India embark on a rocky road to ODI renewal
Just 15 months ago, Indian one-day cricket was riding a wave the size of big Pipe in Hawaii, having brushed aside the challenge of Pakistan (4-1 away from home) and a feeble England (5-1). The batsmen were piling on the runs, the bowling was both penetrative and tidy, while the fielding had been injected with a shot or two of youthful vigour. Almost everyone was talking of them as challengers to Australia's continued World Cup domination.
The sky, it appeared, was the limit. But as soon as the team left the subcontinent, the hot air started to leak out of the balloon. With the stand-and-deliver methods that worked so well in familiar climes no longer an option, the batting frailties began to show. Intelligent medium-pace bowling from the likes of Dwayne Bravo routed them in the Caribbean, and there were no answers to the conundrum on the Malaysian adventure either. On seam-friendly pitches, the Indian bowlers didn't do too badly, but the batsmen were cruelly exposed by Mitchell Johnson and his ilk.
The Champions Trophy on home soil should have provided some much-needed succour, but unseasonal weather conditions resulted in some pitches that wouldn't have been out of place in the early part of the English summer. Confronted by extravagant seam movement, some swing and occasional steepling bounce, the Indian challenge petered out in a winner-take-all encounter against Australia. No Asian team reached the last four, once again highlighting why most of them struggle when the pendulum swings towards the quick bowlers.
But it wasn't conditions alone that ruined India's campaign. There was a collective meltdown, with the matchwinners of the previous season hapless bunnies in front of high-powered floodlights. Yuvraj Singh, so pivotal in a sequence of 17 successful run-chases, could barely eke out a run, and he then wrenched his knee to leave World Cup hopes in jeopardy.
Irfan Pathan, who had taken 49 wickets in 25 games in 2005-06, lost pace, his natural swing and any semblance of rhythm. What remained of his confidence departed soon after. The likes of Sreesanth and RP Singh couldn't string together two consistent games, while Munaf Patel turned out to be almost as brittle as a twig.
The underperformance bug also struck down Rahul Dravid, the captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina, hailed as India's batting future just months earlier. It didn't help them that the starts were disastrous, with Virender Sehwag looking about as secure as a man with an umbrella in a typhoon.
|The underperformance bug also struck down Rahul Dravid, the captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina, hailed as India's batting future just months earlier. It didn't help them that the starts were disastrous, with Virender Sehwag looking about as secure as a man with an umbrella in a typhoon|
Confidence was predictably low going to South Africa, and it plummeted further with a resounding series defeat. The bowlers, especially a revitalised Zaheer Khan, provided glimpses of hope in every game, but a combination of wayward slog-overs bowling and wretched batsmanship gift-wrapped the hosts a 4-0 win.
The home series that followed were the equivalent of a fresh lick of paint for a house that was caving in on itself. On featherbeds where the bowlers were almost redundant, India regularly stockpiled mammoth totals to see off West Indies and a Sri Lanka side that was missing Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. The old firm of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly plundered runs in Sehwag's absence, and there were other strong showings too in conditions as benign as a batsman could wish for.
The truth was soon revealed, as a ramshackle outfit low on spirit, energy, skill and inventiveness were taken apart by both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the World Cup. After two years of preparation, Vision 2007 had ended with a rude poke in the eye and a first-round exit. Defeat is not often well-digested in the subcontinent, but this was defeat with dishonour and it went down really badly.
There were changes for the one-day games in Bangladesh, and Piyush Chawla hinted once again at a special talent to be nurtured. The likes of Dhoni got back into the groove, while others like Harbhajan, his bowling as flat as beer left in the sun, moved closer to the exit. With Sehwag also in purgatory, and Pathan and Munaf both unfit, the new faces have a chance to make themselves indispensable.
This though isn't the subcontinent. There will be few free runs on offer against South Africa, or even England. The real test, and the first step on the long road to redemption, starts here, far away from the brown, brown pancakes of home.
Dileep Premachandran is associate editor of Cricinfo