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Do we need a debacle to change?
The euphoria that the cricket-crazy country rode till some 18 months ago in the lingering afterglow of Team India's World Cup triumph and their continued presence in a position of pre-eminence as the world's top Test team, has given way to despair and doubt. As if the eight consecutive away defeats, four each in England and Australia, weren't bad enough, India are now being outplayed in Tests in their own backyard by players who were supposed to be struggling in these subcontinental conditions.
The manner in which Alastair Cook's England have come back after an innings defeat in the opening Test at Ahmedabad, looking at ease on turning tracks tailor-made for MS Dhoni's men, is quite remarkable. But, then, while that grit and gumption must be lauded, it wouldn't be out of context to bring India's performance under scrutiny in the same light.
After the Ahmedabad Test, why have Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann looked more likely to pick up wickets than Ravichandran Ashwin, Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha on the type of tracks they have been brought up on? Why has Jimmy Anderson managed to reverse-swing better than his 'guru' Zaheer Khan? Why have the likes of Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Nick Compton and Jonathan Trott been more comfortable on Indian wickets than our much-vaunted batsmen?
Perhaps, that is where an important part of the answer lies. The Indian team is teeming with players riding on reputation rather than form, and renewal has been neglected over the years. While the big names come good in patches, something their obvious skills will always allow them from time to time, consistency is the concern. Like deteriorating light that brings early stumps on most wintry afternoons at the Eden Gardens, you can wait but the light won't get any better.
The best is behind. Add to this the uncertainty of those that are trying to cement places in the squad but are not quite there yet, and an out-of-form skipper who has presided over far more losses than wins and draws in recent times, and you have a team where there is more than just a whiff of insecurity. There are just too many looking over their shoulder.
But for a few like Sunil Gavaskar and Rahul Dravid, Indian stars have hardly ever retired on their own volition, a trend that can only get increasingly deep-rooted with all the money flowing into the game. Each have their group of backers who use the media to send out the message that the strength of the team will be seriously compromised in the absence of the man they back, even if the runs or wickets continue to dry up for him.
The national selectors will have to take a leaf out of the book Down Under, where cricketers have almost always called it a day well before their continued presence in the team found frequent mention. Ricky Pointing is the latest example.
While fitness and fielding have always been India's bane, what has really stuck out like a sore thumb in this series is the difference in the levels of commitment the two teams have been able to bring to the ground. It seems only one team is learning in this series, and it's never more evident than in the way England and India have batted.
There is casualness about the Indian approach that is in sharp contrast to the buckling down that Cook and company have brought to the middle. At the Eden Gardens in the ongoing Test, where Dhoni won a good toss, the Indian squandered the advantage on the opening day itself before the Englishmen showed what was needed to grind the bowling to dust with technique and temperament on a typically sub-continental wicket. It's another thing that England's bowlers, including the new-ball exponents, were able to make better use of the surface.
India's strike bowler Zaheer Khan has been dogged by fitness issues for some time now and the bite in his bowling has certainly not been quite up there in this series. While he passes the 'fitness test', a particularly regular scrutiny for the 34-year-old medium-pacer, he has been revealing his lack of it on the field with surprising lethargy.
But, then, they'll tell you he is indispensable. Sachin Tendulkar found runs at last, coming back with a very stubborn but scratchy 76 at the Eden Gardens but this time his innings shone more for character than quality. Virender Sehwag is still looked upon as the irrepressible batsman who can change a game all on his own but the wait between such innings is getting longer and longer. Never a stickler for technique, his main asset, the hand-eye coordination, will not be getting any better from here.
While reduced reflexes and fitness are problems for those over the hill, those that are coming in have too much of slam-bang cricket in their blood. These batsmen will have to learn patience and how to pick their deliveries. But, then, that is easier than trying to turn the clock back.
Why do we need a debacle to look at personnel and policy? The Indian Board must get ahead of the game, identifying and blooding talent through its selection committees even as it takes a long hard look at the supply-line where domestic cricket occupies prime position. More needs to be done than mere tinkering with the Ranji Trophy format from time to time. There is just too much focus on international commitments and other opportunities to make money. The philosophy has percolated to the state associations, where local and domestic cricket get step-fatherly treatment at most times, thus dangerously disrupting and depleting the flow of talent from grassroots to higher ranks.
The impending retirement of the 'Fab Four' had been a much-discussed subject over the several years but the BCCI is still groping for adequate replacements with three of them already having called time on their careers. Sourav Ganguly played his last Test match four years ago but the hole in the Indian batting is really showing after the retirement of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman in more recent times. With the Aussies Tests on the platter soon after the limitedovers joust with Pakistan, it's not a pleasant thought for a team dangerously in disarray.
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