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Sloppy fielding, players looking unfit and lack of preparation are hardly the traits of a No. 1 team. Does India's answer lie in switching to England's scientific approach that focuses on collective success?
July 26, 2011
India's reputation as slow starters was mentioned a lot during the first Test against England, and after it was confirmed with a 196-run defeat, it is sure to be repeated all the way to Trent Bridge. But their lethargic showing at Lord's exposed more than just a bad habit. Where the entire England setup seemed geared solely towards the betterment of the Test side, India looked a rabble of contradictions.
They may still turn it around in the second Test - as they did so thrillingly in Durban seven months ago - but the signs aren't good. And really, for the No. 1-ranked team in a milestone match of a marquee series, slow starts should not be tolerated. The wealth of financial and cricketing resources at India's disposal demands better.
Yet prioritising between wringing every last drop of revenue - through a packed international schedule and a hyped domestic Twenty20 tournament - and producing the No. 1 ODI and Test side is not straightforward.
Preparation, like many things, reveals itself most starkly in hindsight and it was clear from the first Test that it was something India were prepared to compromise on. England, from their drills before play, their outstanding ground fielding and especially from the crackling, unrelenting intensity of their bowling attack, looked a team completely ready for the task ahead of them. India did not.
Zaheer Khan, who could have a greater influence on the series than any of his illustrious team-mates, arrived in England in shoddy condition. For all the press releases in which the ICC and individual boards promise the primacy of Test cricket, his lack of fitness for the grand occasion of the 2000th Test match showed just how difficult putting the words into practice is.
Having helped deliver India its biggest prize, Zaheer's World Cup celebration included the 74-match IPL tournament before a lengthy break. He had the best part of seven weeks off, while many of his team-mates were in the West Indies. Last year Stuart Broad was excused from a Test series against Bangladesh but the management insisted on a strength and conditioning programme. Zaheer's generous waist-line suggested he'd had a rather easier brief.
If his preference was cricket over the gym than why wasn't that pursued? He had bowled just 50 first-class overs this calendar year before arriving in England but didn't bother with any in the second innings of India's only warm-up game at Taunton. Zaheer could even have tried to find himself some cricket in the UK although that may not have gone down too well with the England management.
It wasn't just Zaheer's fitness issues that exposed India's lack of professionalism. India's fielding was as much a throwback to the old days as Praveen Kumar's willing outswingers and made a poor comparison next to England's honed and toned athletes. The aging batsmen deserve some slack, but Ishant Sharma and Praveen too?
The India players that did make an impact on the Test - Rahul Dravid, Praveen and Ishant - all came into this series after a hard-fought one in the West Indies. Those who didn't go on that tour had all of eight days between arriving in England and the first Test to find their groove. The weather didn't help but one first-class fixture was only ever going to deliver another of those notorious slow starts.
The Future Tours Programme could be blamed but that only ignores the scope the BCCI has to influence it. Even if not, the board could have found a way for the players rested for the West Indies tour to have an extra game in England before the rest of the team arrived, or at least fly in early as they did on the South Africa tour.
Now, more than ever, managing preparation matters. Professionalism has made players ever more reliant on experts around them. With the mantra of leaving nothing to chance everything comes pre-packaged. England's management, with its squad of backroom staff, is the epitome of this. From nutrition all the way to fielding positions, the scientific planning requires furious micro-management. It has come at the expense of a certain inventiveness and self-reliance but it has also fostered an environment more focused on collective success than individual brilliance.
India have outstanding talent, which is why they are No.1 in the ICC rankings, and are led by someone whose pressure-soaking coolness has allowed them to flourish. But Test cricket is physically demanding and staying top of the Test tree requires harnessing talent through careful planning. Duncan Fletcher's brief is strictly to manage the cricketing side of the Indian team, but that may not prove enough. He was appointed largely to ensure the players are in the limelight and quietly oversee the transition of the celebrated middle order. Praveen's continued inclusion, for example, suggests Fletcher is largely superfluous to selection discussions at this stage. While with England he made it clear that pacemen who bowled under 85mph were not worthy of the title and had no place in his team. Praveen, despite his success so far, is not a seamer in the Fletcher mould.
Andy Flower, as team director of England, has a much wider scope and stronger grip on the overall functioning of English cricket. He has used that to develop a side restless in their pursuit of India's crown. Once again the slow starters are playing catch-up.
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Coloured clothes, black sightscreens, two white balls: the game of cricket looked so different in 1992. But writing about it now seems more fun than watching it then