Time for India to shed denial
Four years ago, during an ugly series between these two teams in this country, Anil Kumble, India's captain, evoked Bill Woodfull circa Bodyline, saying only one of the teams was playing cricket. The same could just as easily be said of this series. In their own cocoon of denial, living in the past, out-batted, out-bowled, out-fielded, out-captained both on and off the field, out-coached, out-jibed by the hosts, India didn't really turn up.
The batsmen kept failing but kept getting picked and kept batting in the same positions on the top of that. The bowlers lacked the control; Ishant Sharma carried his flaws and misfortune, which might or might not be inter-related, despite a strong and specialised coaching staff; the old men without the runs didn't write off the debts they incurred in the field; the openers were found out, but everybody kept talking of a time in the past when they used to win.
They used to win no doubt but never as comprehensively as they have lost over their last two series. It was a team skating on thin ice, albeit skating exceptionally well until earlier this year, but the ice has given away now. The rescue squad is of the view it will prepare better ice at home.
To find out where it all went wrong on this tour it is important to go back to where it all started. Melbourne was the kind of Test India used to win over the last four years or so. They just did. Somehow. They used to have the mental strength. That is the reason the fans began to trust this side. That is the reason why they are angry now. They haven't seen that desperation here.
They can't pinpoint a time when the desperation, the mongrel, left this team. Was it when the seniors passed a certain age - and can cricketers age all of a sudden? Was it when surgeries were postponed so that IPL could be played and Tests missed? Was it when the previous 4-0 whitewash was not even part of the board's recap of the last year at its awards function? Did the World Cup win exhaust them and sate them at the same time? This is all conjecture, and possibly unfair, but the fans are asking themselves these questions.
The good Indian team used to win the big moments - it didn't happen over a long period but it was the same personnel consistently making second-innings comebacks and or chasing high-ish totals in the fourth innings. Not now. Melbourne was a bit like Trent Bridge when they let the batsmen off the hook twice. India's bowling plans were outdated, as if the captain and the coaches hadn't seen Australia play since they last played India. They tried to bounce Ricky Ponting out when clearly he had been falling lbw over the last few months, thus playing him back into form. The good Indian teams' tailenders added runs, here Zaheer Khan refused to stay in front of the stumps. A lot of the blame has to be laid at the door of a team of defensive captain and defensive coach, but the mongrel wasn't there either.
It all can't be put down to the absence of that intangible quality either. The skills were found out. Perhaps it might have to do with age and slowing down of the instinct, but Virender Sehwag against the seaming and bouncing ball wasn't a good sight. Gautam Gambhir spent half the series fighting the poke only for the bouncer at his throat to consume him for the other half.
VVS Laxman remained strangely passive at the crease, and only in Adelaide - a Test he shouldn't have played in the first place - did he move his guard to middle stump to counter the fifth-stump line. Rahul Dravid knew his back foot was not moving across, and he tried his darnedest in the nets to overcome it, but could not manage it. Sachin Tendulkar began the summer gloriously, and still looked the best equipped technically, but that is where it stopped.
The question marks against the seniors are valid and well documented, and it is time to drop those who will not be a part of the side at the start of the overseas tours in late 2013. There is no disrespect to their previous contributions in dropping them. However, it is disrespectful to plant stories in the media, as has been happening, to try to put covert pressure so they are forced to retire. Retirement should not even be a question here; that is the players' decision, and it is understandable for players to want to keep playing. What are the selectors and team management doing?
Good Indian teams bounced back from first defeats, now "bouncebackability" is a word used to mock them. With this team you badly hoped, for the sake of a contest, that they didn't lose the first match. In the lead-up to Sydney, no one other than the Indian team spoke of their ability to come back after their first defeat. From the time they were bowled out for 191 on that first day in Sydney, it was clear it would be nothing short of a miracle to avoid a whitewash.
Perth and Adelaide were natural progression. Mentally they were gone. They were in such bad state they couldn't even ignore criticism in the papers: R Ashwin called the media a deterrent and Sehwag asked them to support the side like cheerleaders.
MS Dhoni's captaincy may be open to whatever criticism but his leadership style of letting everyone be so they did their job best had worked until this debacle began. Good leaders, however, change their ways with time. There seems nobody in this team capable of lighting a fire under a few backsides, or of making on-the-spot decisions that match the desperation of the situation.
If Dhoni's erstwhile strength might have become his weakness, we don't even know what Duncan Fletcher's role is, except that no player wants to blame him. He was a control freak when with England, but has no powers here. He loved DRS, but can't say that in his new employment. He is supposed to be good with youngsters, but doesn't seem to be pushing for them here. He used substitutes to rile opposition captains, but is part of a team that calls back technically run-out batsmen. Is he a square peg in a round hole?
It is believed it is good to hit the rock bottom once in a while so that the only way is up. The problem is, the team and the board react in a manner that suggests they don't believe they have reached there yet. They still boast of home wins. They are complaining of grass on pitches that have actually been pretty fair, and ignoring completely that most of their recent wins away from the subcontinent have come in more-than-friendly bowling conditions. Hopefully they don't actually feel that way, and it is just a "brave face", although it isn't very clever.
Hopefully, at the next year's awards function, the BCCI will acknowledge that apart from hosting IPL and Champions League and putting together a side that won home Tests - the last one is no guarantee - India also lost badly in Australia. Accepting flaws is the first step towards correcting them.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo