifs and buts but today, we will explore what if he had played for India at the highest-level.
So, it's 1996 and India are travelling to England. They will face the Three Lions in a three-match Test series. Amol Muzumdar, who has amassed 1,068 runs at 50.85 in 1994-95 First-class season and averaged 61.17 in the 1995/96 Ranji season, is selected to arrest India's opening woes. He isn't the only youngster in the side as the likes of Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, and VVS Laxman are also part of the promising squad.
However, it's the Mumbaikar who debuts in the first Test in Birmingham. Muzumdar takes to Tests like a fish to water and makes fifty in his debut innings, pretty much like he had taken the Ranji cricket by fire with a double-ton on his debut, showcasing his elegance and solid technique. However, England win the Test. Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid then make their debut at the iconic Lord's, which sees Muzumdar, and both Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid making centuries each for India on a flat wicket in a drawn game.
Sanjay Manjrekar, who missed the second Test due to injury, isn't picked despite being fit with Ajay Jadeja also missing out as Mohammad Azharuddin hands over debut to VVS Laxman in the third Test, whom Azhar has seen from close quarters in Hyderabad. The third Test ends in a draw too but Laxman impresses with a fifty. India lose the series 0-1 but gain four promising youngsters, who show they belong to the top-level. However, given India's poor away results, Azhar is sacked as captain with 23-year-old Sachin Tendulkar taking over the reins.
The South Africa and West Indies conquests
India drop Manjrekar going forward and register an easy series win at home against Australia and South Africa respectively. But, then comes India's 1996/97 tour of South Africa, a place where they have never won a Test series. They pick great Ranji performers of the last season, Tamil Nadu's left-arm sensation Divakar Vasu, who also brings a left-arm variation and the 6'6" tall, possibly the tallest pacer in the country from Mumbai; Abey Kuruvilla, known for his swing bowling, in the squad.
For the first Test, India drop Nayan Mongia with the promising Saba Karim taking over as wicket-keeper. They promote Rahul Dravid to opening alongside Muzumdar given his solid technical game. However, India are humiliated in the first Test as batsmen fail miserably. But in the do-or-die second game, India unleash a four-man pace-attack, with Kuruvilla making his Test debut.
India bat first and plunder in excess of 500 runs as Amol Muzumdar makes his first away century, which is followed by an epic partnership between Azhar and Sachin as they add 222 runs together at Newlands. The lanky Kuruvilla also has an instant impact as he takes a fifer surprising the Proteas batsmen with his high release point and uncanny bounce. India win the Test easily. Taking confidence from the Cape Town Test, India again bat gloriously in the next game as Dravid makes 148, Karim strokes his maiden century with Ganguly also making 70 odd. India again cross the 500-run barrier. After that, the bowlers do their job brilliantly to bundle out the hosts cheaply and as a result, they enforce the follow-on and win the Test and the series 2-1, scripting history. Sachin the captain is proving as good as Sachin the batsman.
India now travel to West Indies, a place where they last won a Test series in 1971. The first two Tests end in a draw. Tendulkar decides to play a five-man bowling-attack for the third Test in Bridgetown to give more impetus to bowling. The ploy does wonders as India bowl really well led by Divakar Vasu who stamps his authority and as a result, India require merely 80 runs to win the Test, which they achieve easily after a solid opening stand between Dravid and Muzumdar after which Sachin finishes the chase as India go 1-0 up in the five-match Test series. With the last two Tests ending in draws, Tendulkar helps India conquer the Caribbean land as well with Vasu making a name for himself with the series.
By this time, Karim has established himself as one of the best wicket-keepers for India with a great start to his career be it with the bat or gloves. After tours of South Africa and West Indies, and a drawn series in Sri Lanka, India win the one-off Test in 1998 in Zimbabwe as Kuruvilla shines with the ball. However, their first failure away from home comes in New Zealand as they lose the Test series 1-0 on the back of a complacent performance.
By now, Kuruvilla has established himself as one of the best pacers, and injury to Javagal Srinath for the 1999 Pakistan home Tests, means the lanky bowler will partner Venkatesh Prasad. The first Test in Chennai witnesses an excellent batting performance by Muzumdar and Dravid, which is followed up by brilliant bowling performances from Anil Kumble, Venkatesh Prasad, and Kuruvilla. India go on to win the second Test too and whitewash Pakistan with Kuruvilla becoming the talk of the town while establishing himself as the next big bowling thing in India.
However, calamity strikes Indian cricket as they not only lose the Border-Gavaskar trophy in 1999/2000 and home series to South Africa but also the match-fixing scandal shakes the country with senior batsman Mohammad Azharuddin being ousted from the Indian cricket. But with Sachin at the helm of affairs, people don't lose trust in Indian cricketers.
India goes on to brush aside all the controversies and win the next two series against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe respectively. Meanwhile, domestic giant Sadagopan Ramesh, who debuted Down Under in absence of injured Amol Muzumdar, fails to impress averaging 20, 29.50 and 20.33 in the last three series in lead up to the Australia home Tests in 2001.
The great Australia challenge
Australia are on a world-winning juggernaut in Tests ahead of the series. Thankfully for India, Amol Muzumdar, who established himself as one of the best openers in world cricket before his injury, is declared fit. Sachin Tendulkar and his deputy Sourav Ganguly are very close to each other as Sachin is sport to Dada's suggestions and they have developed great respect for each other's cricketing nous over the years. They start preparing road map to halt Australia's red-hot streak.
Sachin and Ganguly, very well aware of Australia's relentless bowling attack and aggression, decide to no longer be diffident be it in approach or verbally. After Ramesh's failures, they lock in rookie Virender Sehwag to open the batting in Tests with flat and spin-friendly wickets likely to be on display. The Delhi batsman comes on the back of a reputation of being aggressive having blown away bowling attacks for fun. In the 1999/2000 Ranji season, Sehwag had hammered 674 runs at 61.27 with an unbelievable strike-rate of 87.30, hitting 17 sixes, the most among highest run-getters. He had also averaged 62.08 for his 745 runs in the 1998/99 Ranji season. Dravid is pushed to No.3 as now there is a spot free in the batting unit after Azhar's ban. They also get Harbhajan Singh on board after much debate.
India are routed out in the first Test as Australia are way too good. In the second Test as well, they are completely down and out after they are bundled out on 171 in response to Australia's 445, who also enforced follow-on, thinking it's a walk-over. However, Sehwag and Muzumdar have some other plans. The Delhi dasher cuts loose and leads India to 100 in the first 15 overs, which is like never seen before. Muzumdar also puts his best foot forward as they combine in a mountainous, record-breaking partnership. They both blast double-centuries each and add 420 runs for the first wicket, the highest ever in Test history. Sachin and Ganguly also join the party as they also make centuries each as India end up on 700 after which it's the Harbhajan Singh show that takes over India.
They win the historic Eden Gardens Test and wipe out Australia in Chennai as well to win 2-1 and start a new chapter in the history of Indian cricket. India's top six becomes much talked about in the world- Sehwag, Muzumdar, Dravid, Sachin, Ganguly and Laxman. The 1996 breakout stars continue to shine.