August 14, 2008

Life in the past lane

India's decline is reflected in the stats of the big four batsmen. The team desperately needs new batting talent, but already they may have left it too late

Some consolation: The batting averages for Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman in the last two years are better than their career averages © AFP

After the stars of India's batting firmament made more than 2000 runs in the final four Tests he captained, Steve Waugh spoke of how they had the potential to challenge Australia's continued domination of the game. It was a brave prediction, but despite noteworthy successes in England, Pakistan and West Indies, India could never find the Carl Lewis yards to take them past Australia.

Though their encounters against the world's best made for gripping viewing, reverses at home and away over the past four years highlighted just how much still needed to be done. Indifferent home form caused considerable damage to hopes of global supremacy: Pakistan, England and South Africa all left Indian shores with a share of the spoils.

No statistic encapsulates India's "blow hot, blow cold" nature better than the fact that they haven't won back-to-back Tests since December 2005. And though they continue to push Australia in head-to-head encounters, India have been left way behind in the race to No. 2 by a South African side that has now won seven of its last eight series, managing a draw in India in 2008.

The decline has been a collective one, and the numbers for the team's leading batsmen bear that out. Not one of the famous four in the middle order averages more than 50 in the past two years; and while the figures for VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly are better than their career average, there simply hasn't been the weight of runs to put pressure on the best teams.

After picking up five Man-of-the-Match awards and inspiring some of India's greatest wins over the first six years of the millennium, Rahul Dravid averages a depressing 33 over the last 24 months. Sachin Tendulkar's form has been erratic, with some splendid innings in Australia offset by miserable failures against South Africa and Sri Lanka.

The years when India should have been pushing the envelope were beset by intrigue and controversy. Greg Chappell, who had observed first-hand the crippling effects of sudden generational change, arrived as coach and set about shaking up the old order. The idea, of building for a future when the middle order's titans wouldn't be around, was certainly right, but the manner in which it was implemented left many cold.

By the time he left, the team was treading water, and the same old faces were needed to pull off a first series win in England since 1986. For all the pleasure that Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly have given fans over the past decade and more, the fact remains that India hasn't produced a world-class Test player since Virender Sehwag announced his arrival with a fusillade of boundaries in Bloemfontein.

In an ideal world you would want the likes of Badrinath and Sharma to ease into a side where they could soak up the experience of a Tendulkar or Dravid. That's unlikely to happen now, and with Kumble also nearing journey's end, India will face a crisis of Australia-1984 proportions if the seeds of change aren't sown soon

Yuvraj Singh has three centuries against Pakistan to show for a stop-start career. He was woeful in the two Tests he played against Australia in 2007-08. Mohammad Kaif distinguished himself at times against Australia and England, but couldn't summon up the consistency or the sheer weight of runs required to push one of the weather-beaten faces from the fray. These days he's not even a contender, while Yuvraj also looks to have slipped behind the likes of Rohit Sharma in the pecking order.

Things haven't been too different with the ball either. For much of the past two years, Anil Kumble has had to plough a lone spin furrow, and the exertions are starting to show on a shoulder that has sent down over 50,000 deliveries in international cricket. There have been exciting additions to the pace attack in the new millennium, but only Zaheer Khan has managed to stick around long enough to even get close to 200 Test wickets.

Ashish Nehra, Sreesanth, Munaf Patel and Irfan Pathan have come and gone like baggage on a carousel. Intermittent brilliance has gone hand in hand with injury and poor form, and India are still no closer to finding the sort of settled attack that Waugh unleashed on sides for years.

The spin impasse is even more demoralising for a country that once prided itself on an endless reservoir of talent. Since Harbhajan Singh emerged out of Kumble's shadow with his heroics against Australia in 2001, no other slow bowler has managed even 30 Test wickets. Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla have both been tried, as has the luckless Murali Kartik, and it is Hyderabad's Pragyan Ojha who is the flavour of the new season.

Men like Ojha and Chawla are still young enough to have time on their side once Kumble does call it a day at some point. You can't say that with the same certainty about the batsmen, though. The most accomplished domestic performer over the past few seasons has been Tamil Nadu's Subramaniam Badrinath, but at 27 he's in danger of becoming India's Martin Love. If not for Tendulkar's injury, there wouldn't even have been a one-day call-up for the man who appears best equipped to bat in the top four.

Sharma has immense talent and has impressed some of the game's most knowledgeable observers, but his inability to stitch together the sort of monumental scores that Laxman managed in his non-Test days is a cause for concern. Last season, he aggregated less than 200 in the Ranji Trophy, and India can only hope that he's cut from the Michael Clarke cloth in terms of being able to adapt instantly to the highest level.

Bowlers like Pragyan Ojha still have time on their side to shoulder responsibility in the spin department © AFP

In an ideal world you would want the likes of Badrinath and Sharma to ease into a side where they could soak up the experience of a Tendulkar or Dravid. That's unlikely to happen now, and with Kumble also nearing journey's end, India will face a crisis of Australia-1984 proportions if the seeds of change aren't sown in the next few months.

If the results continue to be mediocre against Australia this October, tough calls will need to be made. It would be harsh on young men like Badrinath and Sharma if they are thrown in at the deep end, but then again Dravid could tell them that you become a legend by looking Allan Donald in the eye and not backing away.

With series against England and Pakistan to follow, India need to be looking at two new faces in the line-up by the time the plane takes off for New Zealand. Sharma is at the front of the queue now, but Badrinath's seasons of perseverance could also be rewarded. And as Gautam Gambhir's return to the fold has proved, all is not lost for Yuvraj and Kaif, provided they want it badly enough.

But for Sanjay Manjrekar's poor form and Navjot Singh Sidhu's hot-headed nature, Dravid and Ganguly and the summer of '96 would never have happened. Desperate times tend to throw up unexpected heroes, and even if they don't, it's time Indian cricket stopped looking back. It will be a brave selector who brings the curtain down on careers that have done so much to raise India's cricketing profile, but as the country's newest hero, Abhinav Bindra, could tell you, success is all about clear-eyed vision and impeccable timing.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo