A terrifying reality check for India
The Indian team has left their press pack wandering around England as dazed and confused as their batsmen have been against James Anderson & Co. As Lord's, Trent Bridge and Edgbaston have worn on, as every day has passed, the questions have increased. What's the compelling story of the day now? What's the angle that can be taken after this?
It began with the lack of preparation, was followed by the failure of the batsmen, moved on to injury management issues, the absence of Zaheer Khan and the lack of bowlers with the ability to take 20 wickets. Now, today, after Edgbaston, there are no angles left. Just a full stop. Or perhaps, given the sound and fury of the pre-series build up and the events of the past few days, an exclamation mark.
The exclamation represents the gap between the two teams, and tells the tale of an Indian team that was overcooked, undercooked and then at Edgbaston, Alastair Cooked. The fourth and inevitably final day's play became a culmination of expertise and exclamations: expertise on England's part and exclamations in the form of fate crashing around India's ears. It started with Gautam Gambhir being lured into giving his wicket away yet again, was followed by a brush of the bat against the tip of Rahul Dravid's shoe-lace that even the batsman believed was a nick, Sachin Tendulkar's backing up an inch too far just after having just hit cruise control, Praveen Kumar being hit on the thumb by a short ball, and Sreesanth being hit on the chest with a bouncer.
The most astonishing of the exclamations came when it was done and cleaned out. After India lost their seventh wicket, the most hospitable Warwickshire County Cricket Club staff began shifting the dining tables in the media lounge to set up chairs for the captains' press conferences to follow. They believed they would follow soon. They did. After India's first Test series defeat since August 2008 against Sri Lanka, England's first series win against India since 1996 and the first time MS Dhoni has lost a series as captain, Dhoni said, "You can't really say playing for three-four-five years ... you can't really say you won't lose a single series, it's a big part of life and that is what makes life interesting."
If captains reflect the teams they head, Andrew Strauss's England is professional, clinical, respectful of opposition but focussed mainly on getting good enough to pound their adversaries into the ground. England's sustained aggression has been particularly lethal, minus off-field trash-talk or the jelly bean frivolities of 2007. (Pure coincidence, of course that England were then led by Michael Vaughan who has now morphed into a cricket's social network fire-starter.)
On the other hand, MS Dhoni's India, these days, carry with them perhaps a little too much of what image-consultants call 'cool.' Dhoni's post-match responses now ring with a certain, formulaic, distanced predictability: 'Sorry, guys, this is the best team we have, we were outplayed, deal with it.' "Cricket is a simple sport," he said after the defeat, "the more you complicate it, the more complicated it gets." Giving an opponent credit and keeping the game simple are its fundamental essentials.
Dhoni's more curious and perhaps revealing responses came when he was asked about what the India batsmen needed to do to get settled and moving in English conditions. "Things like these have happened to the Indian side. What we need to do is to go out and enjoy. It becomes a bit difficult to enjoy once you are down in the series but not thinking very critically about the batting is important," he said. "You want to enjoy the sport, not think too much about techniques and aspects of how you need to change your game when you go to different places. It is just to improve your cricket, go and visit places, try to prove a point, because maybe 80% we will play in India, maybe 70%. The away series are there to improve you as a cricketer. So it is very important to not get very critical about the technical aspect, [but] to go out there and enjoy cricket."
Were not then technical adjustments necessary or important in England? Dhoni: "A bit is there ... you won't see a Sreesanth batting like a Don Bradman just because he wants to bat like one. What is important is to be yourself and slightly tune your batting to the conditions; you know like the Formula 1 cars do depending on the tracks."
The last time the words word 'enjoy' cricket rang through so loudly in Indian cricket after a defeat was in 1999-2000, and it came from their coach at the time, Kapil Dev, as India slipped to a 0-3 loss against Australia. Other than the comprehensive drubbing and this common fallback onto 'enjoyment', there is nothing similar about the two events. Three members of that squad are at Edgbaston and they will remember that in the decade that followed the 0-3 hammering in Australia, every overseas tour involved the strain and struggle of ridding India's reputation of being bad travellers.
Footage of India's overseas wins in the early 2000s will show the team tearing off the field, shrieking like school boys, even those with more than a decade in the game. The evening India sealed the 2007 series in England, Tendulkar had walked into his hotel, his face shining with sweat, champagne and celebration following his first Test series win outside the subcontinent. "This is the greatest day of my career of 18 years," he had said. Loudly. To everyone who would listen, unusual in itself for this normally reserved man. A few months ago, he had an even greater day and now deals with a complete reversal.
Dhoni's responses can be put down to the extraneous pressures of what is an already tough job. For the first time in a while though, before the mobile phones switched off and the cameras switched on, he looked a bit subdued, a little quietened by the events that had gone by. It will be of no solace but useful to know that a lot of the England cricketers in this squad had experienced days like India have on this tour of England: losing the Ashes 0-5 to Australia, being dismissed by the West Indies for 51 two years ago. Kevin Pietersen spoke of those times on television today: "We got hammered for 25 days, okay maybe 21 days. We were on that tour and we know how bad it is and how much it affects your rooms."
India's dressing room had better be affected. When this fourth and final day of the third Test began, the Warwickshire County Cricket Club sent out a media briefing that said Edgbaston was trying to set a world record for the number of spectators in fancy dress at a UK sports venue. They were attempting 2500. Cruel as it may sound, the Indian touring party could also have been included in that head count; they did after all, come to England, to Edgbaston, disguised as the world's No. 1 Test team.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo