November 19, 2010

A draw will be a loss

Sometimes a stalemate can mean more than the scoreline implies. For India it will be a question mark against their No. 1 status

Normally both teams in a contest should be disappointed with a drawn series because the basis of competition in sport is to win. Indeed, in good sides the desire to win and the confidence that you can, serve as the 12th and 13th players. In lesser sides, where not everyone buys into the desire and the confidence, they might even be the 10th and 11th!

Sometimes, though, a draw can be seen as a victory. I can visualise Ian Chappell harrumphing into one of his beloved South Australian reds as he reads this, but holding sales volumes in a declining market or keeping a job in a recession can be wins where otherwise they might be seen to be lowly objectives. And such was the gulf between the two sides when they landed - certainly according to the official Test rankings - and so poor were the Kiwis in neighbouring Bangladesh that a drawn series in India would have been regarded as a mighty accomplishment for them.

And so, in a series where the bowlers have won only minor skirmishes, New Zealand must now fancy their chances of holding India at home. Indeed, thoughts might even drift higher, for each of their top six batsmen is in form (and Daniel Vettori has migrated downwards, to a more realistic batting position). Only New Zealand have taken 20 wickets, once, and that must hurt India much more, for they are playing in familiar conditions.

Much has been said about the wickets, and a lot of it completely justified, but it cannot be used as a reason to cover up other deficiencies. The bowlers must wish for more life in the tracks, and Dhoni's stinging "ten-day Test" remark was needed in an atmosphere where curators are intent on poaching the remaining bowlers. But a side that is ranked No. 1, and which seeks to hold on to its ranking, must be able to deliver more. All great sides have been built around great bowling. You either have four top bowlers, like the West Indies or Australia did, or possess a bowler in the top six, as the West Indies did earlier with Garry Sobers or Pakistan could with Imran Khan.

India's hold on that No. 1 slot is still tenuous, and as the batting ages the bowling must rise. But India's best four aren't giving anyone sleepless nights

India seek to reverse that by building a side around great batting. It has worked only in part, for India's hold on that No. 1 slot is still tenuous, and as the batting ages the bowling must rise. But India's best four aren't giving anyone sleepless nights, and it is 15 years since an allrounder played for India.

Pitches are the key variable in cricket but a favourable pitch cannot be the only factor in taking wickets. As batsmen need to score on treacherous pitches, so too must bowlers make an impact on featherbeds. A bowler who grows reliant on pitches is like a doctor who depends on a machine for a diagnosis. In the absence of a machine the doctor must have a fairly reliable estimate of what is wrong. So too with bowlers, who must grow their bag of tricks. In this series India's bowlers have been taking a wicket every 44 runs, and while that is not too different from what the New Zealand bowlers have done (a wicket every 43 runs), it isn't something you want to advertise.

Now in Nagpur, India have called on the callow Jaydev Unadkat again. It means that in Test cricket the selectors have anointed him as the No. 4 new-ball bowler, and so he must go to South Africa. (Didn't Abhimanyu Mithun look all right in Sri Lanka? And is he now seen as a poor investment?) What it also means, since a cricketer in the XVI has to be good enough to be in the XI, is that the selectors are confident enough (or desperate enough, in this case) to see him bowling inside the first hour of the first Test at Centurion on the 16th of December. And if that call has been taken, he must play in the one-day internationals against New Zealand as part of his initiation into the ways of international cricket.

In fact, given that Praveen Kumar and Ashish Nehra will return for those games, it might be a good idea to get Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma to play at least one Ranji Trophy match before going to South Africa. We saw in that cruelly fleeting series against Australia that Ishant got better as he bowled, and so the more he bowls in a game the better it will be for him.

But there is a Test match to be played before that tour. And even if Nagpur unfurls another batting pitch, Dhoni must demand that his bowlers win him a Test match. A drawn series must be seen to be a lost series for India.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. His Twitter feed is here

Comments