Mini crisis presents major opportunity for India
Since last year's World Cup win, India have lost 4-0 in away Test series twice, have been knocked out in the first round of two one-day tournaments, and have failed to go past the first serious round of the World Twenty20. One of their Test openers has not scored a century in nearly two years, the other will have gone three without one if he doesn't reach three figures against England. Their best bowler's endurance is now under doubt, he has not taken a Test five-for in two years nor an ODI four-for in four, and he is a liability in the field in limited-overs cricket. Their captain's defensive mindset, especially when out of his comfort zone, is well documented. It doesn't help that their coach is a man credited with introducing deep cover in the first half-hour of a Test match. If the board, the captain, the coach and the selectors are not worried, they had better find new jobs.
It is just as well that India have failed at T20 too, a format way more popular in the country than Tests telecast early in the day. The captain, though, will tell you India were "satisfactory" in Sri Lanka, where they won four matches out of five, where they were slotted in a group of teams that all won their preliminary leagues, where it rained in their match against Australia, and where they lost the toss when they needed to improve their net run rate. This is reminiscent of the tour of Australia, where they made perfectly fair pitches sound like green tops on which the ball seamed around like a drunk. In a fair world, they might tell you, India should still be No. 1 in Tests, and World Twenty20 champions to boot.
If you look closely, though, you will find it was all loaded in India's favour in Sri Lanka. They played on pitches that suited them: dry, and assisting spinners. They didn't have to adjust to new venues, unlike Sri Lanka, who played each of their three rounds at a new venue. Most importantly India played the last match of the Super Eights, unlike Pakistan, who played blind, not knowing exactly what they needed to do. India, on the other hand, knew they needed to restrict South Africa to 121, and still refused to gamble at all.
They didn't fail when it rained enough to take the players off for five minutes. (By the way, they had won the toss that night, they knew rain was forecast, and still picked three spinners and chose to bat first.) The failure had actually begun when the selectors picked the squad. The captain was given a side with little energy, little fitness, no pace options, and the outrageous return of Piyush Chawla. MS Dhoni gets some deserved flak for certain moves, but who could he turn to?
This is not to absolve Dhoni, though. Especially when he claims four wins out of five as some sort of moral victory, as the "best they could do" but for one bad loss. For, the fourth of those wins was meaningless. When you know all along that you have to beat South Africa by 31 runs to stay alive but you nearly give up trying to do so after four overs, the eventual one-run win should hardly count as a win.
It was surreal watching the defensive fields as South Africa inched towards that 122. There was a time when India were 24 runs from elimination with seven overs to bowl, and R Ashwin, India's best chance of taking wickets against a side that struggles against spin, still had three overs left. True to Dhoni's captaincy form over the last year and a half, India hoped, waited, sat back.
There were more signs of diffidence. When Dhoni finally made the bold move of dropping Virender Sehwag, he immediately cancelled it out by asking Irfan Pathan to open, seeking the reassurance of a No. 7 batsman in a 20-over game. Elsewhere, three of the four semi-finalists had three of their best batsmen in the top four. They didn't spend their energies worrying what if it all went wrong and what if they were five down well inside 20 overs. They wanted their best batsmen to go out there, bat well and make use of as many balls as possible. India had one of the best limited-overs batsmen in the world refusing to bat any higher than No. 7, while others scratched around wasting precious balls. To loosely translate a Punjabi saying, if you leave the house wailing, you will bring back news of the dead.
Any team is built around three pillars: selectors, captain and coach. At the moment, two of India's are failing and the third we don't know anything about. Except that he is working for a board that opposes one of his ideas, the DRS. Except that he was a master of gamesmanship, and the team he now works with calls batsmen back because it fears criticism from the media. Except that he loved the use of pace but is made to work with trundlers in international cricket while the one proper fast bowler India have plays domestic cricket. How comfortable is Duncan Fletcher with this job? We don't know, and we never might.
These are important times. Over the coming two Test series, India are supposed to show England and Australia they too are rubbish away from home. More importantly, they are supposed to rebuild, with 2013 onwards in mind, when they will tour South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia. There have been no signs that the Srikkanth-led panel of selectors and the captain were looking that far ahead. They are all hoping, waiting, sitting back. The openers continue to get a rope longer than perhaps any other set has had, Zaheer Khan's workload refuses to come down, and we don't know if Sachin Tendulkar is committed to going to South Africa in November 2013.
Dhoni was a remarkably good leader of a settled team, selflessly taking the back seat and making sure his superstar players got the best environment in which to do their thing. Now, though, that same coolness makes him look like he is going through the motions. He forever gives the impression he is not happy with the squad, with the pitches, with the format. Yet he also seems reluctant to take complete charge.
With the team in flux, India need a more assertive and proactive Dhoni, both on and off the field. A Dhoni prepared to make the tough calls, eager to shape his own team, more Imran Khan than Viv Richards. A captain who demands certain standards of the team, one who refuses to carry non-performers. A captain prepared to take on some pressure by asking for the team he wants, and not sulk later. If he can win a match in three days and still criticise the groundsman for not giving his side enough home advantage, surely he can be forceful in selection matters too? He even has a fresh set of selectors, a clean slate if you will, to work with.
However, if Dhoni is not willing to be that man, or not capable of it, or if he has lived his shelf life as captain, there are no alternatives India can turn to. Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir will be better off worrying about keeping their places in the side, and Tendulkar is close to retiring. Impressive as his maturing as a cricketer is, Virat Kohli might still be too young for the Test job.
We don't know if Dhoni loses sleep over things like the legacy he will leave as captain, but we know that if he can't arrest this free fall, it will offset the World Cup win and the rise to No. 1 in Tests. Dhoni has never given the impression he is trying too hard, except when he is batting perhaps, but the next two-three years are cut out for a captain willing to try too hard.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo