The vision we collectively bought into
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?