By Srinivasan Narayanan
You stay up until 2.30 am for three consecutive nights and then find India calling off the chase. Hmm... Duncan Fletcher cannot get grumpier than you.
From the ordinary Indian cricket fan to connoisseurs of Test cricket, everyone feels let down, excluding die-hard nationalists and Mahendra Singh Dhoni apologists.
As is to be expected, criticism followed. As I poured through a sizeable number of them, I could see three main themes emerging:
1. If you settle for draws like this, Test cricket will die.
2. No 1 Test teams (read: Australia and West Indies) don’t do this.
3. India should have tried to keep the chase going for a few more overs.
Since the overwhelming majority seems to be on one side, let me try to play the Devil's (Dhoni's?) Advocate. I do not expect to swing opinions. I hope to reduce the heat of the debate and shrillness in the criticism. If this article achieves these goals I would be happy. Let us look at macro issues first and then the micro issue of the match context itself.
1. If you settle for draws like this, Test cricket will die.
The result of this match was in suspense at least until Suresh Raina was out and VVS walked in. How can a match that was 'live' for 348 of the possible 363 overs be termed as bad advertisement for Test cricket so much so that it can be lethal to its future? The keyhole perspective that we took at the heat of the moment cannot be stretched to pronounce a verdict on the fate of Test cricket. Test cricket needs to provide absorbing interest; not rev up excitement. It is a goblet of wine, not a shot of psychedelics drug.
2. No 1 Test teams (read: Australia and West Indies) don’t play to draw but play to win.
So what? India is not Australia! (And thank goodness for it!) Nor Dhoni is Mark Taylor!
Lighter side apart, we are not making an apple to apple comparison. Each nation has started its journey in Test cricket at different times and played vastly different number of Test matches. Hence they are, at what I may call, different Test maturity levels.
Australia started playing Tests in 1877. They have played 730 Tests to date, winning 341 of them, losing 192, tying 2 and drawing the rest 195, giving them an overall win-loss ratio of 1.77.
West Indies started in 1928 (51 years later) and have played 473 Tests, won 153, lost 156, tied 1, drawn 163. That gives them a W/L ratio of 0.98.
India entered Test arena soon after the West Indies in 1932. They have played 451 Tests, won 110, lost 139, tied 1 and drawn 201. That gives them a W/L ratio of 0.79.
The dominance of West Indies began in 1976 and ended with Australia beating them in 1995. During the span of 1977-94, The West Indies played 135 Tests, won 65, lost 19 to give a W/L ratio of 3.42.
From 1995-2000, Australia was gaining ascendancy. In this period they played 66 Tests, won 40, lost 15 to log a W/L ratio of 2.66. At their peak 2001-2009 they had corresponding figures of 107-71-18 and a W/L ratio of 3.94.
In the same period (2001-09), India played 97 Tests, won 38, lost 24 for a win-loss ratio of 1.58. Since then India has played a further 18 Tests, won 9 and lost 3. That gives them a W/L ratio of 3.00. Incidentally, between 1995 and 1998, as Australia was emerging as the new top Test nation their win-loss ratio was 1.91 over a 44 Test record.
The above figures go to support the conclusion that as teams play more, they win more and so their win-loss ratio improves. As the maturity level of the teams increases, so does their appetite and ability to become more aggressive and take risks in trying to win. Since India is not yet at that level, expecting India to play like Australia is an untenable comparison.
History and evolution point to temper our disappointment and the resultant strident criticism. As well meaning fans of India and Test cricket we should perhaps exercise more patience and not rush our expectations.
But let us move from the big picture forest to the small canvas of trees - the match itself.
3. It was a gettable score - at least India could have kept the chase going for a few more overs.
The run-rate in the three preceding innings, before India set about their target, makes interesting reading. West Indies managed a run-rate of 2.66 and 2.44 in its two innings respectively. Note that their second innings rate was slower than the first. A part of the reason could be that they were fighting to reach a safe place. India logged a run-rate of 3.20 in the first innings - an innings in which the West Indies had only three regular bowlers. In the truncated second innings, India were clocking 2.93. It was better than the rates achieved by the West Indies in either of its innings. And West Indies had Ravi Rampaul back in the attack, who took two wickets indicating he was physically fit. In the context, common sense dictated that India need not subject the fans to a meaningless play of 8-10 overs just to play to the gallery. It is not giving up the chase but calling off the farce.
I am not a big fan of individual glory in a team game, but when a man is getting shelled I guess we need to go to his rescue! Dhoni's series win-loss index of five is the best amongst those captains who have led in more than 25 Tests. The next best is the relentless Steve Waugh at some four plus. Are we justified in cribbing about Dhoni the skipper?
Spare a thought for the West Indians who gamely fought through the entire series. Their three main bowlers, veteran Shivnaraine Chanderpaul, Marlon Samuels, Carlton Baugh and youngsters Darren Bravo and Kirk Edwards showed application as the series progressed. A much-discounted captain could hold them all together in a team - an achievement in itself. Would a 2-0 score reflect appropriately their valiant fight?
To wrap this up...
· The lure and longevity of Test cricket lies in having an absorbing contest. Not in delivering knock-out punches.
· Champion teams respond differently over their tenure at the top. Comparing a new featherweight class champion to a champion who had progressed to the heavy weight class is just not done.
· Play to win the series. You would have won enough matches in the process.
And finally ponder over these other thoughts...
Sport is war minus weapons. Without weapons, where is the question of annihilation? Is winning a series 1-0 not adequate? What are you going to prove additionally by making it 2-0 or 3-0? Cricket is just a contest of skills, not a war between enemies.
True, winning is everything. But that does not mean you have to win everything.
Winning in cricket is not a proxy for winning in life. Cricket should enrich life; not engulf or replace it.
(Srinivasan Narayanan, a Director and COO at ProPart Solutions India P Ltd, is a very passionate follower of cricket)