India have been the No1 side in Test cricket for the past couple of years now, but only the naïve would believe it that means they are the best team in the world currently. They have kept the No 1 ranking because of the fact that among the 4-5 top teams in world cricket — all of whom can beat each other on a given day — they have had the most consistent results in recent times.
They have not lost a series in more than three years, and that is not a record to be scoffed at. They never dominated the Test world like their predecessors, West Indies and Australia did, but then, the ranking is meant to compare current sides, not sides across eras. Still, every cricket fan is aware that the current ranking is, well, just a number.
No, more than the ranking, what made the current Indian fan proud was the steel that the side has shown over the past decade. Away wins do not come as surprises anymore, they are expected. The spineless surrenders of the 90s, when ‘Tigers at home, lambs abroad’ was a far too familiar theme, were few and far between.
There were a few grim defeats no doubt, but almost all of those were followed by immediate and stunning ripostes. They have been a side of scrappers, who while not being domineering, have never given up easily either. And that is exactly why the manner of the defeats in the first two Tests against England hurt, particularly the one at Trent Bridge.
When England’s second innings in Trent Bridge finally ended at 544, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that there was only one result possible. India were never going to scale this Everest, but some optimists would have thought that batting out five sessions to secure a battling draw was not beyond the realms of the possible, their optimism stemming from similar draws achieved in Napier and Cape Town. What followed thereafter was straight out of the 90s though.
Rahul Dravid edged one behind, and one’s heart skipped a beat. But there was still VVS Laxman, there was still Sachin Tendulkar. Then Laxman failed to keep out a beauty from James Anderson and even the optimists switched camps. But surely the much-vaunted batting line-up would take the match into the fifth day? Mistake. The game was over when a good 15 overs were still left on the fourth day.
Tendulkar and MS Dhoni were out not offering shots, and Abhinav Mukund, Suresh Raina and Yuvraj Singh were made to look like novices. There have been collapses even during India’s reign as No 1, but this was something else. This felt like a surrender. It felt like India had reconciled themselves to the fact that the game was lost, as if they had already set their sights on Edgbaston.
The story was not too different at Lord’s. The fourth innings there did not see a meek capitulation like the one in Trent Bridge, in fact, India played out close to 100 overs yet failed to save the game. But this must be viewed in the context of a pitch, which over the past few years has shown a tendency to go to sleep towards the end of the game.
Batting out four sessions at Lord’s was a much more plausible aspiration than five sessions at Trent Bridge. But the lack of fight shone through again and India started one more overseas assignment with a thumping defeat.
We have heard plenty of excuses for the two defeats in the last few days. The BCCI has been blamed for the team’s inhuman schedules and for not scheduling enough practice games. The IPL has been blamed for compromising already fragile techniques and temperaments. The players have been blamed for their lackadaisical attitude towards fitness and injuries. But who is to blame for the mongrel in the team suddenly going AWOL?
Indian fans, myself included, are prone to over-reactions. No side can win every time it steps onto the field. But it is not an unrealistic expectation for the side to show that it is up for a fight, every single game it plays. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir might be back for the next game, and so might Zaheer Khan, but if this series has to see a revival and live up to the pre-series hype as the “Clash of the Year”, two stalwarts in the line-up have to lead from the front — Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni.
When Gambhir could not open in the second innings at Lord’s, and did not take the field in Trent Bridge, Dravid, as he so often is, was asked to step in and open the innings. Consequently, Laxman had to move up to No 3 from his customary No 5 position. Two batsmen were moved out of their comfort zones, but Tendulkar remained at No 4. Granted that opening in limited-overs cricket is vastly different than doing so in Test cricket, but was it so inconceivable for a man who has opened in one-dayers for 17 years, to open in just one Test match?
He is no stranger to facing the new ball after all. Just imagine what a statement of intent it would have been to the opposition — that India’s best batsman, the world’s greatest batsman, was willing to take them on when his team was in dire straits. Just imagine the effect on the young minds of Mukund and Raina to see the master form a first line of defence to protect them against a rampant opposition.
Dhoni earned a lot of plaudits and a standing ovation for his gesture of recalling Ian Bell after the much-publicized non-run out, but the spirit of cricket does not win a team Test matches. As a captain, I think he did as well as a captain could do when his attack was reduced to three men in two consecutive Test matches, and his field placements were never imaginative to begin with.
I would not join the chorus of criticism of his captaincy just yet. He after all won the World Cup four months ago and is yet to lose a Test series. So he is obviously doing something right. As a batsman though, he is not getting nearly enough criticism as he deserves.
He is already a legend in limited-overs cricket, but as a Test batsman, it is hard to recall an innings from him that really made a difference to the end result of the game, except of course his match-saving effort at Lord’s in 2007. His shot in the first innings at Trent Bridge, to become the first victim in Stuart Broad’s hat-trick, would have earned a non-captain a stern dressing down from the captain of the team.
He went through a similar lean patch before and during the World Cup, before taking the final by the scruff of the neck and producing the knock of a lifetime. There is no reason why he cannot lift his game in a similar crunch game in the Test arena. The No 1 ranking is at stake after all.
Good teams do not become bad teams overnight. But defeats like these can demoralize any side. As indignant as fans like you and me might be, it would be foolish to assume that these defeats hurt us more than they hurt the likes of Tendulkar and Dhoni. For the team to climb out of the hole it finds itself in, the seniors have to lead the way. Who better to do it than the captain and the best batsman.
And yes, win or lose, show some fight. That’s all a reasonable fan can ask for.
(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would’ve been a successful international cricketer if it hadn’t been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A few months ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)