July 29, 2011

Lessons from Lord's

India's passion for their No. 1 status has been conspicuous by absence in their preparations for big tours

And so India lose the first game of a series again. Writers scurry along to write articles they have often written in the past, pundits voice the same thoughts, many more programmes are done, fans continue to moan, and the sun continues to rise, erasing the previous day. And the weeks go on, as do the months. Soon there will be another game, people will still be buying tickets, television rights will still be sold, and loyal fans will find something else to cheer about.

But the BCCI could well say it has always been like this and India are still No. 1. That is indeed true, but I'm sure it knows, for it's as shrewd as anyone else, that India's ascent is not because it has always been like that but despite it.

If a student gets a distinction after studying under streetlights, you don't make him study under streetlights all the time, do you? This is a high-quality Indian cricket team, but the journey towards excellence never ceases. Intel makes great processors, but it is always trying to make better ones, and for India to remain the best they must be passionate about being No. 1. That passion was missing at Lord's.

India's itineraries have always been like a school time-table: 9.20-10.10: English, 10.10-11.00: Physics, 11.00-11.50: History. February 19-April 02: World Cup, April 08-May 28: IPL, June 04-July 10: tour of the West Indies, June 15-September 16: tour of England. And so on.

In the BCCI's defence, it has always said that if a player needs rest, the board will allow it, and accordingly a lot of players missed the tour of the West Indies. So surely they should have been fresh for England? But resting and being ready are two different things. Hitting a ball in the nets cannot simulate batting against high-quality swing bowling. If you just turn up, you play like you have... well, just turned up. And it is not only India. England came straight from Australia to the World Cup, and lost matches they should have won. Some of Australia's players came straight from the Champions League in South Africa to a Test series in India, and struggled. Each time players and administrators knew what was right, yet did what was wrong. It is like sitting across the table, and talking about peace; you know what to do but won't do it

It can be argued that had Zaheer Khan not been injured the result could have been different. And it could just as well be argued that injuries can happen any time. It is a fair argument except that it leads you to a sub-optimal solution, which is to continue being under-prepared, to believe that the current state of affairs will continue to deliver results. Athletes and other sportsmen tune themselves to be ready for the big occasion. They may still lose, but they will lose having prepared the best they could. England in England are an outstanding side. At the best of times it would require a great effort to beat them, but India did not allow themselves that opportunity. An argument cannot erase the truth.

India should be a better side in Nottingham, but will have to dust themselves and stand up again. England will emerge full of confidence, and while voices in the media have already anointed them No. 1 in the world, the word from within the team is appropriately cautious. "We don't feel we are No. 1 in the world because we are not. We are No. 3," Andy Flower said. "Talking rankings is pointless at the moment." It is precisely this thinking, as opposed to appropriating the future before it has presented itself, that sets this England team apart. There are many other reasons, most of them good, and, as Nasser Hussain suggested, they are playing less and feeling fresher.

India have the pedigree to bounce back in Nottingham, but must find a way to take 20 wickets. They will be tougher and better prepared, and from that point of view a four-Test series allows them a little longer to force their way back than a three-Test affair can. But they shouldn't have to play catch-up all the time. It's a lesson yet to be learned.

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