April 15, 2006

The two Indias

The vision we collectively bought into

Prem Panicker

Earlier posts: intro, 1, 2.

A funny thing happened on my way to this pulpit – I lost my sermon. Or more accurately, found it pre-empted most eloquently by Dileep Premachandran.

Presuming for the sake of argument that the breast-beating over the Test side has to do with Greg Chappell's tenure as coach (a presumption based on Ashok Malik's kick-off argument about the coach's Machiavellian machinations), what exactly are we talking about?

Under the Chappell regime, India has played 11 Tests, won five, and lost two. Excuse me, this is reason enough for us to break out the sackcloth and ashes why?

During this period, India has played 31 ODIs, won 21, and lost 10 – a 67.74 per cent winning record as opposed to the 52.31 percentage the team totted up during the John Wright-Saurav Ganguly era. A 15 per cent uptick in winning percentage is not, in a nation that has burnt stadia and stoned players following ODI defeats, cause for more widespread celebration why?

I forget. Test cricket is the real cricket. It is what separates the boys from the men. The pajama version is good enough for the less traditional among us – but it is victory in Test cricket that endures; it is in the Test arena that memories morph into legend.

After all, everyone remembers Eden Gardens for the web of mystery Harbhajan Singh spun, for VVS Laxman's epochal knock, for Rahul Dravid's sublime second fiddle – but who remembers the score line of our last time-limit thrash?

That, or something akin, is the argument advanced when you presume to celebrate one-day success. To those advancing it, I have a question: Where were you when India and England, vying for the number two slot in world Test rankings, were playing in Nagpur, in Chandigarh? Why, in Mumbai, did we see more English fans than locals? Do you even go to watch Test cricket any more?

Not in your numbers, you don't. And by not turning up for Tests, and having to be turned away from houseful stadiums for ODIs, what signal are you sending to the administrators of the game?

There is, in every industry, two groups that take responsibility for the final produce – the producer, and the consumer. And of the two, it is the consumer that dictates. There was a time when we indicated that we saw a car as a lifetime purchase; that the car we bought after much agonizing needed to last a lifetime. We got the Ambassador. Times changed; we indicated a preference for sportier models – so look what's clogging our roads now.

Cricket is an industry, fans are the consumers, and the fan has over the past several years clearly indicated that he prefers the shorter form of the game. So again, we are surprised when the BCCI focuses on one-day cricket, at the expense of the longer form of the game, why?

Are we not getting exactly what we asked for?

Think back to late October 2000. John Wright was making an outside run for the job of national coach. He walked into the meeting with the BCCI honchos, and the first thing he said was, "Gentlemen, let's not talk of my salary; let us, instead, talk of what we can do with this Indian team."

He then outlined a vision of a national side that could shed its tag of poor travelers, a team that could perform in all countries and all conditions – and he was not talking of one-day cricket.

He sold the BCCI on that vision, and we collectively bought into it. We celebrated the first overseas win in a generation, we celebrated a Homeric epic against the all-conquering Aussies, we danced in the streets when the team fought Australia to a standstill Down Under and we joined the proverbial cow and jumped over the moon when our team won a historic Test series in Pakistan.

Fast forward, now, to May 2005, when the BCCI honchos met to select Wright's successor. Each applicant was asked to make a presentation – and the winning theme, authored by Greg Chappell, was how to take India to the top of the podium in World Cup 2007.

It was this vision the BCCI bought into (and in this age of calculated vilification, it might be worth pointing out that it was the previous administration that made the decision); it was this goal that was endorsed and, significantly, it was World Cup 2007 that signposts the end of Chappell's contract.

Any reasonable analysis would tell you we are nowhere near Cup-winning form yet; the same analysis however would also tell you that in the course of 11 months and 31 one dayers, we have taken significant steps towards getting there.

Before Rahul Dravid and Greg Chappell teamed up, Dravid had led India in 12 ODIs; his scoreline read 5 wins to 6 defeats and one no result. The Dravid-Chappell combine has now been at the helm for 24 ODIs; the team has won 17 and lost 7. And significantly, a team that routinely folded when asked to chase has just stitched together a world record streak of 15 straight wins batting second.

