The media and the experts are crawling all over the Indian cricket team after the first two Tests in their ongoing series against England. They have their reasons to do so. The supporters of the Indian cricket team, after having been through the high of World Cup victory, are just about to see their worst nightmares come true - losing the No 1 status in Test cricket.
A lot of observers will put the loss down in the first Test to habit. The loss in the second Test was more shocking as it was due to ineptitude, inability and the lack of a stomach for a fight. In the two years of their reign as numero uno, India were never a dominant side; they were, at best, a team that had high bounce-back ability quotient.
It is as much an administrative failure as it is a failure of the players. Knowing the Indian players, the board should have seen to it that the players had more practice matches than the one they got before the start of the Test series in England. It was essential for the players coming from the tour of Caribbean as it would have required a lot of effort to adapt to the conditions. It turns out that the players who performed well on that particular tour are the ones that are performing well on this tour too.
Indians have for long have carried the tag of being sluggish starters. Considering the fact that they only tend to play three-Test series and rarely four-Test rubber, they are always under pressure to get back into the series. It’s alright to draw series against your closest competitor on their pitches, but when the same starts to occur on the home stretch then there is a cause for concern.
In a drawn series between the two top teams, it is the team that is placed at the top that tends to lose out more. The problem with India’s reign as No 1 lies with the fact that they start an away series with evenly-matched teams, as underdogs.
Sunil Gavaskar attributed this to the inherent traits. He said, as people, Indians are not ruthless. You need not be ruthless to be at the top. Being clinical is enough. Wonder what stops us from being clinical.
That India have taken over the reign from Australia also matters a lot. Australia relinquished the position after what seemed like eons. Before them it was West Indies that dominated the top position for a long, long time. With both the West Indies and Australia, it had been a natural trait to dominate. It took a lot of stopping on the team’s part to halt their juggernaut. It was not that they were without frailties.
What differentiated them from the teams of their time was the fact that they were clinical. They were quick to pounce on an opportunity and hunted the opponents down. That they tended to be bought down by strong individual performances was a giveaway that they were too good as teams to be bought down on a consistent basis.
Though India has not been defeated in a series for the past two years, they have, however, consistently lost matches. In fact the tendency to lose the first Tests has been their bane. It goes without saying that the moment they lose the first Test, they are on the backfoot. Last year’s home series against Australia is a case in point as to what they can do if they can win the first match of a series. They were clinical and at their best in the second Test at Bangalore. For the first time, India blanked Australia in a Test series.
It has been seen from the time of the reign of West Indies that the No 1 teams have been vulnerable against one particular team. If it was Pakistan for West Indies, and India for Australia, it turns out that India are now vulnerable against two teams - South Africa and England.
More often than not it’s found that Zaheer Khan is injured for the first Test of the series and the rest of the bowlers find it tough to cope in his absence. Also the fact that Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag find their names on the injured list more often than not presents a unique headache. It was on the basis of the opening partnership between these two Delhiites that India rode to the top of the pile. Bench strength is where India is lacking. Gus Logie, Simon Katich, Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer will all attest the fact that a player has to make the most of whatever chances he is given or else they might end up in cold storage.
The questions on No 1 are not unique to cricket. They exist in tennis too, where Dinara Safina and now Caroline Wozniacki had their reigns questioned by not only the audience but also their fellow players. That India is not universally acknowledged as No 1 is a known fact. It is the respect that they need to command by their performances that will make them genuine No 1.
The questions will certainly be answered by the end of India-England series. If India manage to latch onto their numero uno position, they would do well to learn from their past failings and try to be assertive from the day one of the series.