India's gloom gets darker under a blazing sun
At first glance very little seemed extraordinary about the first two days of the Test unfolding at Adelaide Oval. The weather was hot, the pitch dry, and the batting suitably relentless. A captain and his predecessor peeled off double-centuries, and the bowlers wilted steadily under the glare of the sun. Take out a few advertising signs and new stands and it might have been any Adelaide Test since the second World War.
It is not sufficient, however, to attribute India's struggles against an Australian side guided by the flowing strokes of Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke to a flat pitch and a January heat wave. Australia's 7 for 604 declared was the latest episode in a series that has struck the same notes with about as much dogged consistency as a punk bass player. India did as they had done in Melbourne and Sydney, fetching early wickets then subsiding with all the compliance of a team that knows it is beaten. In Perth the wickets fell later, after spirits were broken by David Warner and Ed Cowan.
Few teams as prominently billed as this Indian side have been made to look this poor for an entire series, and by an opposing team in transition. It is arguable that not since Peter May's England in 1958-59 has a visiting party been so comprehensively trounced having arrived in Australia as warm favourites. The result that summer was 4-0 as a younger home side, led imaginatively by Richie Benaud and spearheaded by a strong pace attack, had too much energy for a team with players such as May, Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey, Fred Trueman and Jim Laker.
Then, as now, the tourists were thought to have brought their strongest team. India's squad was beefier than the one that had limped through England last summer, being bolstered by the return to fitness of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma. The batting was far from sprightly, still relying heavily on Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and VVS Laxman. Dravid referred to them as "a few creaking terminators", a description that has grown more poignant with each passing humiliation.
Their destruction has been brought about on the pitch by Australia's bowlers and batsmen. But off it India have been burrowed under by near-sighted selection and planning. Cricket history is littered with instances of players and teams that hung on too long and were punished for their tardy regeneration, and now the 2011-12 Indians are added to their number. Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman in particular do not deserve to be remembered this way in Australia, but it is inescapable that their final tour of this country will sour many memories, for them and their supporters. In that sense they resemble Muhammad Ali in the years after the Rumble in the Jungle, unwilling to bring the curtain down at the ideal time and paying a price for it.
While Tendulkar has made runs and looked fluent, he has found himself distracted by the pursuit of a milestone that is more a statistical quirk than a solid achievement. Dravid's feet and hands have proven to be slow and unsure on pitches offering more pace than those in England, where he excelled against bowling of similar quality but perhaps lesser velocity. Laxman's predicament is the saddest of all, as the man who confounded Australia for years looks immobile on ageing knees, unable to get forward to cover the movement on offer to the bowlers.
At the other end of the age scale, Umesh Yadav and R Ashwin have provided minor bright spots for India and in Adelaide they were joined in doing so by Wriddhiman Saha, the wicketkeeper called up to replace the suspended MS Dhoni. Saha's standards remained high throughout 157 overs and he conceded only three byes, while Yadav and Ashwin showed glimpses of the sort of bowling that is required to defeat the best batsmen. None of them are the finished article, but how much better might they have been with earlier opportunities?
Kris Srikkanth, India's chairman of selectors, now stands to face almost as much criticism as his former Australian counterpart Andrew Hilditch. A smiling, laughing presence in front of the cameras, Srikkanth carried the air of a man with not a care in the world for much of the past three and a half years. Yet he will now face a sterner examination from those who will ask about the likes of Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and the aforementioned trio. India needed to plan for this Australian tour in a more rigorous manner than has been evident. It is too easy in the current climate of non-stop fixtures to lose track of an opponent's development. The Australia of 2011-12 is nearly unrecognisable from that of 2010-11, yet India seem to have lost sight of their opponents' progress since they last met in the World Cup.
This leads to the door of Duncan Fletcher, India's coach. Fletcher has said he tried as much as possible to replicate the methods of Gary Kirsten, his successful predecessor. But they are different men, with different approaches. It cannot be forgotten that Fletcher ventured to Australia with a record of underachievement on these shores that few can match. Before the Adelaide Test he had coached international teams in 13 Tests here, winning one and losing 12. Australia's current selectors have placed an emphasis on the matter of whether or not the players they are selecting have come from winning teams. It may have been worth augmenting Fletcher's advice with other consulting voices, to help the coach as much as the players.
Most dangerous of all is the indication that India's attitude to overseas results has deteriorated, their desire and resolve waning with the rationalisation that home results count for more than those away - a populist view that has very little to do with the ways of high performance sportsmen. Taunts directed at Australia's batsmen from the likes of Virat Kohli and Ishant have suggested that it is the younger players who have taken this stance, bleak tidings indeed for those hoping for life beyond Laxman, Tendulkar, Dravid and Zaheer. It was the sort of view brought to Australia by Indian teams of decades ago. And it is another reason why the first two days of this Test should not be written off as that same old Adelaide Oval script.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here