Imperative for Team India to shed defensive outlook before hoping for a turnaround

Captain MS Dhoni (left) has had his shortcomings during recent times in Test cricket, setting conservative fields for both Ashwin and Ojha once the counter-attack commences and allowing the opposition to slip through the gaps. Coach Duncan Fletcher could be a contributing factor to the defensive mindset © Getty Images

By Karthik Parimal

The upcoming Tests between India and Australia could well be a series that will decide the course of many a career. It’s unfortunate that in the longer format, the Mahendra Singh Dhoni-led side have failed to answer the umpteen numbers of questions that were posed right after the conclusion of the English tour in 2011. Since then, some of the stalwarts have called it a day, and the bowling department’s armour has further been thinned in the absence of frontline seamers. The graphs haven’t indicated an upward movement, primarily because most of the changes have been rather cosmetic.

If anything, the squad picked for the Australian series cannot be labelled as formidable and it does not comprise the big names that featured a few months ago. The fact that they’re playing at home is what puts India on an even platform.

Although the current Australian team is hardly intimidating when compared to the sides that toured the sub-continent on previous occasions, there is little doubt that they have the potential to be a thorn in the flesh of India’s fragile bowling line-up. David Warner, Shane Watson and Michael Clarke are all proficient players of spin, and their bowling department has been bolstered by the presence of quality pacers. Dhoni’s men can afford to downplay the threat and substance of the opposition at their own peril.

India were expected to trump Australia last year, instead they were thoroughly outplayed. At home, they were expected to steamroll England and, much to the surprise of many, the expectations did not materialise. Going by the recent events, it’d be naïve to state that the hosts are the favourites going into this series. Like always, they have the potential to give the best teams a run for their money, but the fact that they’ve resorted to defensive tactics since the last few Tests has been a major cause of worry. If the same continues, then they’re headed further down the slippery slope, and have only themselves to blame for it.

Batting has been India’s forte since the last many years, and it is where the team’s strength resides even during the transition phase. The exclusion of Gautam Gambhir is one major change from the previous series and there is no denying the fact that this is Virender Sehwag’s last shot at resurrection. It could augur well if he is moved to the middle-order, such that the opening the innings is left to the likes of Shikhar Dhawan, Murali Vijay or Ajinkya Rahane. What the side currently needs is experience at No 5.

Moreover, it should be a toss-up between Sehwag and Ravindra Jadeja for a berth in the middle-order, and the selection must solely be made from a batting point of view, for that is India’s mainstay. Ravichandran Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha are the team’s frontline spinners, and the powers that be must back the duo to the hilt, rather than to be defensive and create a safety net to accommodate Jadeja’s left-arm orthodox.

Captain MS Dhoni has had his shortcomings during recent times in Test cricket, setting conservative fields for both Ashwin and Ojha once the counter-attack commences and allowing the opposition to slip through the gaps.

Is Duncan Fletcher’s defensive outlook a contributing factor?

There have been a few instances of India fumbling, owing to defensive tactics, even when the sailing has been fairly smooth during certain junctures of a Test match. The Dominica Test, where India required 86 runs to win off 15 overs with seven wickets in hand, against an above-average West Indian attack, and yet settled for a draw, comes readily to mind.

But should Fletcher be partially blamed for encouraging this kind of an approach?

When England toured Pakistan in 2000, with Fletcher as their coach, they drew the first two Tests at Lahore and Faisalabad, owing to flat batting decks, but never really looked to apply pressure on the hosts in the final game at Karachi — although they clinched that Test against all odds in the final session. Prior to the win, Nasser Hussain, the then English skipper, believed that three drawn games on Pakistani soil was an acceptable result. The surprising fact is that his thoughts were similar to Fletcher’s. “I’m not saying I would have been totally satisfied with three turgid draws but, hey, that’s not too bad in Pakistan, and I think we were helped in having a southern African coach in Duncan Fletcher, who backed me up in believing that, out there, it was important to make sure we could draw the game first before we thought of the possibility of victory,” Hussain writes in his autobiography Playing with fire.

Perhaps Fletcher still subscribes to such a theory. He is also a firm believer of the fact that every bowler in the side should be in a position to contribute with the bat. The focus on extracting runs from the lower-order is not such a bad thing, but if it is being looked upon as a means to cover the inadequacies of specialist batsmen, it does not augur well. This logic could explain the inclusion of the likes of Jadeja, since it can provide a sense of security, and while it could often be a boon in the overs-limit format of the game, it seldom pays off in Test cricket.

This series against Australia could well be Fletcher’s last, since his two-year contract comes to an end in April. There can be one last roll of dice, but if he’s banking on draws for a possibility of reconciliation, then the ending could be a little harsh for a man of such stature.

(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)