Australia v India, 2nd Test, Sydney, 4th day January 6, 2012

An embarrassing capitulation

India have returned to the dark ages of overseas tours, when the failures of their batsmen led to crushing defeats

It is a measure of India's misery in Australia that at one stage of their second innings in Sydney the only point of interest was whether they would register their first 300-plus score of the series. And once that was achieved, through a few I've-got-nothing-to-lose blows from Zaheer Khan, the target shifted to 329, the score Michael Clarke mounted all by himself. That was chased down comfortably too, with R Aswhin striking a few of his own, but the jury was still out about who won this contest: after all the Indians hadn't dismissed Clarke.

The real story of the day was 4 for 15. A familiar collapse that sent hurtling towards despair a day that promised a fightback, a salvation of dignity if not prevention of defeat. At the lunch that the Sydney Cricket Ground Trust hosted on the fourth day, the chairman of the trust had hoped, with Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman still at the crease, the match would be extended to the last day.

It is just as well that Cricket Australia doesn't budget for the fifth day in their final projections. In the end, those who had paid Friday's gate money might have been grateful that the last three Indian batsmen dragged the match to the last session. The Swamy Army, the group of Indian supporters whose numbers have grown remarkably since 2003, turned out to be wiser. A bulk of them simply didn't turn up.

Ishant Sharma hung around with Ashwin long enough to take the score past another significant landmark: 347, India's highest score in an away Test in the previous 12 months. And then, with a free-swinging hit that landed in the stands behind long-on, Ashwin took India past 364, their previous best in 18 away innings, registered in the last New Year Test in Cape Town. The last time they managed to reach 400 overseas turned out to be in an eerily similar Test to this one. Bowled out for 136 in the first innings, they conceded 620 to lose by an innings and 25 runs at Centurion in December 2010.

These numbers are useful only for one purpose: they are evidence of India's rediscovered wretchedness away from the subcontinent. The nucleus of this team still carries a group of remarkable cricketers who contributed massively to erase the painful memories of touring, and how it must hurt them to be part of this horror streak, which now seems interminable.

And for a proud bunch of players, nothing would sting more than this statistic: Not since 1968, not even in the hopeless era of the 1990s, which some in this ground have painful memories of, have India lost six away matches on a trot. Between 1959 and 1968 they had lost 17.

This must count as their most embarrassing loss in Australia for over a decade. The defeat at the MCG might have rankled for reasons that, with hindsight, would feel far more positive. The lament there was about an opportunity lost. In various stages of that match, India held positions from where victory could be contemplated. And play began on the fourth morning with all results apart from a draw still possible. At the SCG, apart from that burst when Zaheer Khan winkled out three left-hand, top-order batsmen, India were in a battle that got more uphill by the session.

It isn't unusual for teams to look a bit ragged when opposition batsmen pile up huge runs, but very few top teams can manage the look of utter desolation India acquire after a barren session. As at Centurion, Edgbaston and the Oval, every trace of competition went out of the Indians on the field once Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke set their stall.

Energy and inspiration can create opportunities even on unresponsive wickets. The Australian bowlers managed to get more out of a third-day wicket last evening by coaxing more effort out of their bodies. After Ben Hilfenhaus had bent one more through Rahul Dravid's defences, James Pattinson and Peter Siddle found a higher gear to make the ball hurry and zip. With better catching and a bit of luck, they could have had India four down last evening.

That India managed only one wicket for over 600 runs was largely due to some magnificent batting from Clarke, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. But it was also true that India were quick to abandon hope and wait for the mercy of a declaration. Apart from a brief period when Ponting was nearing his hundred, there seemed neither any purpose nor intent from the Indians on the field. Those in the deep hardly took a start, some didn't even pretend to put an appearance of a chase, and bowlers simply took the cue and went through the motions.

MS Dhoni remained the most energetic man on the field, sometimes chasing the ball to fine leg from his position as wicketkeeper instead of the man at square leg, but as a Test captain he remains guilty of letting himself be dictated to by the circumstances, rather than making something happen.

Dhoni has many exceptional qualities, and his composure in adversity remains his greatest strength, but flagging teams sometimes require a bit of fire and inspiration, and Dhoni has personified resignation. That he has many creaking and ageing bodies at his disposal doesn't make the job easier.

More than anything else, though, the batsmen have failed the team the most. This Test was lost on the first day, when India managed to get bowled out for 191 after choosing to bat. With hindsight it may seem the wrong choice, for the first two sessions were the friendliest for the bowlers. But it was the right choice in the circumstances: a trailing team must make the running, and there is no better way to set up a Test that posting a big score.

To a large degree the Indian batsmen have been caught unawares by the nature of pitches and the kind of bowling they have encountered. There was a quiet confidence among the senior batsmen that there would be no repeat of the serial disasters that befell them in England because the Australian surfaces - hard and true with minimal deviation - and nature of the Australian bowling - back of a length - have traditionally suited their style of batting, which often relies on hitting on the up and through the line.

But unlike on their previous two tours, the pitches this time have had a matting of grass and the Australian bowlers have bowled a yard fuller. These two factors combined to present the Indian batsmen the same difficulties they encountered in England. And so far, the results have been disturbingly similar for them.

Also, the score line reads exactly the same as it did at the same juncture in 2007-08. But four years ago, the Indian team carried to Perth a sense of injustice and anger. This time they will board the same flight in despair.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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