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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mina on August 16, 2008, 16:01 GMT

    Why do cricket'experts'write off players,at the drop of an average? Surely great players know when their time is up? If they were'timed out'to the arm-chair critic's beck and call,we would be robbed of great performances.Hayden struggled in 2005,he was 34 then-should he have been replaced,never to come back and set the 2007 WorldCup ablaze,at the ripe old age of 36? Ponting,age 34,averaged a miserable 38.28 in the recent BorderGavaskar Test Series Down Under.Should he have been sacked? Ian Chappell had charged Sachin Tendulkar to'look into the mirror'after the 2007 World Cup. Will Chappell reflect on Sachin's immense contribution to India's wins, post 2007 as well? To the 2008 CB Series,in particular? So what if the Fab Four's is a collective failure,they will collect themselves and correct the record-before they call it a day.It's high time cricket journalists pause and think, before they shoot off their copy.

    It's high time, cricket journalists pause, and think, before they sho

  • Kunal on August 16, 2008, 13:07 GMT

    Let's regard it a privilege to watch our Men of Steel rust away into the sunset. Really!? What an honour 'tis...

    Come to think of it, when South Africa returned to international cricket in 1991, they might have been justified to consider Graeme Pollock, Mike Procter and Barry Richards in the side. (After all, class is permanent, right!?) The selection of Clive Rice wasn't really off the mark. They learned before the 1992 World Cup... as Kepler Wessels led a young side. But we must continue zealously with our playing legends.

  • William on August 16, 2008, 12:58 GMT

    I think this article has several valuable points. First it will be necessary at some stage soon to drop one of the middle order batsmen. Laxman can feel relatively secure in his place being only 32, and also the most consistent performer of late. However India have a remarkable tendency to pick young players of "promise" over proven performers. I think that India should learn from Australia, who have often picked the proven domestic performers over young talents. This was shown through the selection of Hussey and Jaques, both of whom have adapted brilliantly to test level. India should learn from their selection policies regarding Gautam Gambhir, it was not until he was 27 that he finally became competent at international level. For this reason I think that Bandrinath deserves to be picked, probably in place of Ganguly. It seems ridiculous that a man averaging 56 in first class does not get a chance at test level.

  • Sumesh on August 16, 2008, 3:37 GMT

    I don't agree with Sharath.Komarraju. How can he say that India failed due to Dhoni? He has been working his ass off for past few years and deserves a break... The "fab four", on the other hand, had have good break but failed!!!

  • StJohn on August 15, 2008, 19:02 GMT

    Actually, I still think India missed having a "fabulous five" by never giving Vinod Kambli a decent run or supporting him properly. Great player. Temperemental, maybe. Difficult, maybe. But averaging about 54 over a ridiculously short career of just 17 or so Tests, Kambli will always be a legend that could have been. Ah, but for the caprice, politicking and favouritism of selectors, particularly those in the sub-continent...

  • StJohn on August 15, 2008, 18:06 GMT

    India is still a very good team but an ageing one. Laxman is almost 34, Dravid almost 36, Tendulkar 35, Ganguly 36 and Kumble almost 38. I don't put too much emphasis on the recent SL series (after all, I think India also lost last time they toured SL too) and each of these great players is still at an age where they could quite feasibly play for another 2-3 years or so (even longer for Laxman). But the basic thrust of the article must be right: 3 or 4 of these players retiring at the same time would hardly be good for the Indian team's success & development, no matter how good or bad their form prior to retirement. The Australia 1984 example is an apt one, as may be the Australia 2008 one. And you have to try to pick your team on merit, not just on past form, sentiment or reputation alone: separate reality from emotion. In saying all this, I am of course talking about Test cricket, not the endless and instantly forgotten and forgettable one-day slogathons that are so beloved in India.

  • Sat on August 15, 2008, 13:54 GMT

    We should stop looking at the fab four with such rose tinted fondness - the opening line of this hysterical article refers back to a series in 2003. Well Ive got news for those stuck in the past - the year is now 2008 & time waits for no man. No one should be surprised at the failing of the old guard in this series - there have been several warning signs eg. Losing a series in South Africa, after a memorable bowler-inspired win in Joburg, failing to draw the Sydney test & the capitulation of 76 all out v SA in March. The captaincy has destroyed Dravid's appetite & he is not the great player he once was. Ganguly & Laxman have had regular failures and yet are afforded extended chances that Yuvraj for one has not. It seems the selectors cannot make tough decisions - opting for the easy option of dumping Yuvraj & Sehwag in recent times, rather than hurt the feelings of the pampered foursome. It is the selectors as much as the 'muddle order' that need to look at at their positions

  • joel on August 15, 2008, 7:26 GMT

    The greatest players should retire on a high note, and not when they are no longer useful and are about to be discarded. Tendulkar should have chosen the Australia series as his swansong, especially since he knows he has never been good against Murali. Now if his elbow acts up again, he will have another poor series to come and leave India with another Tendulkar-sized hole in the middle order. I hate to say this, but chasing the record has made him SELFISH, for the first time in his life.

  • Madhan on August 15, 2008, 2:47 GMT

    When a century is made by the fab four the whole India hails!! But when they fail they are pushed to end of the world with all kinds of useless, unworthy and empty comments. Its understandable and acceptable if the comment comes from people who just watch cricket once in a while..but if those comments come from analysts who watch cricket and cricketers so closely,its really disappointing to hear. They are the same people who hang around for an interview behind this fab four if they hit a wonderful match saving "100".The reason was pretty evident "The Mendis Factor". We saw even Dhoni's great "Young team" failing miserably at the Asia cup final becos of "Mendis Factor". Without seeing how the rest of the world,especially " The Great Aussies" handle Mendis I dont think it is a good thing to write that these fab four has to be replaced..Who knows even "The great Don Bradman" would have failed miserably against "Mendis". To be frank this article is "Rubbish"

  • Sharath on August 15, 2008, 2:09 GMT

    In all of this, did anyone else notice that Dhoni has escaped all criticism? One of the most important reasons why we lost the series is because our keepers could not catch, stump or bat, and yet, Dhoni, whose fatigue rather conveniently attacked him at exactly the same time as the tests and for exactly the same duration as the test series, gets off scot-free.

    And of all the talk of our batting cupboard being bare, what of the wicket-keeping cupboard? Karthik had a golden chance to shut the door on Dhoni (or at least give the selectors a headache), and what does he do? Fail in the most miserable manner possible. Now we have the ridiculous situation of someone opting out of a test series "due to fatigue" and then waltzing back into the team, expecting to slot back in as if he were never away.

    And amid all of this, what do we talk about? The future of the four. Forget the fielding lapses, forget the wicketkeeping blunders, forget the bowling inadequacies, and the injuries.

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