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India and Australia: A tale of two different transitional phases

MS Dhoni are win-less in 14 away Test matches in-a-row © Getty Images
MS Dhoni are win-less in 14 away Test matches in-a-row © Getty Images

Although the recent run of results look ominous for India, there is no real need to fret over it, for most teams have gone through the process of transition in a similar manner before emerging with flying colours, writes Karthik Parimal.

India returned home from an overseas tour amidst a flurry of familiar questions, a norm that has ensued for almost three years now. Does MS Dhoni deserve to be at the helm of a squadron that consistently falls short on alien turfs? Can the Indian bowlers be any more incompetent than they already are? Are there cloaked crevices in the side’s camaraderie that keep victories at bay? These are the sort of queries any team that’s been on the receiving end of a turbulent tour will have to pad up and face. However, keeping the cynic-tinted glasses aside for a moment, is there a need for Indian cricket to hit the panic button at this juncture?

Although India has been win-less for the last 14 overseas Tests, its lowest ebb has to be the whitewashes meted out by England and Australia. To these two tours were carried players from one of the best eras who embarked on their last lap. The team for the series against South Africa and New Zealand featured rookies who had big shoes to fill straightaway. Yet, albeit what the score cards suggest, the young recruits held fort and provided more than just a mere glimpse of the future. Yes, a few key moments during the last two tours were needlessly grassed, but there was ample evidence of this side being a notch above the one that travelled to England and Australia.

The two drawn games, at Johannesburg and Wellington, could well have slid in India’s favour. Almost usurping a total of 407, in bowling-friendly conditions, is something few Indian teams can boast of during the recent past. Batsmen with just a few Tests caps — Shikhar Dhawan, Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane — have firmly stood against the best of the red leather attacks in the world. Unlike in England and Australia, totals of over 330, in various innings, were regularly scored. There was no dearth of centuries either; they were scripted via multiple willows. The bowling department, guilty of not tightening the screws at crucial moments, can keep its head high for restricting South Africa and New Zealand to less than 250, at times even 200.

What’s hard to justify is Dhoni’s conservative field placement for most parts of these tours. Nonetheless, to say he did not create chances would be unfair. Had Kohli held on to Brendon McCullum’s offer at silly mid-on, the game could have taken a different course, and instead of the relentless castigation of his leadership that’s now being flashed as headlines on both the digital and print media, articles highlighting Dhoni’s ‘coming of age’ as a Test captain would perhaps be floating around.

A captain can only marshal the resources at his disposal, and Dhoni has done a fine job of being the glue that has held this team together during its transition. Agreed, he could have employed different tactics at certain moments on the field during the last three years, but he isn’t solely to blame. The real problem lies perhaps in the ammunition provided to him. Anti-incumbency effect may be one of the reasons behind voices suggesting Kohli take over the mantle from Dhoni, but there’s little difference a new captain can do with the current skill level of the available set of resources. No doubt, Dhoni has to share a part of the criticism for India’s losses, but like a few sane former cricketers suggest, wielding the axe over his position as a skipper will not put an end to the string of defeats.

India’s transition has been a path free of potholes for the most part, and Dhoni’s role in it has been one of a protagonist’s. Most new entrants under his wing brim with potential and there’s every chance of this unit topping the charts if persisted with. Not long ago, Australia, the team just one rating point behind India in the Test rankings currently, were pummelled from all corners for their dysfunctional and disoriented approach. At the centre of all the commotion was its skipper Michael Clarke. He was charged for issues ranging from micro-management to poor man-management. Some of his players weren’t toeing the line either. Punches were thrown on the wrong side of the field and dirty linen was continually being washed in public. The men who mattered, the chief holders of the baton, were at odds over trivial points. Despite the contentious rankings, at the time, many would have placed their bets on Australia languishing in the lower-half of the table for a considerable length of time.

Australia went through a much more difficult phase than India, but emerged with flying colours against England in the Ashes 2013-14 series © Getty Images
Australia went through a much more difficult phase than India, but emerged with flying colours against England in the Ashes 2013-14 series © Getty Images

Then was etched a magical turnaround. Even the most knowledgeable of pundits, or the most gifted of clairvoyants, would not have foreseen Australia uprooting England in the manner they did during the second leg of the Ashes. Mitchell Johnson was no longer a liability. He was Australia’s talisman. It was Brad Haddin who often steered his men out of troubled waters. Steve Smith was a revelation, while David Warner’s punches, down the ground this time around, rightfully made news. Their domestic structure was ridiculed prior to the result, but none could dispute the selectors’ decision of roping in Shaun Marsh after the latter thwacked a century against the finest bowlers in their backyard a few days ago. The new set of Australian players formed a bond that looks, as South Africa recently discovered, impeccable and unbeatable. The transition may not yet be complete, but surely they’re returning to the pedestal that was once theirs.

While India’s phase of transition continues to be relatively serene, at least on the surface of it, Australia’s was rocky, which isn’t necessarily uncommon in sport. Manchester United faced one of their least productive spells commencing from the summer of 2003 for a good part of three years, at a time when Arsenal were at the peak of their prowess. United’s dressing room during this period was understandably unsettled, and a few rushed purchases added to the dwindling atmosphere. Nevertheless, like every first-rate team, they managed to circumvent and get through the troubled phase to embark on a long, fruitful run, unearthing a couple of world-class players in the process.

The point here is, regardless of the road of transition, challenges cannot be bypassed. The Indians are fortunate in the sense that they haven’t had to deal with the conundrums that came Australia’s way almost every other day. Agreed, victories in significant tourneys remain elusive for the moment, but with the kind of players in its artillery, there’s little to fret about. Australia look miles ahead of India on paper if recent spates of results are considered, however, once the transition is complete on both sides, a contest between the two will be one to revel in.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)

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