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Indian batsmen deserve criticism, but past has not been much better

© Getty Images
Indian batsmen have to fire in order to square the series at The Oval on the occasion of the final Test match which starts on Friday © Getty Images

In the relentless postmortem following the two back to back Test losses, the Indian batsmen have copped a fair amount of criticism.However, while maintaining that the batting performance in the last two innings were inexplicable, Arunabha Sengupta argues that it is way too early to pronounce the final verdict on this young batting line up. Besides, many of the critical past cricketers did not do much betterthemselves.

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”Thus ran the first line of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go Between.

The criticism heaped on the Indian batsmen after their abysmal surrender at Old Trafford is justified to a great extent. After all, capitulating to Moeen Ali’s yet to be perfected off-spin-in-the-works is an embarrassing blot on the cricketing landscape of a nation proud of its ability against the turning ball. It does not help that the debacle took place on a third day pitch, in the North-West of England – far away in locale and climate from the hot, tropical subcontinent which lends venom and bite to the spinners. That too when there was plenty of rain in the air, promising safe passage in exchange of just a session of fortitude.

However, the extent of the brickbats, especially from the former cricketers and their fantasy-prone devotees, seem to echo the sentiments so astutely jotted down by Hartley way back in 1953. The novel was published one year after the Indians were floundering at zero for four against Fred Trueman at Headingley. Yes, disastrous collapses of Indian batting are hardly new – statistics will tell us that they are as old as Anandji Dossa.

Be that as it may, hordes of past cricketers have come out all guns blazing at the young brigade. Indian cricket being what it is, this trend is not really surprising –especially with the silky spin of time to ready at hand  to ensconce unsavoury facts in the comfortable cocoon of a hazily remembered past.

Let me be very clear that this is not a justification of the Indian top order folding twice for 60-something. But, if one pauses to look at the past – which few are prone to when witch-hunting replaces cricket as the national pastime – it does takes a while to digest Farokh Engineer’s blaring rants. Especially, his claim that the Indian team has made the diaspora in Manchester a laughing stock with their performance.

It seems rich, coming from the gloveman and opening batsman of a season remembered with the scariestof scary shudders as the Summer of 42. And no, there is no use trying to claim that 1974 was a different era when ‘they did things differently’, when India were not a major cricketing power and were not expected to do any better. The success of 1971 in the West Indies and England, and then at home in 1972-73 against the English team led by Tony Lewis, had led plenty of traditional Indian sports fans into proclaiming themselves as the champions of the world. That explains why the 42 all out at Lord’s and the subsequent 0-3 rout had led the traditional Indian sports fans to deface the Victory Bat at Indore. If the Manchester collapse has turned the Indians of the city into laughing stock, the London based Indians hailing from 1974 must have fled the metropolis in embarrassmentimmediately after Chris Old and Geoff Arnold had performed their massacre and are still hesitant to return.

But then, such reflections get rather disturbingly in the way of criticism. It is rather trying to evaluate the respective performances of Indian teams over the years and to gauge whether, aside from this debacle at Manchester, this particular side has really done exceptionally poorly or not. That involves too much effort and little vent for suppressed frustrationsthat stem from other domains of life.

People are far more comfortable with easy explanations – easily remembered repetitive phrases that can be squeezed into a headline, or a tweet. “BCCI has ruined Indian cricket”, “IPL superstars fail in the long format” or “Dhoni has no clue about Test cricket” have become easy clichés. It restores a sense of order in the universe if things can be so conveniently explained. Never mind that there is nothing in the past to demonstrate that a young Indian team has done better in such circumstances and that the problems may be age old instead of recent.

Similarly, Sourav Ganguly’s recent comments – that he would have given up captaincy long ago if his team was losing as perennially as MS Dhoni’s –give a hearty kick to our current critical frame of mind. Or, for instance, his ‘modest’ assertion that the side did not lose as regularly during his reign.

Once again the words of Hartley quoted in the beginning of the articleseem to be written prominently in the backdrop.

After fate had meted out a benevolent baptism to his captaincy with a Test in Bangladesh, from June 2001 to December 2002, Ganguly led in 17 overseas Tests,won just three and lost nine. But, hemade no effort to give up captaincy until it was forcibly wrested from his hands three years down the line. Yet, those days are too long back in the past for the majority to dig up. In a world of 140 character attention span it is much easier to ride on those loud brags and bash the present captain, or the BCCI, or IPL.

True, it is a bit difficult to blame the captain after he scored 71 with the celebrated lack of technique while six of his batsmen got blobs, but then there is always BCCI and IPL to fall back on. Two major issues of modern cricket, so huge that any disaster can be attributed to them. After all, that takes the burden of thinkingoff our collective backs. The evidence is all there, isn’t it? Two consecutive losses, surrendering lead in the series through inept batting, all that hinting at lousy technique and temperament.

