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In the aftermath of one of the worst sequence of losses, Arunabha Sengupta lists ten things that went wrong in the recently concluded series.
1. Ravindra Jadeja drops Alastair Cook – Southampton Day 1 – Not the first thing to go wrong in the sequential order, but it was in many ways the deciding factor of the series. Not only did it allow England to get a decent start after the humiliating reversal at Lord’s, it enabled the struggling captain to roar back into form. A skipper low on confidence can be a load around the neck for a team and for a considerable while England had been gagging and gasping from from Cook’s repeated failures. The southpaw did make his luck by working hard at his game, but the worst thing India could have done was to drop that catch.
2. The Jadeja-Anderson fiasco – The nudge, push, fight, abuse – whatever took place did not really have as far reaching influence as the amount of importance given to the issue by the Indian team management. Whether it was actually the unwanted provocation or a strategic ploy to target the spearhead of the England side, it either worked for the hosts or back-fired big time for the visitors. Not only did the off-field issues play too much on the Indian minds – was Jadeja’s crucial drop a result of the incident? –the visitors were also stuck with Jadeja in the side even if they wanted to play Ashwin at Lord’s and later Southampton. At Lord’s it worked in India’s favour but went horribly wrong in the next two Tests.
It was a warning sign when eight and half of the 12 minute of MS Dhoni’s press-conference on the eve of the Ageas Bowl Test were spent in expressing his displeasure about the decision against Jadeja. The team was angry, but the anger was focused on peripheral issues.
3. The other opener – Few teams have been successful in the history of Test cricket without a couple of solid opening batsmen providing considerable starts. While Murali Vijay flowered early in the series with every indication of becoming a major thorn in the England flesh, the support at the other end varied between minimal to nothing. Shikhar Dhawan, in spite of his best efforts, was easy meat for the England bowlers. And on the one occasion he looked like weathering the pacemen, it was Joe Root who got one to grip, turn and get his edge. As for Gautam Gambhir, sorry he should not have been in the squad at all. This columnist had written about it before the tour.
4. The lack of First-Class practice – I am not talking about the warm up matches on the tour. The Indians simply do not play enough First-Class matches. Additionally none of the team members had any experience of any five-Test series. The performances of Murali Vijay and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are quite revealing. They started with every zeal, but they just did not have the physical and – most importantly – mental conditioning to last Test after Test. Playing five day games is the greatest test of cricketers, and Indians simply don’t gear up for that test rigorously enough. The performance of Vijay, Kumar and even Ajinkya Rahane and Cheteshwar Pujara demonstrate how the side ran out of steam.
5. The illusion of a great middle order– The middle- order has been hyped endlessly and now will be dragged into the flipside of the hype and hate reactions of the Indian fans. They are undoubtedly talented, and perhaps will do much of what the great lot had done till a few years ago. However, their inexperience and shortcomings in technique and temperament were made conspicuous under glaring lights as the series progressed. The biggest hopes had been Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara. The two managed one fifty between them in ten innings. And while Rahane’s hundred at Lord’s is one of the classiest innings of recent times, he did lose the plot from the fourth Test. If the openers and middle order fail in this manner, a team cannot expect to do much.
6. The slip cordon – The word slip lends it to the use of unkind puns. The Indian slippers caught few and let too many through. With a bowling line up that is hardly the best in the world, one has to accept the generated chances. England, struggling to stay alive after the Lord’s Test, were given the gifts of life after life after life with a generosity that belied belief. Dhawan, Rahane, Jadeja, Vijay, Ravichandran Ashwin – all have been seen in the cordon, and none of the combinations has been reassuring.
7. Balance of team – India never managed to get the balance right other than in the featherbed at Nottingham. Five batsmen saw them struggling at 145 for seven at Lord’s, four bowlers finding them way out of depth at Southampton. The role of Stuart Binny remained unclear, in spite of his spirited match saving knock in Trent Bridge.
The fact that Moeen Ali far outdid the feats of both Ashwin and Jadeja with his tweakers makes for embarrassing reading for the Indian cricket annals, of a country proud of its prowess with and against the turning ball. It seems the roles of Jadeja and Ashwin were not too clear either.
8. The bowling discipline that went awry – The Nottingham Test was played on a peculiar pitch, but there was admirable discipline when the Indians bowled. The Lord’s Test was won because the Indian bowlers did not allow the English batsmen an inch, even when the hosts looked like snatching the match away. In Rose Bowl, Ishant had to sit out due to injury and one could see the limited experience depart from the Indian bowling unit. Kumar – feeling the strain by now, Pankaj Singh, Mohammed Shami and Jadeja did not have anything remotely close to the control and the relentlessness of the first two Tests. There was lack of experience and – as mentioned earlier – the mental and physical fatigue that comes from not being groomed on too many First-Class matches.
9. Batting that became spineless in the home stretch – The last two Tests witnessed a dubious landmark. For four consecutive innings, India lost their first five wickets before putting 65 on the board – for the very first time in their history of Test cricket. For the ones wondering if the Indian team has been in such a rut before, these are some hard hitting numbers. The second innings at Southampton was inexplicable, when some show of gutsy resolution for a session would have saved the Test as it rained almost incessantly for the next two days. Not only did they succumb to pace, they gave their wickets away with cardiomegalious large heartedness.
For two consecutive Tests, MS Dhoni, the man with the least adequate technique for these conditions, did not only top score in the first innings, he made more runs than the rest of the batsmen put together. The Indian top order, from the moment Vijay was run out in the second innings at Southampton followed by Pujara’s cheap dismissal off Moeen Ali, seemed to lack the will and wherewithal to survive for more than an instant.
10. Jaded MS Dhoni – One can hardly point one’s finger at MS Dhoni after the middle order bombs in this way and he often has to fight alone with his bat, using his street-smart methods to notch four half centuries in the series. That is three more than what Pujara and Kohli combined to score. However, there is a reason we don’t see too many wicketkeeper-batsmen-captains in Test cricket. MS Dhoni has led in 58 Tests, scoring at 41.29. The next in the list is FCM Alexander with 18 Tests and he averaged 22. Andy Flower did make runs at 49 per innings, but he led for only 16 Tests.
Wicketkeeping, batting and captaincy, the three pronged load carried simultaneously, can be extremely taxing. Dhoni has done all three with a lot of success for long. But, now, there are indications that he is not enjoying it any more.
His moves have always been unorthodox, and often incurred the wrath of the experts, but he does not really bother about that. There have been instances when the wise men have zipped up in the aftermath of his success, and they have always been vocal at his failures. What is alarming is that the Indian skipper is increasingly resorting to sarcasm in his post-match conferences. While unperturbed demeanour and unfazed subtle humour in the post-match meetings have often been the sustaining factor against the myriads of critics in the Indian cricket circuit, his increasingly cynical retorts indicate that he is tired of it all and is getting more apathetic with every match. He has been in the hot seat for seven years, and may be feeling the heat a bit too much in spite of his legendary ice cool demeanour. One wonders if this is the time to look for a new hand to guide the fortunes of Indian cricket, but as has been the case for way too long – the question is who.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)
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