Discord, dissent hurt Indian team
The statements made by some of the senior players in press conferences indicate a clear dissent and failure of communication among the Indian team on tour in Australia for more than two months now. There has also been a near breakdown of communication between the selectors and the team management, ESPNcricinfo has learned.
Some of the statements the players have been making are not the sort they would if they didn't want to. If the media is enjoying the glut of bombshells that have punctuated the press conferences, it is only because the players, well-versed in the art of stonewalling tough questions during good times, are willing participants. It's been a long tour with little success to celebrate, and the differences and frustrations are coming out now.
Whether the former played some part in the latter - to put it all down to a rift would be disrespectful to Australia who have completely outplayed India - is the old chicken-and-egg question. Then again there is no dressing room that is completely devoid of personality and philosophy clashes. You don't need to go on double dates to ensure the requisite dressing-room atmosphere conducive to winning games of cricket. Insiders are of the view that MS Dhoni and Virender Sehwag have never been great friends, but until the last few months were mature team-mates. Now, though, their differences might have begun to hurt the team. There's no point wishing them away.
The latest bone of contention on a tour of discontent is Dhoni's policy to play only two out of Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Sachin Tendulkar. Two of the three openers have made their discontent known. Through an earlier press conference, Sehwag made this policy public, including saying he had been told the three were to take turns at resting. There has to be a reason why a member of the team, not known to share any team news with the press, did so now. The pressure was on Dhoni now, to make Tendulkar sit out in the third game.
Dhoni did so. Then he followed up Gambhir's 92 with an innings that began slowly but finished the job, even if cutting it a little too fine. It was Gambhir's turn now to speak out. He said the game should not have gone into the final over, and that perhaps Dhoni was waiting for someone else to take up the responsibility of playing the big shots. It was India's first big win of the tour against Australia - the only other one until then being a Twenty20 - and Gambhir's sudden forthrightness didn't quite add up.
At the toss for the next game, while continuing his rotation policy like a law, Dhoni said it was imperative that set batsmen finished games off. Dhoni had earned himself some relief purely off his own bat, but the youngsters he was backing were not performing at all. And by the time the team reached Brisbane, Dhoni was of the view that the youngsters not only deserved a chance to fail, they had earned it through their fielding. That if all three openers were to be played, India would leak 20 extra runs on an average.
This did not sit well with certain members of the side at all. Minutes after that press conference, Dhoni heard the news of the match ban because of the slow over-rate. Now, with Sehwag as captain, the first thing thrown to the wind was the rotation policy. Out went Rohit Sharma. No bowling for Suresh Raina until the 49th over, whose part-time spin had been as much responsible for his continued selection as his batting. The vice-captain was hardly, as he often is, an extension of the captain. You didn't need to attend Sehwag's press conference to know he didn't quite agree with the captain.
Sehwag's interaction suggested the scarcely believable notion that Dhoni had not communicated either in personal chats or in team meetings that India couldn't afford too many relatively slow fielders, and that it all had an accumulative effect. While the apparent lack of communication is an issue, equally grave is the communication breakdown between the team management and selectors.
While Dhoni is almost out of the loop with the selection of the squad, the touring selectors are being returned the favour when it comes to selecting XIs. It can be argued it is an ideal situation, but there is nobody - at least during the Tests there was nobody - in the leadership group who found himself in a position to make big calls. India went through eight batting failures in the Tests, but neither the personnel nor their order was changed. Sources have told ESPNcricinfo that the team management had been waiting for the selectors to pull the plug on the seniors. During the last big tour before two years of home Tests, nobody wanted to be the one making tough calls.
Nor does it help that Dhoni remains non-committal about his future in Test cricket. While he shows remarkable foresight when he says that he will retire in 2013 if he doesn't feel he can give it his best in the 2015 World Cup, his statement that he could retire from Tests in 2013 has left everybody in a panic mode, because in 2013 starts India's next away Test series, followed by two more important away tours.
When Dhoni did assume a degree of control as a leader in his format, the ODIs, his stubbornness as a captain hasn't gone down well with some players. There are certain players he backs until they have played themselves out of the team, and there are certain few who find it really hard to come back into reckoning. Ravindra Jadeja playing ahead of Irfan Pathan as the allrounder in Australian conditions in just one example.
However, by all evidence, Dhoni remains the best choice to captain India at the moment. The challenge for him is to keep the team together. The situation is not downright nasty yet, in that this still falls in PG category as opposed to the R-rated times of Greg Chappell and Sourav Ganguly. Nonetheless it is difficult for players to perform at such times. Sehwag himself has always said he plays his best cricket when he has emptied his mind of all thoughts, when he is just reacting to the next ball. It is not happening here.
There are two must-win matches coming up, India's last chance to salvage something out of a tour during which they capped their biggest low in Test cricket since the 1960s. As of now, if they are to do it, they will have to do it despite the less-than-ideal dressing-room atmosphere. It doesn't help that the custodian of the team, the BCCI, right now believes this is all evil misquoting by the evil media.
Edited by Nitin Sundar
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo