By Madan Mohan
India would need a few miracles if they need to back up their status as World Cup champions and be in contention for a place in the final of the Commonwealth Bank (CB) Series in Australia.
Answers have been sought and many given for India’s debacle Down Under. Many of the reasons pinned for the surrender thus far are some of the oldest and most clichéd you would have heard with regard to the Indian team, especially when they play abroad. Indian batsmen need to handle pace bowling better India lacks good pace bowlers and, as Nishad Pai Vaidya pointed out, India's death overs bowling is ineffective, India’s fielding leaves much to be desired and the team could stand to be more athletic. All very familiar - in short.
Except the Indian team now has massive expectation to live up to. It’s not the bad old ‘90s anymore when the team was expected by one and all to flounder and collapse abroad and every semblance of resistance was a silver lining and called for a minor celebration. The World Cup presented an opportunity for Team India to move to the next level and become consistent world beaters. They are in danger of squandering hard-earned bragging rights if they do not even make the finals of the CB series. If that happens, it may well be a blessing in disguise.
There’s truly nothing like a World Cup victory to paper over the cracks. In hindsight, that’s the purpose it served – to give one the impression that Team India could somehow find their level when they needed in spite of their weaknesses and win. Frankly, the team Sourav Ganguly led to the 2003 final produced a higher level of cricket at several points in their campaign. But they were up against one of the best ODI squads ever and Ricky Ponting’s Aussies humbled them rather comprehensively.
Hence, it was even more surprising to see that they were only moderately pushed in the knock-out matches to emerge champions. The team did not have the look of such an all conquering unit to me and yet they had enjoyed a rather comfortable campaign. Not surprisingly, the fans now eyed glittering dreams of conquest ahead.
When India crushed England at home, the debacle in England from a month earlier was forgiven. Perhaps, it was felt, the team was indeed unfortunate and unlucky, as captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni had said. Perhaps, if the captain was in a position to gather around his young troops rather than being burdened by the presence of slow-moving seniors (as in the Test squad), he would be able to work miracles as he usually could.
Thus far, the CB Series has given the lie to those hopes. In that sense, an ODI debacle would be even more telling than the Test whitewash. Players who represent Team India’s future – and are likely to visit Australia again for the 2015 World Cup – have collectively fallen well short of competing with Australia and Sri Lanka.
On more placid surfaces like Adelaide, India briefly promised to resist, even to hit winning form. But their plans unravelled rather quickly once the action shifted to bouncy Brisbane. In the meantime, Australia had also brought back Brett Lee and Ben Hilfenhaus in their fold. Confronted with penetrating seam bowling, the Indian batsmen could not offer much resistance while their bowlers were just not threatening enough.
What must have been even more crushing, from an Indian fan perspective, was to learn that Sri Lanka too seemed to have an edge over India in these conditions. Nuwan Kulasekara bagged three wickets while handy knocks from Mahela Jayawardene, Tilakaratne Dilshan, Lahiru Thirimanne and Angelo Matthews took Sri Lanka to a very competitive total. Not unlike the Test series, India’s top order has lacked stability. While it has succeeded in providing the platform, the platform has been suitable more for collapse and capitulation.
Team India are hurtling towards a situation where their qualification may depend more on Sri Lanka’s performances in upcoming matches rather than just theirs. Once again, it’s all familiar but not quite what one would expect of the World Champions. Should India lose, I trust Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) chief N Srinivasan would waste no time in directing attention to its home record in ODIs. But here’s the thing: India won the CB series, against the same opponents, the last time it was held, in 2008. Does that mean that in spite of being World Cup champions, the Indian team has gone backwards in the interim?
India now have their backs to the wall and need to pull together a fast-disintegrating squad to get out of the woods. Conquest tastes great and a World Cup victory must give one the feeling of invincibility. Perhaps fortunately, this trip Down Under has starkly exposed India’s ‘areas of improvement’. The CB Series has cut Team India to size and given them a badly needed reality check.
(Madan Mohan is a 26-year old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and to date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)