India's last chance to turn up
As far as world's No. 1 teams went, India were distinctive because they never really had an aura. In their two-odd years on top, India neither walked the talk like the West Indians of the 1980s and the 90s, nor did they talk the walk like the Australians who followed them. They were never the world's most athletic Test team nor one that possessed a sharp pace attack. India were more men of specific skill and deliberate measure and taken lightly only by the delusionally arrogant. While they didn't have an aura, what they did have though was resilience and results.
As of last week, India have none of it. The series against England is gone, the Pataudi Trophy is gone, their No. 1 ranking that they said they did not think about, is gone, and the "good cricket" that took them there is gone with it. For the moment, the Indian cricket team is living in every athlete's nightmare: being seen as yesterday's person.
At their first day of training after losing ground they had earned over two years, the Indians stepped onto the Kennington Oval in South London, now called the Kia Oval, after a Korean car company; the word Kia roughly meaning "arising from Asia" in Korean. On this tour, however, the Indians have not risen, but fallen. Once in The Oval today though, they just vanished. From the sight of people gathered near the old pavilion jammed in-between the old gasworks, the new arch, a clutter of advertising hoardings and empty seats. The team was actually on the far side of the ground, hidden by the billowing pitch covers on wheels. They sat in a circle, most of them cross-legged and listened to the coach Duncan Fletcher speak.
It is not known what Fletcher actually said in the talk that lasted about ten minutes, as the rest of the support staff stood by at the nets waiting for the nuts-and-bolts business to begin. The Indian dressing room in the past few years has been a fairly quiet and relaxed place with captain MS Dhoni playing the strong-but-silent man and the support staff, particularly Fletcher's predecessor Gary Kirsten and his assistant Paddy Upton being the ones behind the motivational speeches and one-on-ones. The focus in the Dhoni-Kirsten era was more on "personal responsibility" with the aim of turning every man into a self-starter when it came to training and preparation, introducing the idea of frequent "optional" nets and eventually making everyone, "better players and better people." The method was in perfect sync with the team and the time that Indian cricket found itself in; the results that followed after the last tour of England (under five captains in three forms of the game no less) and just before this one were far from illusion, but magic all the same.
On this tour, much of it has worn off and a re-tooling is now required by Dhoni, Fletcher and the squad's senior management team. The nets at The Oval on Tuesday were, however, optional and barring Praveen Kumar, every other member of the team turned up, including RP Singh, who India will turn to as the singular trump card to prevent the deck from once again collapsing. India's two previous tries - Sreesanth replacing the injured Zaheer Khan at Trent Bridge and Virender Sehwag returning to open the batting in Edgbaston - have not worked. That Praveen, the most military of the medium pacers, is being hailed as the centre-piece of India's bowling effort is a tale itself.
As every Test of the series has become shorter - Lord's went into the fifth day, and Trent Bridge and Edgbaston ended around tea on the fourth day, one after and one before - it is the desperation of the Indian response that has increased. This is the first time since Australia in 1999-2000 that India have lost three straight Tests; the big difference being that the quality available to the Class of 2011 is far more skilled than what was available then, both in experience and expertise.
And still, the succession of defeats and the numbers on the scorecards have left the dressing room even quieter. When being told that everyone at home was wondering about where their fight had gone, a player said, "We are fighting, we are trying. Everyone is, everyone wants to succeed. Things just aren't working out." The opposition has been so well-tuned that India's resources, or perhaps, as the talk is about fighting, the weapons, are blunted. They are all amplified by scheduling errors, injuries to key personnel and the lack of cohesion around the squad once the World Cup was won and the IPL dived right into.
England spinner Graeme Swann said on Tuesday, "Certainly the break that India had from Test cricket worked in our favour. Since we had English conditions playing Sri Lanka building up to this series, it was a chance for everyone to just get ready and raring. Whereas India had those two matches in the West Indies where it was 100 degrees and not swinging."
Swann also described what the temperatures in the two dressing rooms would be like. "When you're on a roll, like we seem to be at the moment, it's very easy to carry that on - because your confidence levels are so high, your confidence levels in your team-mates are so high, you never feel like you are behind the eight-ball. You never feel you're in a position you can't win a game from." When things were going badly, what spread was a virus of a different kind. "We all know because we've all been in teams that were in a bit of a bad trot [and] losing games. In a losing situation, [when the shoe is on the other] foot you think, 'Oh my, we are losing this game, we're in a no-win situation'."
India's is that kind of a slump, and The Oval is a no-win situation because the series is not on the line; what is however, are questions about the resolve of Dhoni's men. Swann was quick to say, "I certainly wouldn't write off the Indian team because they are a class act and if this wicket is good for batting as it normally is, we have to be absolutely on top our game to keep them under 300."
Among many other things, England's batsmen have been given one simple dictum to work with, as Ian Bell revealed in a recent interview. They are not to think of themselves merely as batsmen, but also quite simply just numbers-men. In an England dressing room under Andy Flower and Graham Gooch, "you're not so much a batsman" Bell said, "as a run-scorer". This is the last chance for India's to land up
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo