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India begin the Nagpur Test facing the possibility of a third consecutive home defeat ‒ an indignity they have not encountered since England won in Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai at the start of the 1976-77 series, and a prospect as ugly as a mistimed Graeme Smith cover drive.
They have already lost back-to-back home Tests for the first time since South Africa swept a two-Test series in 1999-2000. The Indian selectors, who had reacted to the recent 4-0 drubbings in England and Australia by springing into action like a coiled doughnut, finally wielded something at least slightly resembling an axe, and cut Zaheer and Yuvraj from the team, plus Harbhajan from the squad.
They could have justifiably chopped at least a couple more batsmen, one wicketkeeper and/or one captain, two additional bowlers, and eight or nine fielders from the line-up that failed so dismally in all departments at Eden Gardens, although this would probably have constituted surgery too radical even for the ailing patient which showed so few signs of life in last week's Test. In the immortal words of the legendary former world-No. 1-ranked playwright and allrounder W Shakespeare (Warwickshire & England), "Breaking up is never easy, I know, but I have to go" (authorship disputed; possible missing scene from the smash-hit 1590s rom-trag Romeo & Juliet; manuscript unearthed in a recording studio in Stockholm, 1976). And breaking up a team that reached the pinnacle in both long- and short-form cricket, and which still contains some of the greatest and most influential players in Indian cricket history, is even less easy.
The Indian media and public have not exactly been salivating at the legion of replacements tearing it up in the Ranji Trophy. There seems to be a particularly gloomy outlook on the bowling front. During my now-concluded two-Test trip to India, my queries about which new or recycled bowlers might successfully, or even adequately, replace the incumbents mostly met with a blank 1000-yard stare, a look of regret, wistfulness and occasional horrific flashbacks to RP Singh wobbling in to bowl at The Oval last year, seemingly selected as a one-man metaphor for the malaise in Indian cricket.
India have now lost ten of their last 11 Tests against teams in the top six of the ICC rankings. England themselves had lost seven of their nine games this year against top-six sides before their Mumbai victory, so a turn in fortunes is not impossible. It would, however, be unexpected, particularly given how India's bowlers sliced through England's top order at Eden Gardens like a plastic picnic knife through granite-encased deep-frozen butter, and the excellence of all four prongs of the England attack which bowled with markedly superior pace, swing, hostility, spin, skill and consistency than their opponents. Advantages which fielding captains generally appreciate.
Perhaps Dhoni and his team have one last hurrah left in them. Perhaps they have the first hurrah of a new era in them. The two could be one and the same. I suspect England will have too many weapons with bat and, especially, ball, and will wrap up an impressive series win that will compensate a little for having flunked their two sternest examinations of the year, and will promise much for 2013.
I was struck during my visit to India by its continuing love for Test cricket, the youth of the crowd, and their generosity and enthusiasm even as their team were giving them little to cheer. Crowds have declined as television has increased, but that is not a specifically Indian problem. Whether that affection and interest for cricket's greatest and most fascinating form endures remains uncertain.
Indian cricket is a battleground, the epicentre of the fight over cricket's future between competing and often conflicting interests that is already and inevitably affecting players' priorities and techniques. It does not necessarily affect their desire to succeed in the five-day game. Virat Kohli, the cricketer who leads and exemplifies the new generation of Indian cricketers, appears both passionately committed to it, and aware that his status as a cricketer will in large part be defined by his performances in Tests. Five times in this series, he has left the field in an obvious fug of self-recrimination, serially let down by flawed, impatient decision-making and execution. And, in the second innings in Mumbai, by planking a full-toss to mid-off with all the finesse and competence of a DIY enthusiast nailing a smart new shelf to his forehead, instead of the wall.
But his desire to succeed does not alter the facts that the varying imperatives of his annual schedule may hinder his efforts to do so, and that, financially, he does not need to conquer the five-day game in the way that Dravid's generation did. The path of his career will be fascinating to follow.
Strong leaders and characters are needed in Nagpur and beyond, on and off the pitch. Dhoni has been both for India for most of his tenure as captain. He has led India in 42 Tests - more than twice the next highest total of games skippered by a wicketkeeper ‒ and in a total of 206 international matches altogether over five years, more than three times as many as second-placed Sangakkara (67), in which he has averaged 47 with the bat. It is easy to understand why he sometimes appears jaded. Is there anything left in the well?
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.