December 16, 2015

Just win overseas, India

Why the team's fans have developed an appetite for the kind of results their team has historically been unable to deliver
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What the doctor ordered: winning on fast pitches with fast bowlers © Getty Images

On Saturday morning, I began writing a blog post for the Cordon that began as follows:

I've never been a political leader in my life. Yet I routinely criticise many who lead nations. I've never made a movie in my life, yet I criticise movie directors all the time. Interestingly enough, despite never having played a Test match in my life, I frequently critique the actions and decisions of those who do.

A short while later, I found that Sharda Ugra had beaten me to the punch in responding to Virat Kohli's recent outburst against the Indian cricket press. With some reluctance, I abandoned my original blog post. But Kohli's passionate interview still made the rounds in my cranial spaces. The emotions at play in the relationship between the Indian captain and the media contingent that follows the Indian team are worth a closer look. They should be of interest to all fans, not just Indian ones.

It is a reasonable surmise that members of the Indian cricket media are cricket fans; that is, they are members of that esteemed demographic termed "the Indian cricket fan". As such, some of their responses to the Indian cricket team's fortunes can be understood keeping in mind Indian fans' "aspirations". (If I may be so bold as to be reductive and to speak for an entire group.)

Underlying some of the "lack of support" that Kohli detects in the writing on his team's fortunes can be found some rather simple, long-standing desires of the Indian fan: that the Indian team develop winning ways overseas; that there not be such a sharp contrast between Indian results overseas and at home; that India develop an effective and match-winning stable of fast and slow bowlers alike. Quite simply, these are the oldest "complaints" - if they can be termed as such - directed by the Indian fan at the Indian team.

An older generation that wanted these results in Tests might have moved on, but a younger generation still hankers for victories that can fit into the template - even if only in limited-overs cricket - described above. Failure to deliver, while sticking to older formulas of winning at home with spinners, provokes impatience and frustration. Call these reactions unfair and irrational if you will - it is why I use scare quotes above - but they are most certainly present.

Kohli's visible irateness at the Indian cricket media might well be grounded in frustration at the same history that Indian fans want to put behind them

Of course, every ironic note many Indian fans strike when noting the hypocrisy present in the critiques - made more often by non-Indian media and touring teams - of dustbowls and too-short Tests in India is spot on. India's wins at home are not ersatz; touring teams should adjust to the conditions and deal with them. Indian batsmen and bowlers perform better in these conditions; they win deservedly. Other teams do not; their claim to be "better" teams than India are rendered suspect as a result. Batting and bowling on these wickets takes skill, just as it does on greentops overseas; not everyone has it. And so on. Every single concession possible in the cricketing sense can be made to the Indian team's position in their defence of their well-deserved victory over South Africa.

But Indian cricketing history has generated a record that is deficient in precisely the areas I noted above. And the fans who follow this team's fortunes - with its ever-changing rosters - have, thanks to that history, acquired a hunger for just those kinds of wins. Those fans include the members of the Indian cricket press. They, like the rest of us, have grown up on a diet of cricket writing and analysis that has convinced us that wins with fast bowlers, on fast pitches, at overseas venues, are the real McCoy. All else is imitation. And besides, that same cricketing history informs us that teams that won that way, have won more often in India than India have in their homes. To compare, to "match-up", India must win in similar fashion. Case closed. (Two "simple" results would do the trick: win Test series in Australia and South Africa with fast bowlers leading the way. It would be nice to beat England in similar fashion - 2011 and 2014 are still painfully fresh.)

So for the Indian cricket fan, when all is said and done, a result like the one in the series against South Africa, despite all the impressive cricket it showcased, merely serves as a reminder of historical lacunae. An Indian cricket writer cannot, I surmise, help thinking: "For crying out loud, why can't you guys win like this when you tour? Or even come halfway close to it? On a semi-regular basis?"

These kinds of seemingly irrational demands are almost constitutional in most sports fans. It is part of the fanatic in every fan; it is the bit that makes fans keep watching the game, hoping to see something that will assuage a subconscious need that has become a part of their sporting sensibility, one whose provenance they can only dimly trace in their autobiographies.

Virat Kohli has put India on the path to victory in Tests abroad, only to see the door shut in his face in the end © AFP

Here is the clincher: Kohli - an Indian cricket fan too - has the same aspirations. His visible irateness at the Indian cricket media might well be grounded in frustration at the same history that Indian fans want to put behind them. Think you saw him happy when he won the World Cup in 2011? Trust me, if he ever wins a Test series in Australia, he might well go into labour on the ground. The air would turn blue with his descriptions of what he would do to mothers and sisters the world over.

Let us not forget that Kohli has seen the door swing open to reveal the Promised Land (or variants of it) on three separate occasions:

1. In Johannesburg in 2013, Kohli scored 119 in the first innings, and then fell for 96 in the second, coming painfully close to a historic feat in a country considered the nemesis of Indian batsmen. His fall, and the failure of India to close the deal, ensured a great win - made distinctive by a signature statement of an Indian batsman's mastery of foreign conditions - slipped out of India's grasp.

2. In Auckland in 2014, India were chasing 407 to win against New Zealand. With Kohli batting beautifully on 67 (and Shikhar Dhawan scoring a century), India were 222 for 2. Then Kohli slashed wildly at Neil Wagner, and that began a long rot that ended with India losing by 40 runs.

