Succumbing to swing
As India traversed Australia, stroking six centuries and seven 50s on hard, true pitches - albeit against a bowling line-up deprived of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne - David Frith, cricket historian and author, reckoned that it was the most formidable array of batting talent to visit the land of the kangaroo since the days of Len Hutton and Walter Hammond. Rahul Dravid led the way with 619 runs, and VVS Laxman, Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly followed suit as one of the most celebrated batting line-ups of modern times amassed 2244 runs at 74.8 in four Tests.
That halcyon Australian summer seems a long way away now, with Ganguly gone and the middle order showing definite signs of fraying at the edges. In the aftermath of Sydney and the series triumph that never was, India have been left to ride piggyback on Dravid and Sehwag, with the others providing only the occasional defining innings.
In 22 Tests since, Laxman has managed a mere 981 runs at 33.82, a far cry from the imperious form that fetched him 2594 runs at 63.26 from 30 Tests book-ended by magical innings at Kolkata and Sydney.
Ganguly didn't do much better, with 712 runs at 35.6, while Tendulkar's figures for the same period reveal a return of 1121 at 48.73 from 18 Tests. Most crucially though, the trio managed just six centuries between them, with three - Laxman's 140, Ganguly 101 (both at Bulawayo) and Tendulkar's 248 (Dhaka) - coming against attacks that could only charitably be referred to as international class.
In the same 22-Test period, Dravid accumulated 1698 at 58.55, while Sehwag smashed 2101 at 63.66. Both men reached three figures six times, and crossed 50 on 12 other occasions to underline just how indispensable they had become to Indian hopes. Their vastly different approaches to run-making, however, are revealed in an analysis of Indian defeats.
Sehwag, with his penchant for rattling along at nearly a run-a-ball, provides India with tremendous momentum at the top of the order, but his exit hasn't always meant journey's end of the team. In the 11 losses that he has been part of, Sehwag has still managed 1072 runs at 48.72, with three centuries. In Dravid's case though, personal failure and a team implosion are inextricably linked. In the last 15 matches that India have lost, Dravid has aggregated just 787 runs at 27.13, with only five scores over 50 in 30 innings.
In essence, when the man regarded by most as modern-day batting's immovable object delivers, India cannot lose. When he fails, they invariably do. The losses at home to Australia last season were almost entirely down to Australia implementing an effective plan to shackle Dravid, and the demoralising defeat at Karachi last month had a touch of the inevitable once he managed just five runs in two innings.
Perhaps not surprisingly for a line-up where the main men are all on the wrong side of 30, with slowing reflexes, the troughs have been reached in conditions that abet either swing or seam. At Bangalore and Nagpur against Australia, reverse swing and lateral movement combined to affect 217 and 342-run routs. In a rain-aborted Test at Chennai in December, the canny Chaminda Vaas winkled out four for next to nothing while also bowling 11 maidens on the trot. And at Karachi, there were no answers to lateral movement against the impressive Mohammad Asif and a rejuvenated Abdul Razzaq.
That pace and bounce alone do India in is as gross a distortion of the truth as Nixon's Watergate testimony. The ordinary figures of Brett Lee (21 wickets at 31.42) and Shoaib Akhtar (19 wickets at 35.15) reveal as much. The stunning returns of those who could elicit movement off the pitch, subtle or otherwise - Allan Donald (57 wickets at 17.31) and Glenn McGrath (51 wickets at 18.64) tells you all you need to know about the Indian batting's real Achilles Heel.
The blue-riband bowlers scent a weakness - Laxman's frailty against the one that jags back, for example - in the same way that a veteran boxer seeks out a cut on his opponent's brow. Once they zone in, there are no reprieves. Jason Gillespie, peerless on his way to 9 for 80 in the last Nagpur Test, was so exceptional at exploiting Indian conditions that his 33 wickets in seven games came at a strike-rate that was superior to McGrath's.
With tight fields keeping runs to a premium, the slightest hesitancy in footwork was exploited, and the collapses and stutters were eerily similar to that against Matthew Hoggard this morning. Hoggard shaped the ball in and out, and was spot on with both conventional swing and the "Irish" variety. Mohammad Kaif survived by coming forward to smother swing and movement, while those rooted to the crease paid the price. Against a line-up whose best years are long gone, Hoggard's understanding of the conditions and swinging ways brooked no answer. Even if India somehow contrive a great escape, introspection and net sessions beckon.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo