The Indian cricket team surrendered the One-Day International (ODI) series in South Africa rather meekly. Abhishek Mukherjee writes a letter to the Indian team trying to explain that everything is fine.
Dear Men in Blue:
I know the past few days have been terrible for you. The fans were circumspect about this tour even before you boarded the flight to South Africa; and when their fears came true, the nails and teeth have come out to rip you apart. If the defeats have hurt you badly, the mindless sarcasm has not done you any better.
Of course, there is a reason to feel dejected. There is, however, no reason to feel demoralised. Over the years, the South African fast bowling unit has turned into a relentless, unstoppable behemoth that has been crushing every opposition, especially at home. Over the past two years they have managed to bowl out Sri Lanka for 43, New Zealand for 45, and Pakistan for 49 — all in the longest version of the sport.
There is, thus, nothing to be ashamed of the result. There is nothing disgraceful in not being able to stand against Dale Steyn. Steyn is one of the greatest fast bowlers the world has seen in the last 25 years, and at times he becomes almost unplayable, especially at home. These things happen.
Take a lesson, though. Do not commit the same mistakes. Do put in those extra hours to overcome the technical deficiency. You will soon be back at your best. This tour was a lost cause the moment Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) had decided to remove the practice matches from the itinerary. They had ruined it for you before you had landed in South Africa.
Let us come to the bigger picture, then: with the World Cup just over a year away, has your performance in this tour really ruined your chances? Has it exposed the fact that you are not a contender for the title?
What this has exposed, Men in Blue, is your inability to handle South Africans at their den in pitches they have prepared for you in a bilateral series. Of course you will have to play South Africa in the World Cup — but this time it will be played at MCG. It is very likely that the conditions will be a lot different, and the contest will be a lot closer there.
And even if the South Africans defeat you in the match – it wouldn’t really matter. They had defeated you two-and-a-half years back as well (thanks to your batting in the Batting Powerplay). They did not win the World Cup. You did.
Do not let the South Africans have the psychological edge over you in the World Cup. Remember, you are the World Champions; you have won the Champions Trophy in England earlier this year, winning every match in the process, most of them emphatically. Two years before you had returned from the country without a single victory; there is no reason that you should take phrases like ‘tigers only at home’ tag seriously. The number one slot in the ICC rankings takes everything into account.
Your journey in the tournament had started with a victory against South Africa at Cardiff; the same Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma had added 127 for the opening stand, Ravindra Jadeja had smashed his way to a 29-ball 47, and after you had scored 331 for seven you had reduced the South Africans to 188 for seven, before Ryan McLaren’s onslaught had helped them to 305. They had never looked like winning, though.
Think of what you had done to the Australians and West Indians at home recently. Remember the starts Dhawan, Rohit, and Kohli had got you off to in almost every encounter. Remember how Kohli and gang had helped chase down 321 against Sri Lanka at Hobart with 80 balls to spare last year; remember how you chased down 360 with 39 balls to spare and nine wickets in hand against Australia at Jaipur.
You have two of the best ODI batsmen in the world in your line-up in Kohli and MS Dhoni. Both of them have led amazing run-chases in the past, and both of them have looked extremely calm while doing that. Both put a heavy price-tag on their wickets, and back themselves to chase the target irrespective of its magnitude.
Suresh Raina is currently out of form, but he has always managed to comeback, and he will. There are two bowlers in the form of Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin who can bat, which adds strength to your batting. You also have Dhawan and Rohit, who, on their day, can take any attack to the cleaners.
You will invariably hear sceptics say that all these men have been there in the ongoing series as well, and it hasn’t really helped. You know enough to ignore them. This was an overseas tour against the best bowling attack in the world without a single practice match: the World Cup will be completely different. You will reach way before the World Cup and play a complete Test series in the country.
Of course, the bowling needs to improve a lot; mind you, the three seamers who are likely to play – Umesh Yadav, Mohammad Shami, and Bhuvneshwar Kumar – are still gaining experience. They definitely have the talent to reach to the top; they simply need to be honed properly, and with another year’s experience under their belt their vigour might just be instrumental in the tournament.
You might even want to adopt a change in strategy. Almost three decades back a man called Sunil Gavaskar had realised that it will be extremely difficult for the batsmen to clear the huge grounds off spinners, and it had clicked: Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Ravi Shastri had worked wonders. In 1983 Mohinder Amarnath and Kirti Azad had choked England in the semi-final. In the 2011 World Cup, Zaheer Khan was your star on unhelpful pitches throughout the tournament.
Maybe you would want to include an extra spinner. Maybe you might want to open bowling with Ashwin. Maybe you might want to add an extra batsman to the line-up and rely more on the part-timers. Maybe you might want to recall Praveen Kumar. It may or may not work, but we know there will always be a plan B – the way Raina had been drafted in during the later phases of World Cup tournament once Yusuf Pathan’s bludgeoning did not work.
For some reason unfathomable to us, the couch potatoes, you keep on persisting with Ishant Sharma despite the world and the numbers reflecting that he hasn’t really delivered. If you really want to back someone, go whole-heartedly about him: after all, we had all thought Rohit was no good till a few months back, did we not?
Remember that the most nondescript players can turn out to be silent performers in the tournament. Do not ignore the power of diligence. Help can come from the most unexpected of sources. Remember what Munaf Patel did in World Cup 2011. Remember Kohli’s support in the final. Remember Raina’s crucial knocks in the quarterfinal and semi-final after he had comeback. Remember those two balls from Ishant in the Champions Trophy final.
Over the years, you have modified into a side that believes that it is the best. You have backed yourself to win, to chase targets that had seemed impossible even five years back; what is more, you do chase them down. And this isn’t about the big targets either.
Remember the World Cup quarterfinal and final two years back: earlier Indians teams had often succumbed to the pressure, but you do not. Remember how Ashwin had kept his cool in the final of the Champions Trophy. We have not seen that a lot, have we?
Put this series behind you. Prepare for Australia. Ignore what the South Africans have done to you. You are the number one team in the world with a six-point margin (the second and the fifth teams on the list are separated by a margin of four points). The South Africans are languishing at the fifth spot.
You are the defending champions. South Africa has not won a single knock-out match in a World Cup. Remember that. Do not get demoralised. They have won a bilateral series at home, but remember, barring the inaugural Champions Trophy they have never done well in an ICC tournament. You are definitely the better of the two teams based on current form.
Do not lose heart. Just back yourself. All is well.
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)
Also on cricketcountry.com