Stop the presses, folks -- the cup is half full.

Yes, the other half is empty. The two Tests we have lost during this period have been identical, in that both required the team to bat through day five against quality bowling sides.

It is in the fourth innings that patience and endurance, more than talent even, is tested – and twice we have failed the test. So when was the last time we passed? When, last, did we manage to save a Test batting fourth? As Dileep points out, any talk of deterioration implies that an idyllic state existed previously. Did it?

What those two failures, seen in context of the matches that preceded them, has shown is that Rahul Dravid alone has the cricketing nous, and the bottomless reservoir of patience, needed in such situations.

In the one day format, the team has thrown up a plethora of natural leaders – Pathan, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Raina, even the rejuvenated Harbhajan. In Tests, Dravid leads – but none of his mates has shown the legs to follow.

A leader with no followers is merely a lonely man taking a walk – and for the better part of a decade, Dravid in the Test arena has been just that.

I do not mean to suggest that Tests are not important. Nor that we abdicate the five-day game. But if we want our Test team to be the equal of the best, a good place to start is by saying it; by putting warm bodies in the seats.

That signals the producers that you want an all-round product, which in turn dictates step two: that the BCCI makes Test success (a firm grip on the number two slot, for starters) a priority item on the agenda of the team and its coach, which today it is not, and schedules more frequent Test series against significant opposition.

It is then up to the coach, the captain, the selectors, the team management, to do for the Test side what they have done for the one-day squad: identify the right people for the right slots, blood them, back them, hone their skill sets and meet the targets set for them.

In the interim, the one-day side – whose lack of mental strength, killer instinct and suchlike shibboleths we have long bemoaned – appears to have finally reached the corner, if not actually turned it.

Must we still gripe, and groan, and seek Machiavellian conspiracies behind every sightscreen?

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Posted by Krish on (April 28, 2006, 20:34 GMT)

Prem: Let us concede that Greg has not paid enough attention to test cricket compared to ODIs. But have not the recently inculcated (into Team India) virtues of ODI cricket Viz. Improvement in fielding, Swifter running between the wickets etc. percolated into the test team also as we find nowadays?

Posted by Krish on (April 28, 2006, 17:43 GMT)

Prem, you hit the nail on the head. Priorities change with time, with followers, administrators, Coaches and players in different proportions. When we talk of priorities of the coaches, either chosen by themselves or impressed on them by the administrators, records show that their concentration is on their priorities thus making the less-prioritized segment suffering. Will that imply or push us to the funny (or is it idiotic)suggestion of having a coach for each version of cricket with their own priorities on the qualities of players choosen for the task?

Posted by Venkatesh on (April 28, 2006, 2:10 GMT)

I agree with Dileep's asessment - we are a poor Test team with only one player (Dravid) worthy of selection into other Test teams - we are currently riding a rank higher than form primarily due to our past performances against an Australian team without McGrath and Warne and a less than stellar Pakistan - surrounding this are test series against NZ at home where we were clearly second-class, a home series against Pakistan that we could not win, a Test series against Australia again at home where we won one Test (and lost 2) thanks to an atrocious pitch in Mumbai and now recently Test losses against a second-string English side and our pathetic display in the Karachi Test are symptoms of a larger problem - we are indeed a poor Test playing nation.

Our players continue to bask in overadulation of a billion people without realizing that many of them are not worthy of getting selected to another Test playing team except perhaps Bangladesh and Zimbwabwe - we have hired an expensive coach whose only goal is the 2007 ODI World Cup and not the current and intervening Tests and ODIs - this gives him a free hand in extreme experimentation. Unfortunately the players have not been given the same medium-term goal - Players have to fight not for their country's glory but to hold on to their places - disorientation will set in and we will see this when we tour the Carribean next month - Indian cricket is shy on abilities and hardworking individuals, expect this team to lose both the Tests and the ODIs in the Windies.

Posted by WW on (April 21, 2006, 22:09 GMT)

Now that Greg Chappel’s resemblance to Machiavelli has been ruled as purely coincidental repeatedly through the article, lets proceed to analyze his tenure over the last season, I believe the purpose of it was to defend the seemingly lost fighting skills in the test arena while highlighting the success Indian team had in ODIs over the same period.

To me, the success in one day arena is owed to three players, Pathan, Dhoni and Yuvraj Singh. Apart from a couple of contributions from Raina, every success the ODI team had enjoyed this season is owed to the technically perfect batting Pathan has rather successfully displayed in the initial overs when the fielding restrictions are on, The form of a life time that Yuvraj seems to be in, and the finishing skills and heart displayed by Dhoni on numerous occasions. Yes we have had contributions from dravid , sachin and bowlers on occasions, but what separated victory from loss was the contributions of these threesome.

Now were does chapell stand regarding his contribution to see the above three are able to display their wares and contribute as well as they have been?

He did promote pathan up the order during the lanka series, but dravid vehemently stressed the fact that it was Sachin’s idea to send him at No.3, a position where Pathan seems to be more equipped to deliver than most of his teammates for whom batting is their bread and butter.

He did back Yuvraj Singh through a lean path he was going through during the later part of Srilanka and south Africa series, admittedly a bit irritatingly but Yuvraj did come through, winning matches all by himself, some times even looking like the only batsmen who could play SA bowlers other than Pathan.

And Dhoni proved himself to be the killer of bowlers, albeit so far on pitches suited to batsmen, with out them threatening to use the pace, bounce and swing to their advantage as they could on pitches we don’t see in the sub continent. No matter how flattered we are with the sheer size of his heart and biceps, the way he defends, and the way he was shielded by chapell himself against SA, it seems his final ascendancy to levels occupied by the likes of Gilchrist will have to be delayed till he proves himself on those grounds, against the bowling of a Ntini,clark or bond in helpful conditions.

So that leaves us with one contribution Chappel has made to the ODI success of late, his willingness to stick with players struggling with form, like what he did for yuvraj. He did it for an extended period with Sehwag and kaif finally giving up and dropping them both after a defeat. So it could as well be argued that it is the success that the big three had that had let him experiment the way he had been doing it, not the other way around. Through out the England series, it felt like India were playing with nine players given the form sehwag and kaif were in, and they were backed even when the chances of their contributing looked remote. So the theory of fielding the best 11 to bring victory was shot, in favour of giving these two every possible chance to come back to form, at a cost mind you, risking a loss every time they went out with such a combination and it finally happened at the steel city. It could well be argued as sehwag himself admitted, that it could have been a better ploy to see if they can sit out and analyze what was going wrong and find some other platform other than the national side where so much is at stake to find their form.

On to the strategic capabilities from cricketing skills, Dravid has proved himself to be the perfect side kick to Chappell. He is the consummate south Indian Brahmin, Thoughtful yet articulate, talented yet determined, Intelligent yet thoroughly professional. But he is still not your fearless leader who would burn down the establishment or fight against all authority to protect his values and instincts. He can be dominated and manipulated as beautifully done by chapell albeit showing some positive results. There was huge chemistry mismatch between him and the indomitable ganguly that has led to the spat and chapell’s command over the selector borad and dravid seems to have driven Ganguly to oblivion. Given Kaif’s and sehwag’s repeated failures the rigid stance against Ganguly will sit on the back burner only as long as India continues its success, and once the side is exposed against better teams on more challenging tracks, the issue will be brought up and rightly so.

Why?, here are the reasons… Ganguly even given his reputation for his attitude akin to what the king had to the masses and his perceived weakness against short pitched bowling, gave the Indian team all that it had missed in the past, fighting spirit, killer instinct, and most of all it was in him to protect the players against any affect the servility the country has a whole have towards white skin. He always stood up to anybody who came across his way and was never afraid to pay the fines that came with it. He was the fearless, indomitable lion that India badly needed at that time. The killer instinct the Indian team shows now has a lot to do with his blue blood and royal attitude. It is really strange that we have bought into the theory that he is bad for the team’s chemistry when he is the one who blooded, supported and developed several members of this team. I wonder if ever there was a secret ballot in the current Indian team to vote for chappell or ganguly, who will get the most votes?...

Posted by marcus on (April 19, 2006, 3:21 GMT)

Amit

you are absolutely right. I don't know what I was thinking; after all, I've made that same argument myself several times.

Posted by Awais Misri on (April 18, 2006, 23:57 GMT)

The Indians team recent success has generally been based upon perfromances by Dhoni and Yuvraj, whose natural game of striking ths ball is only a viable option on dead Indian and Pakistani pitches, on slower pitches (as those in the West Indies or Sri Lanka) they will struggle as they will in on pitches on which the balls move around more (read South African and English picthes). I know its only one match, but evidence can be seen from the Indians failure to score 200 in the 1st match in Abu Dhabi

Posted by sid dasgupta on (April 18, 2006, 13:48 GMT)

When asked about Saurav Ganguly, all that was said was-"It is never the road for end of anyone. I am not chairman of selectors, and for me to make any blanket statement would be wrong" .Dravid said this on 17th April, on the eve of the Abu Dhabi match. Do we see another budding cricketing politician in the making by this type of a statement? Why can he not say clearly that he does not like Saurav to be a part of the team? As a captain we all know that he has a very large say. Where is Mr Decent hiding? Surely this is NOT the vision that we want for the future.

Posted by sanjay on (April 18, 2006, 4:54 GMT)

This is quite misleading that Indian cricket is loosing interest on 5 days match, just because they have lost couple of tests and win more ODI in last few months. Credit must be given to Chappel for implementing his strategy for the success in ODI. However, the same strategy will work for test only if the same team combination will gain a lot of experience. Because, test cricket requires lot more mental stiffness and consistency which a player can cultivate by experience. Therefore, this young team should be given more chance before they do the same as they are dong in ODI. Again, no one will disagree that it took a while for Sachin to score the first hundred in ODI, yet he has the highest number of ODI hundred. Therefore, let’s stop speculating about the team’s capability or Chappel’s ability. Give them time, and let them perform. Let’s not be a nerd to judge someone so early. I am sure, few overseas test win will let critics wonder why opponents are weak rather than India is getting stronger.

Posted by Bhushan on (April 18, 2006, 4:42 GMT)

I do not see how the popularity of ODIs and hence the vision for 2007 World cup have been the culprits for Team India's decline, if any, in test cricket.

India have never been a great test team. They were at best a good team at home and an average team overseas. We won overseas when we had a good middle order and one match winning bowler with a decent supporting cast. There were very few occassions the team survived when faced with swing and seam friendly conditions.

The Wright-Gangula era instilled a fighting spirit that the previous teams lacked and led to an improvement in the both forms of cricket but more importantly in tests. But towards the end of his tenure Wright was disappointed that the team took a few steps back after the tied series in Australia and historic win in Pakistan. He didn't see the same discipline and attitude that helped the team with those significant accomplishments. Any relative decline that we can focus on probably started then.

Today, any decline you want to attribute to, attribute it to the form of some of the batsmen and over dependence on Rahul Dravid but don't get into the economics of the game. It is just too far fetched.

Posted by Mr. Arvind Agarwal on (April 17, 2006, 23:15 GMT)

Prem is sort of excusing Chappell for the failures in Mumbia and Karachi. Wright improved overseas results but didn’t win enough at home. Similarly, Chappell can’t be expected to work on both the ODI team and the test team!! Indirectly he blames the fans and BCCI for ignoring test cricket (Apparently the fans have not coming in sufficient numbers to test stadia and their protests have not been loud enough!!). He implies that coach, captain, selectors, etc. are waiting for BCCI to make test cricket a greater priority before they act decisively. Surely it can’t be right. Somehow, BCCI is not making an issue of tests and these worthies are not bothered?? If faults are not highlighted, it seems the test team will be ignored or at worse vandalized by inappropriate selections. Bring in the “right people for the right slots” and I will agree. Let’s review the team. There are a few inspirational performers already in it (Dravid, Kumble). Some major batting figures could be revived or replaced by form players with hunger and aptitude. Prem will be surprised with what Indian players have already done in say Manchester 2002, Guyana 2002, Kolkata 2002, so on (in other words, playing out time to save a match).

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