Monday, January 16, 2012

Defeat and its consequences: India's tour of Australia 2011-12

Four years ago, the WACA Ground in Perth was the scene of one of India’s finest test match victories. The loss in the third test of the ongoing series against Australia, though, marks one of the team’s darkest moments – the curtains have been closed on a glorious generation. The extent to which the selectors will cull out the “seniors” is shrouded in uncertainty, but what is certain is that the golden generation – which took India to an artificial, if imposing peak – will never be the same.

There were fleeting displays of brilliance in the first two tests from Sachin Tendulkar – who is still in search of the vaunted 100th international ton – but he has consistently fallen short of imposing his will. Rahul Dravid, magnificent in England when no one around him rose above mediocrity, has looked grotesque every time he’s batted in the series. That he’s been bowled, often through the gate, in each of the tests doesn’t help either. But with Dravid it has never been only about technical perfection – some of his greatest innings have, in fact, lacked textbook purity. It has been his ability to come on top through a mighty struggle against all adversities, whether it is playing on the wickedest of wickets or against the fiercest of opposition that has been his most outstanding quality. In Australia, not only has his batting looked ugly, but he’s also seemed incapable of rising above some of these adversities. V.V.S. Laxman, one of cricket’s most artful match-winners, has scarcely made runs away from home in the last two years, and his celebrated hand-eye coordination is certainly not what it once was. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have likewise been less than ordinary lately – yes, India have struggled for many years to find a consistently good opening partnership, but the pair has been anything but consistently good in recent times. Away from home in the last three years, Sehwag averages a meager 32.55, while since the beginning of 2010, Gambhir has recorded only a single century, averaging just 32.05. Numbers can of course be misleading, but these are certainly not figures that help teams win test matches.

The time for mere introspection has passed. The time to enforce a seamless transition has also passed. Where youngsters could have once been eased into the eleven, they now need to be thrust into it. Laxman’s place in the pantheon of greats may be assured, but it has been reported that he may not even make the team for the fourth test at Adelaide. It shouldn’t have come to this; he has performed a terrific service to Indian cricket, and in the ideal circumstances he would deserve a proper farewell. But there is no place for sentiment in sport, certainly not when you are down 0-3 in a four match series. It continues to baffle the mind that Rohit Sharma is yet to make his test match debut – had the transition been more structured, he’d have been playing a pivotal role in this series. But regardless, he must be given his chance in the fourth test in place of Laxman, whether or not Laxman chooses to retire. Ajinkya Rahane, Sharma’s teammate at Mumbai, who has made oodles of runs in domestic cricket, must also be accorded a place in the team. This, though, would entail a tougher decision of dropping one of Sehwag, Gambhir or Dravid – something, which I doubt, the authorities would be prepared to take responsibility for.

The root of India’s problems, though, goes far deeper than issues of selection, and is entrenched in the shortsighted, supercilious attitude of the B.C.C.I., exemplified by its president, N. Srinivasan’s remarks after the defeat at Perth: “Next New Zealand is coming to India and it will be followed by England and Australia. We will beat these three teams on our own soil. They cannot beat us here and we will feel very happy.” That the president of India’s cricket board is willing to virtually forego its games away from home shows the incredibly myopic vision of the game’s governing authority in India.

This is a real pity for India is not lacking in talent, certainly not as far as the batting – which has been in shambles in Australia – is concerned. Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Abhinav Mukund, Subramaniam Badrinath and Cheteshwar Pujara have all performed with aplomb in domestic cricket, and certainly deserve a sustained chance at the highest level. Dravid’s performance in 2011 – in which he scored five test match centuries – notwithstanding his display in Australia, perhaps, indicates that he still has runs left in him. But if he is to be retained, he must be pulled down the order, and Virat Kohli – who showed that he has the temperament for test cricket with his displays at the WACA – must be allowed a continued run at one-down. India also needs to think of Rahane and Mukund as viable successors to Sehwag and Gambhir, who cannot be carried on for too much longer solely on the basis of their reputations. Sachin Tendulkar in whatever time he has spent batting in Australia still easily looks India’s best batsman, but nobody should be considered bigger than the team, not even Tendulkar. I am not suggesting that India should, at once, axe Tendulkar and Dravid, but if you’re going to suffer such mammoth defeats as India has in Australia, you might as well do so with youngsters in your team.


Just as worrying as the batting displays has been M.S. Dhoni’s captaincy. Dhoni has always had a laid-back, casual approach to the job – when it works he looks cool and brilliant, and when it doesn’t he looks unconcerned and uninspiring. But the demeanor apart, neither has he looked like a good leader of men nor has his tactics been up to scratch. That he’s batted like a hapless tailender hasn’t helped either. Virender Sehwag who is the vice captain for the current tour has never showed any interest in the job, and in any event his form with the bat scarcely helps further his case. Gambhir is, perhaps, the only other contender, but his batting form has been worrying too, and his long-term future in the side is by no means settled. This then leaves us with Virat Kohli – who for all his indiscipline – has, since his Under-21 days, been considered as a future captain. In recent times, transition to test match captaincy has generally occurred via the ODI path. There has indeed been nothing to complain about Dhoni’s performance as captain in the shorter format, but assuming India wants to prioritize test cricket – which it admittedly doesn’t, but nontheless – it may not be the worst of ideas to consider Kohli, at first, for the ODI vice-captaincy with a view to him taking on the job in the not-so-distant future.

In a series in which the batsmen have given the bowlers so little to play with, it may be unfair to heap much blame on them, but Ishant Sharma’s form, in particular, has been worrying. The verve and the talent that the displayed the last time he was in Australia has been completely non-existent. It is difficult to point a finger at the exact reasons for Ishant’s decline, but none of the consistency in line and length that he once displayed has been evident. Umesh Yadav, while terrific in phases, does not have the reliability of a James Pattinson, who is three years junior to him. That said, Umesh’s raw pace and aggression means that his bowling can certainly be worked upon. What India doesn’t want to see, though, is a regression on lines akin to what Ishant has gone through. Zaheer Khan still retains a lot of his magic, particularly when bowling with the old ball, but it’s doubtful he has too many years left in him. Sreesanth and R.P. Singh who have played important roles for India in away victories have fallen by the wayside, but it is encouraging to see that Irfan Pathan is beginning to make a comeback into the side. Managing the fast bowling group is far harder with the depth in India’s coffins not as rich as its batting talent. But the BCCI’s decision to pick a fast-bowling pool and identify bowlers who would form the bench strength has been one of the more encouraging ones in recent times.

For the average Indian fan, the displays in England and Australia have been far more disappointing than the consistent mediocrity of the early nineties, where the expectations on the team, at any rate, were lower. As daft as it sounds, India went into both these tours as genuine contenders, but perhaps, the team has needed these poundings to grasp the malaise that has slowly been building up. But all things considered, if these defeats do result in relatively wholesale changes, as they should, India are certainly in for an exciting, even if, potentially, painful phase. Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma are two of the finest young batting talents in the world and I am looking forward – as I am sure many others are – to see their fruition as test match batsmen. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.

[First posted at: http://www.criticaltwenties.in/sport/4332]

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