AT THE END of the Edgbaston Test, which saw India give up their top ranking, Mike Atherton asked Mahendra Singh Dhoni, “Did you cherish the No. 1 spot?” Dhoni did not give a direct answer. The truth is embarrassing: India did not cherish and, therefore, did not put much effort into protecting their ranking. Players had begun to believe in their own invincibility, and the cricket board had placed its trust in its ability to manipulate events.
But they reckoned without the gods of cricket. By disrespecting the format, ignoring the value of preparation, relying on reputation and past record rather than current hunger and recent form, treating their bodies as if fitness was a matter of luck rather than design, by allowing the IPL to distract them from the more important tasks ahead, India insulted the gods of cricket, and the gods were angry.
In the end, a great team beat a team of great players. India had at least three or four players who would walk into their all-time XI. England did not have a single player who would be an automatic choice. But the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
England’s attitude was clear from the beginning when skipper and Middlesex batsman Andrew Strauss chose to play for Somerset to get a feel of the Indian bowling before the series. Zaheer Khan’s lack of overs in that game was glibly explained away: it was to keep Strauss from getting too familiar with him. In fact, it was the first sign that all was not well with the spearhead of the attack.
Dhoni has taken pains to explain that injuries occur, and it was sheer bad luck that India lost their leading bowler. This is another glib defence. The likes of Khan ought to know how to look after their bodies, and to read the signs so the team doesn’t suffer. As soon as Khan pulled out of the first Test, Kapil Dev said he had cost India the match.
Keeping fit, especially in the off-season (between series, actually, since there is no off-season) is not rocket science. It requires discipline. As Sanjay Manjrekar says, “A player who remembers at all times that he is a top-level cricketer even when he is not playing simply does not get injured often.”
If fortune favours the brave, the reverse is also true. Misfortune chases the pusillanimous. For the first time in the series, Tendulkar was batting with freedom in the second innings at Edgbaston when he was run out backing up at the non-striker’s end. Bad luck? Or poor judgement that saw the most-capped Test player leave the crease a little too early and too far forward to be able to get back in time?
More surprisingly, Rahul Dravid, who has spent more hours at the crease than any other Test player in history, was confused by a caught-behind appeal and forgot to use the decision review system (DRS), which might have saved him. This was not bad luck either, but bad judgement.
At 38, Dravid is the fittest member of the side, someone who makes a fetish of keeping himself fit physically and mentally through a long season. He made India’s lone century on the tour of the West Indies, and by the end of the second Test in England, had made three centuries in five weeks in two different continents in vastly differing conditions.
But the stress of having to paper over the cracks in the team — he kept wickets, opened the batting, and for all we know made the coffee and bought the biscuits for the team at the end of play — began to show when he floored simple catches in the slips. India’s greatest slip fielder with over 200 catches began to look ordinary. Cricket is a funny game. Had India been winning, Dravid would have taken those catches in his sleep. Now he appeared lugubrious, uncertain and desperately short of confidence.
Disguise it or deny it, the fact remains that this is an Indian team in decline. The best players are approaching the end, and the replacements have either been found wanting or not been given their due. It is possible that the entire middle order will bid farewell at about the same time (if not the same Test), and that is a huge hole to fill. Suddenly, it looks as if the cupboard is bare — in fact, there is no cupboard in sight.
THE BOARD of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) has contempt for its own national championship, the Ranji Trophy. Test cricketers come from that nursery, not the smaller one nearby that sprouts T20 players. There is something wrong in a system where the country’s most successful batsman (Sachin Tendulkar, with nearly 15,000 Test runs) has not played the most successful bowler (Anil Kumble, 619 wickets) in a Ranji Trophy match, although they are nearly exact contemporaries.
India were No. 1 despite the BCCI’s domestic policy; and now that fairytale is over. Decisions have to be made quickly, unemotionally, and logically.
Players returning from a break for the series in England looked flabby in mind, body and spirit. No matter how many Tests you have played, you have to worship at the altar of practice. Half-baked is not half-done, but undone. Not even the great Tendulkar can afford to take his game for granted — further proof, if such were needed, that the game is greater than its greatest player, and you ignore its basics at your peril.
The best teams (the West Indies of the ’80s, Australia of late) revolved around their bowling attacks. India had turned that theory on its head by relying on their batting, and when that failed in England, there could be only one result.
Hovering over the hype of No. 1 since India got to that stage in December 2009 was the discomfort of knowing that their record abroad had been adequate at best. Since the Kolkata Test of 2001 against Australia, which is the starting point of the climb to the top, India played 116 matches, won 46 and lost 29; mildly impressive till you break it up. They won 23 of 48 home Tests, which gives it a skewed look, and if Bangladesh and Zimbabwe are removed from the list, only in the West Indies have they won more matches than their opponents. Draws, rather than victories, marked their campaigns in South Africa, Sri Lanka, Australia. Things came to a head in England, but it had been building up for some time.
Statistically, India were No. 1, but their away record was too poor to merit that position. And rather than focus on improving that record in the decade that followed the Kolkata Test, and in the later stages, finding replacements for the greats who got them into that position, India hoped that sheer momentum would carry them through.
The Indian team now finds itself in a no-man’s land, between a generation of greats and a generation that is not ready
The result is that the team now finds itself in a no-man’s land between a generation of greats and a generation that is not ready. Some of that earlier generation will go gently into that good night, others will rage against the dying of the light. The deeds of Sachin Tendulkar and, in this series, Rahul Dravid suggest much raging. But sport can be cruel, dismissing the finest with little thought, converting them from flesh-and-blood creatures who thrill on the field into cold figures in a book that merely suggest great deeds and heroic days. It has happened to Grace and Hobbs and Bradman and Gavaskar and Dev; it will happen to Tendulkar and Dravid and Laxman and Zaheer.
You cannot halt the march of time, but you can train youngsters to take over — not with the same impact immediately, but with the same attitude and will.
Why did India fail so miserably in England?
Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings and chiefs of selectors. “The batting did not click for us,” Krishnama chari Srikkanth has pointed out with devastating honesty. “We also did not do well in bowling and fielding.” As a summing up that can’t be bettered. So what were India good at? Appealing? Arriving at the grounds on time? Who is responsible for the terrible performance?
“Nobody is to be blamed,” says Srikkanth. As brand ambassador of the Chennai Super Kings, which is owned by the BCCI Secretary N Srinivasan and is led by the Indian captain, Srikkanth is entitled to his opinion. Of course, no one is to be blamed. Just as no one is to be blamed for the Great Train Robbery or the galloping price of petrol or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
“Let us not indulge in the blame game — on the players, or the administrators or the BCCI,” he clarifies. Who does that leave, gentle reader? People like you and me — we are responsible for the disaster that was the England tour. Perhaps it is because we supported the IPL so thoroughly that there was no focus on Test cricket. Perhaps it is because we insisted that India prepare for a major tour of England by not preparing at all. Perhaps we were wrong to allow Virender Sehwag to play only 11 IPL games before his dodgy shoulder was fixed.
You don’t have to feel so bad that you stone MS Dhoni’s house, but you have to feel bad enough so you try to get things back in order
You can fool us, Srikkanth but you can’t bribe the gods of cricket. The comeuppance was swift and severe, as Sehwag discovered. Two first-ball ducks in a single Test.
You can pretend that Khan is fit, or allow the bowler himself to hide his real condition, but you can’t bribe the gods of cricket. Suddenly, India were not only a bowler short, they were a whole bowling attack short.
You can’t refuse to see the decline of your leading spinner from an attacking wicket-taker to a defensive run-saver and hope that when you close your eyes the rest of the world can’t see too.
“Now that we have lost,” says the chairman of selectors putting on his philosopher’s hat, “we have to accept the loss.” In other words, let us do what we have been doing all these years — nothing.
While there is something charming and adult about accepting loss and moving on, it would have been nice to see the chief selector a little more worried than all that. Or is it only that the fans feel bad, while for the officials it is just another day in the office? If you don’t feel badly at the loss, how will you ensure things change? You don’t have to feel so bad that you stone Dhoni’s house, but you have to feel bad enough so you try to get things back in order.
It is difficult not to feel sympathy for the Indian cricketers. They are pawns — admittedly wealthy, glamorous pawns — in a larger game where the business of cricket is business, not cricket.
Between now and September 2012, India are scheduled to play 106 days of international cricket. Then there is the Champions League and the IPL. It is not a huge number (even allowing for travel), but there is the question of balance. How do you ensure that the team is prepared well enough for a series? The next major tour is to Australia in December. And guess what? Only one match, against the Chairman’s XI in Canberra, has been scheduled before the first Test. If Anil Kumble has his way, another may be added; he has suggested as much at the BCCI’s working committee meeting.
SADLY, UNLIKE astronauts who can get a feel of space travel in simulations at NASA, Australian conditions cannot be simulated in our cricket academies. The best preparation for playing in Australia is playing in Australia. One match — the same as in England before the Test series there — is woefully inadequate, as India have been discovering with embarrassing frequency on virtually all their recent tours.
It is time for a players’ association to be established. One that will tell the BCCI off when it starts to jerk the players around. One that will have the interests of the players at heart. One that does not have Sunil Gavaskar or Ravi Shastri in it for no reason other than the fact that they are on every other committee anyway!
Will it happen? Tiger Pataudi has said, “I fear the players are going to say (the defeat) is only a bad dream, just forget it and get on. The BCCI is not going to show a great deal of vision. Cricket will continue the way it is but I sincerely hope that some sense does come in.”
The English tour might have shown up some of the players, but it has mainly exposed the BCCI’s skewed priorities, and its lack of respect for the game. The gods of cricket are angry, and can be mollified only if they are approached with humility and common sense..
Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bengaluru.