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They arrived as the world No. 1 team but will end the series embarrassed and, in all likelihood, whitewashed
August 20, 2011
Shortly after the close of play at The Oval, a drunken punter in a furry penguin outfit attempted to run out to the middle of the pitch. He fell flat on his face after five steps, was pounced on by six security guards, and was hauled off to face the consequences of his actions. With the possible exception of Suresh Raina's 29-ball duck, it was the most pitiful sight on another extraordinary day of cricket, but at least we can be sure that he won't be allowed back in for more.
Alas for India's cricketers, they won't have the same get-out. On Sunday England will set about administering the last rites of a sorry series, and to judge by the manner in which they shed five prime wickets in 31 overs in the fading evening light, India seem more than capable of shrugging off their remaining 15 in 98. Mentally they have already turned their backs on a contest in which only the absent Praveen Kumar and the unfailingly admirable Rahul Dravid have come close to maintaining their reputations, let alone enhancing them.
Dravid remained steadfast to the bitter end, magnificent in his defiance of all circumstance - including the concussion suffered by Gautam Gambhir that obliged him to step up as an emergency opener for the fourth time out of seven innings in this series (or sixth out of seven if you take into account Virender Sehwag's king pair at Edgbaston). His presence, experience and example shine out as a beacon of everything that India have squandered on this trip - technical proficiency, guts and reputation chief among them.
Something dramatic has come to pass in the course of the past four fixtures, and though the BCCI can ignore if it chooses, it would be foolish to do so. Indian cricket has become the laughing stock of the world game, and while that might not seem to matter to a board that generates 70% of the sport's global income and has in its locker-room the World Cup trophy, no less, ridicule tends to be a corrosive disease.
For all its undeniable flaws, international cricket remains, for now, the benchmark by which the sport is judged, and India's success in international cricket has been the very reason why their spin-off products are so marketable. It's easy to forget how sniffy the BCCI was about their new favourite form of the game, Twenty20, until India's global triumph in 2007 opened their eyes to its potential. Ever since then, the hype of the IPL - while thrilling, lucrative, and epoch-defining - has been underpinned by the solid knowledge that Indian cricket really is the best in show.
Thanks to India's sheer demographics, it could yet be that the tipping point has been reached already - that it will no longer matter if their blue-riband product degenerates into a World Wrestling Federation-style circus, so long as enough of the game's key players subscribe, for want of a better phrase, to the Hayden Way. But India is committed to the Future Tours Programme until 2020, so there's no ducking the sanctity of Test cricket just yet. Besides, given how far they have travelled in the decade just gone, there's plenty of scope for regression if they don't mend their ways.
In the past few years, instead of using their wealth to form the structures required for self-perpetuation, the farce of this current tour has demonstrated how the BCCI has relied on the brilliance of its top players for too long. A golden generation of batsmen is hurtling towards the end of the line, the team's key bowlers are unfit, and as the struggles of Raina, Abhinav Mukund and even Yuvraj Singh have demonstrated, the next generation lack the all-round proficiency to fill such massive voids.
That latter point is precisely the reason why Duncan Fletcher was hired as India's coach. Almost to a man, the England batsmen who are shattering new records every day, will swear by his wisdom and expertise, particularly in analysing and ironing out technical flaws. During his seven years with England, he set the team up for as-then unparalleled success, and though he's now in danger of being remembered for two of the most humbling whitewashes of all time, this latter failure is in no way his fault.
That much was clear in a fractious end-of-day press conference, when India's bowling coach Eric Simons was served up to protest his team's commitment to the cause. "There's no doubt this Test can be saved, but there's no doubt who are favourites," he said, with the sort of wearied clichés that Andrew Flintoff fell back on during that Ashes whitewash of 2006-07. "We know Rahul Dravid can bat long periods of time, MS [Dhoni] is coming into his own and Gautam [Gambhir] will be back tomorrow. We need someone to bed in for a long period of time."
It's not fair to mock Simons for his hopeless optimism. He is a diligent professional with a decade of experience in an international coaching set-up, but the futility of his role within India's lumbering unit, and by extension Fletcher's, is just one of many facets that has been ripped asunder in this series. For the bulk of his 15 minutes in front of the media, Simons fielded a range of frenzied questions including one monologue from an Indian journalist, the gist of which was: "When will the BCCI realise Zaheer Khan is not Superman?"
The answer, however, is not in Simons' remit, as Anirudh Chaudhary, India's team manager, made abundantly clear with his regular interjections. "Eric would not know about that," he stated on one occasion, after an enquiry about India's request for an extra practice match on this winter's tour of Australia.
Why would a senior member of India's coaching staff not be in the loop about such an issue, especially given that the seeds of their downfall on this trip were sown during their undercooked display down at Taunton in July? The question is rhetorical, because the answer is plain to see. But that's not to say that it should be allowed to remain that way.
India are not the first team to be humiliated in a Test series and they will not be the last, but rarely has such a shocking result been inflicted on a side with such pre-series expectations. Australia's 4-0 battering in South Africa in 1969-70, or England's Ashes disaster in 1958-59 are among the most notable parallels.
But every now again, such jolts to the system can only be A Good Thing. While it was ghastly to endure at the time, England's own whitewash five years ago was in many ways the best thing that could have happened to the team at the time. The result obliged a malfunctioning outfit to conduct a root-and-branch reassessment of their game, and while the resultant Schofield Report was criticised in places for its vapidity, it made some key recommendations which set out to protect the sanctity of the national team.
First among those was the introduction of a managing director of the England team. Hugh Morris's new position was soon tested to the limits by the Pietersen-Moores debacle of early 2009, but having survived that acid test, it came into its own in the exhaustive planning for the Ashes campaign of 2010-11. The presence of a conduit capable of reaching into the heart of the ECB, and delivering on virtually every one of Andy Flower's requests, guaranteed that that campaign would triumph where every other trip of the previous 24 years had failed.
It's no coincidence that Cricket Australia has aped many of England's methods in their newly unveiled Argus Report. Australia have a burning desire to return from whence they fell, and resume their long-held status as the best international team in the world. Do the BCCI have the same desire? For the sake of the sport, we have to hope so. But for the time being, they need to be mocked. It's the best incentive going.
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