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RITAM MITRA reviews the Indian cricket team in 2012
They say revenge is a dish best served cold. For the Indian cricket team in November 2012, revenge turned out to be a particularly lukewarm collision between eggs and their faces. For two consecutive away Test series, the spectators, fans and even the opposition were assured that India’s poor performances away from home were attributable entirely to pitches, unruly crowds, bad luck with umpiring, and bad luck in general due to the misalignment of the planets. We promise, once said a left-handed Indian opener – who shall remain nameless to spare him the embarrassment – that we shall welcome you to India with rank turners and expose your flawed techniques in the same way you have exposed ours. Unfortunately for team India, that player’s prophecy was left thoroughly unfulfilled.
The Pataudi Trophy
Rewind just 18 months. That’s all it’s been since India, the world number one Test team, reigning ODI World Champions, toast of the town and apple of their fan’s eyes, were in England for the start of a very long trip down from the top of the tree. The nature of India’s 4- defeat in the Pataudi Trophy was staggering to say the least, and it’s easy to forget the numbers. Here’s a reminder – England’s smallest margin of victory was by 196 runs in the series opener. From there on, the results read: England by 319 runs, England by an innings and 242 runs, England by an innings and 8 runs. For Mr Virat Kohli, the reason for this was simple: “We were given flattest of tracks during practice matches in England and Australia, and then suddenly presented with a green-top during the Tests.” Of course, it must have been a huge surprise for an international cricketer to have to go to England and score runs on a seaming wicket. It must have been an even bigger surprise for Kohli then, to watch on helplessly as England amassed 710/7 in the third Test of the series.
The Tour Down Under
The Australia tour panned out in a similar fashion. Although the Boxing Day Test was somewhat well-contested (a defeat by only 122 runs), the rest of the tour was miserable – the differences being an innings and 68 runs, an innings and 37 runs, and 298 runs. For Virender Sehwag, it was all home advantage. “We also won 2-0 in India,” he said as India looked at the real possibility of two away series whitewashes in a row.
England in India: 2012
So then came the feted ‘revenge series’. Media outlets, team coaches, BCCI administrators alike, all assured us that the Indian team was fired up, ready to pounce and return the favour to England. And from the first match, it seemed as though everything was going to plan – India piled on the runs, Sehwag returned to his best on the flat, slow deck, and India won by 9 wickets after their spinners claimed 13 of the 20 England wickets.
However, for Dhoni the Ahmedabad wicket was not good enough. For an international captain to complain so incessantly about the decks he is given to play on is nothing short of embarrassing. Steve Waugh, the former Australian skipper of some 168 Test matches, said Dhoni was out of order to ask for doctored pitches at all. Yet still Dhoni insisted that his spinners were being made to work too hard, that Indian pitches should be dry, turning tracks that spin from day one, in order to give India some home advantage and to ensure that the toss isn’t such a crucial factor.
Dhoni got everything he asked for in Mumbai. The pitch was turning and spitting from day one. India played three spinners. He even won the toss. Yet India capitulated by 10 wickets. The third Test Kolkata was hardly better – India lost by 7 wickets, after Dhoni had a much-publicised stand-off with – you guessed it – the curator of the pitch, 83-year old Prabir Mukherjee.
That the final match in Nagpur was a draw was, ironically, probably due to the deplorable pitch. For the Nagpur pitch to be deemed good enough for international cricket was a blight on the ICC and the BCCI together. After day one, England, with an exciting batting line up including strokemakers such as Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott, were only able to make 199 runs in 97 overs. With Test cricket in a small crisis as it is, the last thing administrators of the game needed was an advertisement like this.
India may well have gone on to lose the Nagpur test anyway, given England’s position when the captains agreed to call off the match. India scratched around for 27 runs in 67 minutes before declaring on the fourth morning, when either an overnight declaration (to save the 10 minute sacrifice required for a change of innings) or a hunt for quick runs would have been the only logical approach for another side. India went on to surrender in a thoroughly pointless draw, surrendering a series to England for the first time on home soil in 28 years.
It’s an attitude thing
The main problem for many is not India’s performance, but their attitude towards it. There is a worrying culture of self-importance and indifference amongst a number of Indian cricketers, and it’s beginning to manifest itself on the field. For once, it would be refreshing to hear MS Dhoni say, “We were not good enough. Our techniques were exposed. We’ll work on this, this and that and we won’t stop working until we get the results.”
Instead, there’s always another factor. “I think the major difference between the two sides was James Anderson who bowled very well,” said the Indian skipper after the 2-1 series loss. “There were a few positives and a few places where we lost out. That’s the reason we lost the series,” he said. He could not have given a more directionless answer if he had really tried.
Perhaps there were other reasons, MS. For instance, the Indian side’s batting averages in the last two years. It makes for poor reading.
Sehwag: 30. Gambhir: 31. Kohli: 38. Tendulkar: 34. Yuvraj Singh: 26. Dhoni: 31. Yuvraj was dropped before the Nagpur test, but averages 33 in a career of 40 Test matches. He has been given 30 Tests too many.
Meanwhile, some unlucky losers are forced to wait in the wings, even while tearing up the Ranji Trophy season. These include Manoj Tiwary, averaging close to 60, Parthiv Patel, averaging almost 80 while captaining and keeping wickets, as well as Wriddhiman Saha, who impressed in Australia and is averaging over 50 with the bat.
India’s highest wicket takers in 2012, meanwhile, were Ravichandran Ashwin (37 wickets at 37.75), Pragyan Ojha (33 wickets at 26) and Umesh Yadav and Zaheer Khan, averaging 42 and 50 respectively, per wicket. That the latter is the Indian attack’s “spearhead” is somewhat revealing.
The fact of the matter is, India is a bad side. Their bowling is weak, and marks a sharp decline in the resurgence the Indian quicks demonstrated in the 2007/08 Australia tour. The fielding is deplorable, but for the first time in recent memory, the batting also looks brittle.
Bowling and fielding
India’s bowling will only ever improve significantly when it shies away from the “turning dustbowls” mentality in the preparation of pitches. And it is not impossible to grow grassy pitches in India. At least a few domestic tracks should be made fast enough to be representative of South African, Australian and English pitches. It is not by bad luck that India does not have a bowler who can bowl fast, or a bowler who can pitch the ball in the further-away half of the pitch. It is purely by design. India may well prefer to bring touring teams to turning tracks – and that is perfectly fine – but some domestic tracks need to be fast and provide assistance to the bowlers. The bowlers will be better for it, and the batsmen too.
The fielding will improve as the youngsters come in – Pujara and Kohli are livewires in the field, and Tiwary and Saha, surely due their chances soon, are also fantastic. Tendulkar aside, the rest of the Indian side’s fielding was quite ordinary.
India’s test match batting at the moment is characterised by a lack of focus, patience and accountability. There is a desire to score quickly – at any cost. Aside from Pietersen’s phenomenal 186 in Mumbai, all of the centuries in the series were the result of hard work. Batsmen in Test cricket are rewarded for spending time at the crease – Alastair Cook and Cheteshwar Pujara learned this from the first match, and Virat Kohli and even MS Dhoni caught on – far too late – in Nagpur. Batsmen need to put more of a price on their wickets, and keep the opposition out in the field for as long as possible. Rahul Dravid would be a fantastic mentor to the players – especially the younger ones coming through.
Meanwhile, common sense has to come into play with selection. If batsmen are not performing, they cannot be given an extended run – whatever their potential. Tendulkar, nearing 40, made the decision to retire from one-day internationals just before Christmas. His announcement led to tributes pouring in for a man who was the master of building a one-day innings. Although he will be sorely missed, and there is definitely still no match for him in the one-day arena – he should have made the call to retire altogether. Tendulkar already left this first instalment too late – after the World Cup win would have been a perfect time to draw the curtain. Indeed, even after the 100th international century he might have decided to call it quits. The bottom line is, what more does Tendulkar have left to play for, even in tests alone? Team India is bigger than one person, whoever that person may be.
The 2013 Indian Test XI should begin with: Rahane, Gambhir, Kohli, Pujara, Tiwary, Saha, Ashwin, Ojha, and Yadav.
India needs to source two more genuine fast bowlers – Dinda is not a solution – to finish the XI, while working on Yadav’s fitness and length. Ravi Ashwin is more of a batsman than a spinner, and he is definitely not the frontline option. Meanwhile, Dhoni should definitely retain his place in the ODI side, but his keeping and batsmanship are not up to the scratch in the longer format.
Indian cricket is at a crossroads. The people who run it can choose either to put a bit of plaster on its weaknesses or – strip it down, tear it apart and poke at every single thing that’s wrong with it, then build it up from scratch with a long-term plan for success.
To those administrators: we know it’s not always easy to make the tough decisions, and running cricket in India isn’t the easiest gig. You’ve seen the team through to its first World Cup win in 28 years, yet you have to deal with a Test team in transition, having lost some greats of the game. Your players aren’t performing on or off the field. You’re probably starting to lose confidence in the skipper. But you’re being paid obscene amounts of money to make this national team the pride and lifeblood of a billion people. Are you listening to them?