July 14, 2011

India's professional cop-out

The world's No. 1 team did not back themselves against a side struggling to find their feet at the highest level, and ended up looking both cynical and timid in the process

In a few days, India's walk-away at Windsor Park will be forgotten. Once the first ball is bowled at Lord's, the raging debate will be reduced to an old argument. From then on, any of those particular trees can fall in the forest and none will make a sound.

Until then, cricketers and cricket gurus, spectators and TV viewers, fans and friends, will be sorting out the whys and why nots of India's departure in Dominica with 15 overs left to bowl and 86 to get. We talk to each other, write in emails, or in the public space, to check whether we're missing something; whether it was really quite such an explicable or inexplicable thing. We communicate to quieten the phantoms of that event that are still hurtling around the brain. Every argument for and against is debated or shouted down, but some doubts are not easily silenced.

Would India have done this at home? Not even tried to win a Test?

Imagine the scene acting itself out against West Indies - or any team of similar standing - at Eden Gardens. Or on Kotla's schizophrenic wicket. Wouldn't the fans have been furious? Would it have been fair? What would the crowd have done?

Okay, switch things around: what if a born-again West Indies do the same to India in 10 years' time? Once again World Cup winners and world No.1, leading a series 1-0, West Indies, with seven wickets left, 86 to get, just decide to call the game off. What would we think of them?

There were 12,000 people in Windsor Park that evening. It was a full house, the best crowd seen during a series in which they've struggled to get crowds in for five ODIs featuring the World Cup winners (though without their full-strength team). Yet the crowd turned up in Dominica for a fifth-day party and India called it off.

Criticism of the Indian team is these days often hollered down by their more extreme "faithful" with the argument that the pressures of international cricket are not understood by those off the field. Those off the field - in this case, the world outside the game's 2631 Test cricketers - do have the right, however, to feel short-changed when an international team don't extend their own chances and a cricket match as far as they could have.

Cricketers often use a phrase when talking about how they stretched mind, body and their individual games to produce a dramatic, unexpected performance: they say they "backed themselves". It means that when the belief around them dries up and the task at hand appears impossible, the man in the middle tells himself, "This can be done and I can be the one to do it." It is a competitor's cussed refusal to stand down even though walls are crumbling around him. It is what champions do across all sport, it is their fingerprint in history. This was world No. 1 India, and they did not back themselves.

Dominica could have been understood by an earlier generation: had this happened in 2002 or 2006, when India were touring the West Indies without a Test series win in over three decades, a sympathetic observer would instinctively have had an awareness of a team's anxiety to get its ghoulish past out of the way. Hell, at times like those, the fan also endures a stomach heaving with butterfly stampedes.

Had this happened in 2002 or 2006, when India were touring the West Indies without a Test series win in over three decades, a sympathetic observer would instinctively have had an awareness of a team's anxiety to get its ghoulish past out of the way

Dreamers and "purists" can often be silenced into practicality by being told that eventually despite all their guff, getting the right result is everything. It is, indeed. In Dominica, could India really have clattered to defeat within 15 overs? When considering this worst-case scenario, did they believe that they had no one in their ranks who could seize faltering fortune by the wrist and guide it to safety? Fidel Edwards, West Indies' No. 10 batsman, stared a very real defeat in the face for more than two and a half hours against the more superior attack from the two teams, so the wicket was not about to spring to horrific life in the last hour of play.

The coach, Duncan Fletcher, magnificently snippy after the match, did what all coaches must and launched a resolute defence of his team when he said that scoring runs on that wicket "was difficult". Dominica was hosting its first Test, so maybe the air around Windsor Park felt a bit unfamiliar to all involved. It was, however, the 1999th Test match in the history of the game (and India's 451st); in this brief span of 134 years, it has largely been established that the best of Test cricket usually involves what is "difficult". Greats of the game are usually born in Difficult. What message does that send to Virat Kohli or even about him? Sorry, lad, it's too difficult. You really can't handle this. Let's finish the game quick, make up for Kingston and go back to our hotel early. We've won the series, anyway.

Just like football toned down a brand of ghastly tackles by calling them "professional fouls", it is perhaps time to create a new-age cricket euphemism: the professional cop-out. In Dominica, to the ignorant world of us zero-class cricketers, the Indian team ended up looking both cynical and timid. That's quite an achievement.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

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