3. Most famously, in Adelaide last year, Kohli, a fledgling captain, almost pulled off one the greatest wins in India's Test history. He scored centuries in both innings and led a gallant chase against a difficult target. With glory visible on the last day, he holed out on the boundary. His mates failed to back him up and India subsided to defeat.

So let me sign off in a manner analogous to Sharda's: just win overseas, Virat. Win with quicks. Win in style - perhaps with your dashing batting leading the way. All will be forgiven. And we'll play GIF'd and Vine'd replays of your celebrations all day long.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • gentlemans-game on December 19, 2015, 18:29 GMT

    There comes a time when phrases like "playing to your strengths" and "taking advantage of home conditions" start legitimising weak attempts at making excuses. India is close to that now. I'd love to see India make a contest of its overseas test tours and ease up a bit with the lopsided pitch preparations (R Shastri and V Kohli can deny it all they want. It was horrendous to watch!). The country's cricketing history has far too many heroes for its current test form to be like it is now. Exciting players all of them. I wish they would play exciting cricket!

  • ELECTRIC_LOCO_WAP4_IS_DELUDED on December 18, 2015, 19:00 GMT

    India should play to their strengths which is spin bowling. Pick spinners even when playing overseas. It doesn't matter if the pitches there aren't helpful for spin. All Ashwin and Jadeja have to do is bowl with flight, accuracy and vary their pace. Put pressure on the batsman. Sometimes you have to bore the opposition into making a mistake, which is what England were good at when they rose to number 1.

  • Nampally on December 18, 2015, 14:10 GMT

    This subject has been flogged to death by numerous comments. The real issue is India never play as a "Team" with every one contributing. In the first 2 Tests Vijay & Pujara with the bat & the spin trio as bowlers did the brunt of work to Win. In the last test it was Rahane & Kohli with the bat + Ashwin, Jadeja (bat & ball) & Umesh Yadav with the ball did most of the damage. This is consistently what India does in India & abroad. If the full batting & bowling fires India will do lot better overseas. This is clear from the stats. That is where Kohli needs to focus & get the whole team to contribute consistently. Wadekar's 1970's team had 2 stars in batting (Gavaskar & Sardesai) + Spin Trio + a host of all rounders & other bats who contributed. Above all their catching was superb! That is a good Bench Mark(BM) to aim. So Kohli should focus more on results overseas as you rightly say using this BM. His outbursts are not in keeping with the dignity & maturity of an Indian Test captain!.

  • anuajm on December 18, 2015, 13:07 GMT

    @Mohsin9975: Agree with you, it was heart breaking to see all the efforts of Kohli went to vain though i would not really blame Kohli but the other batsmen for failing to understand the need of the hour. India could have given themselves 7-8 overs to stabilize again and even post that target could have been 50 odd from 10 off overs. India then could have safely drawn the match if not won it. Could have set a great tone for the series.

  • blogossip on December 18, 2015, 10:27 GMT

    Which team currently is winning overseas?? England lost in use, south Africa in india,sri Lanka lost first test in new Zealand while new Zealand lost in Australia. Apart from windies in 80s and early 90s and Aussies in 90s and half of 2000 decade no team truly ruled overseas. South Africa perhaps had a small period where they had good overseas results but now no team is good overseas. Every team makes pitches which suit them at home and then when they go abroad they struggle. You need good seamers and spinners plus batsmen who can play in all conditions. Batsmen from Australia,England south Africa struggle where it spins while sub continent batsmen struggle on fast green pitches. Test cricket will now be dominated via home contests and this will be another reason why test cricket will lose further ground. I miss windews and Aussies who used to win overseas regularly. Today we can sort of predict outcome of series beforehand!

  • Cool_Jeeves on December 18, 2015, 9:09 GMT

    Virat, please don't pick the dreaded Singh Bandhu (RP Singh and Bhuvneshwar Singh, and Bandhu means brothers, and there is such a band in India that sings devotional music). I am mentioning this since I would have expected Dhoni to pick them if travelling overseas, or two other equally low intensity bowlers. Pick the fastest, and for God's sake, play them in many tests and let them develop.

  • Dysan25 on December 18, 2015, 6:45 GMT

    They don't have to win with 'quicks' to be honest. Why not win with a 'spinner' where the pitch doesn't offer any turn for a spinner. Why not win with a 'quick' where the pitch doesn't help a fast bowler. Why not take the mental block of 'pitch has to suit our bowlers' out of the equation ? Just a thought from another Indian cricket fan who has not played international cricket.

  • NRI- on December 18, 2015, 1:39 GMT

    They just beat SL in SL. About time they played the WI in WI. It's been many years since they did that. They will win there if they take 3 spinners in the squad and play Ashwin and one other in every test match; WI are poor players of spin.

  • NRI- on December 17, 2015, 20:33 GMT

    For too long, India has not visited the West Indies. If they go and play 4 or 5 teats, and go with three spinners on the the tour and play two every test, they will win. They did beat SL overseas. And now that Ishant & Yadav is a great combination and Ashwin is spinning the ball more, they could beat England in England in a series.

  • avinash900 on December 17, 2015, 19:20 GMT

    Mr Samir really, its fun reading this article, u along with everyone knows how and where it started . instead of asking our greatest ever captain to improve the media behavior and public image , We are seeing great articles. I'm not against his intention to win, the talent are the grit he got. No one cares him if he is not a Indian team captain, so he has to be wise. I know its not going to be highlighted as you guys will force the fans to accept this childish behavior. Please learn from Dhoni. All I can do is pray for good days for Indian Cricket.

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