Again, this is by no means an argument to say that everything is perfect about BCCI and IPL – far from it.And again, this disclaimer will most probably pass the readers by as idle wind that affects them not. The question is whether BCCI and IPL have made any substantial difference to the trend of batting debacles from those that we have seen in the past.

We like to bask in the wonderfulmemories of the fab-four – that blessed middle order that one comes across once in a life time. After the two back to back Test defeats, we now have the license to laugh contemptuously at messers Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane who had been spoken of as the next generation of Indian greats. How could we even think of putting these pretenders on the same pedestal as the greats of the past? After all, as Hartley said, they did things differently there in the foreign land of the former days.

Let me provide some numbers – however unpalatable they might be.

Sachin Tendulkar’s genius graced India in 1989, and for the first seven years he battled practically alone on foreign fields. In 1996, he was famously joined by Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly. A few months later VVS Laxman joined the brigade. Thus was formed the fab-four of the Indian cricketing folklore – ‘a pool of talent never seen before and will perhaps never be seen again’.

Now, how long did it take the fab-four to win their first Test abroad?

If we don’t consider Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, the answer is five years. Yes, five long years before their first serious triumph in Kandy.Six if we consider only the far flung lands outside the sub-continent. It was in April 2002 that they overcame the West Indies at Port of Spain. And in both these cases they went on to lose the series 1-2.

The current crop is being lambasted for trailing a series 1-2 – with one Test to go.

What happened before 2002? How did the fab four fare overseas?

Well, they lost 0-2 in South Africa, 0-1 in West Indies,0-1 in Zimbabwe (!!),  0-3 in Australia, 0-1 in New Zealand,0-1 in South Africa again (which would have been worse if Mike Denness had not stepped in with his authoritative shoes). Batting debacles were not too infrequent either. If the Manchester rout makes for horrific reading, the Indians of 1996-97 were blasted out for 100 and 66 at Durban.

The first series triumph overseas came in 2004, in Pakistan, eight years after the fab-four had started playing together. The first series triumph outside the subcontinent took even longer – it came at last in 2006, against West Indies. Incidentally, neither Ganguly nor Tendulkar were part of the 2006 triumph. The first time the fab-four won a series together outside the subcontinent was in 2007 in England – 11 years after they started their association. And even then, the wins they notched up cannot be described as anything but infrequent.

And all along they had stalwarts like Virender Sehwag, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and, for at least a part of the period, Javagal Srinath to add to the experience.

Now, we have Pujara, Kohli and Rahane – three men who have started playing together for the last nine Tests. Eight of them have been overseas. They have created winning situations in South Africa and New Zealand but have been unable to deal the final blow – before winning one and losing two in England.There is almost no experience to fall back on other than the wicketkeeper captain in MS Dhoni.

The past was not as rosy as we are led to believe

Batting nucleus Additional serious experience First time the nucleus played together First win outside subcontinent Time taken to accomplish first win outside subcontinent
Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman Kumble, Harbhajan, Srinath 1996 2002 5.5 years
Pujara, Rahane, Kohli Dhoni, Ishant Sharma 2013 2014 1 year
The first six years of fab four(overseas)
Season Opponent Result
1996-97 South Africa 0-2
1996-97 West Indies 0-1
1997 Sri Lanka 0-0
1998-99 New Zealand 0-1
1999-2000 Australia 0-3
2001-2002 South Africa 0-1
2001-2002 Sri Lanka 1-2
2002 West Indies 1-2
The new middle order till now (overseas)
Season Opponent Result
2013-14 South Africa 0-1
2013-14 New Zealand 0-1
2014* England 1-2*

Total Number of Tests when the batting nucleus achieved their first victory outside subcontinent

vs West Indies 2002 vs England 2014
Batsman Tests Batsman Tests
Tendulkar 93 Kohli 26
Dravid 57 Pujara 21
Ganguly 55 Rahane 7
Laxman 32

As we know, after 2002, the Indian team started winning abroad more regularly – albeit not very frequently. They drew in England after being one down. They did square the series in Australia, even if we accept they were helped by the absence of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. Slowly series wins were achieved. All this took time. It took a long, long while for things to click before the wins became anything approaching routine.

Given all this, is it not a bit too early to write these young men off? Till now, they have just played nine Tests together.

I can already hear the objections – everything can be justified by numbers and all that… Well, yes, numbers are a great nuisance sometimes, especially when detailed analysis becomes an unnecessary overhead.It is far easier to be caustic rather than objective in criticism.

But, history does leave these numbers as footprints that tell the accurate story. It is up to us to get a proper perspective from them.

(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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