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England v India, 2011

Learn the lessons of failure

Things are not likely to get better for India in a hurry. Those in charge of the game in the country must brace themselves and manage the descent as best they can

Sambit Bal

August 24, 2011

Comments: 226 | Text size: A | A

Sachin Tendulkar walks off after being trapped lbw for 91, England v India, 4th Test, The Oval, 5th day, August 22, 2011
It's for the best that Tendulkar didn't get his hundred at The Oval; that would have softened the blow, which India don't need © Getty Images
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Victory brings the warmest glows but the cold light of defeat can bring clarity. The great thing about success is that it is often self-perpetuating, but the trouble is, it can sometimes obscure flaws. If India aren't sick to their stomachs after being handed out a drubbing reminiscent of their dark ages, they don't possibly care enough; but not everything will have been lost if the pain of this defeat spurs the changes essential to prevent a free fall.

It was just as well that Sachin Tendulkar didn't go on to get his 100th hundred at The Oval. It denied India a distraction, a glimmer of feel-good in their hour of misery. Indian cricket doesn't need the blow to be softened at this moment; instead it needs to feel the full impact of this devastating loss, feel the pain, look within and ponder the future with a clear understanding of their failings.

Success highlights strengths but failure often offers better opportunities to learn, for it exposes weaknesses. Those who remain successful for long periods use lessons from failure to their advantage.

India didn't fluke their way to the top of the Test table, or to their World Cup win; indeed, they scrapped every inch, digging into their deepest reserves and drawing on the exceptional skills of a core group of cricketers. They won the World Cup despite the thinness of their bowling attack and despite being the most unathletic team in the tournament. They drew the Test series in South Africa despite not having played a practice game and despite losing the first Test by an innings and some. They managed to beat Australia in a Test by adding nearly 100 runs for the last two wickets in the final innings. In the series before that, they came back after a huge defeat against Sri Lanka. The rescue act was bound to go awry some day, and England were too good a team to let India come from behind.

The appraisal must begin with honesty. India will do themselves no favours by wishing this away as an aberration. A return to winning ways in one-day cricket or against West Indies at home should change nothing. There has been talk about them not respecting their No. 1 status. The truth, perhaps, is that they backed themselves to overcome the lack of preparation, bench strength and general fitness.

Zaheer Khan turned up with a paunch and without match practice; Tendulkar came off a holiday; Virender Sehwag chose to postpone his shoulder surgery until his team had been knocked out of the IPL, and landed in England after India were two-down; Gautam Gambhir, who played the IPL with an injury, chose to sit out the second Test because of a painful elbow. India delayed calling for an replacement for Zaheer until the second Test. Eventually RP Singh was summoned from Miami, and he arrived looking every inch a man who had been enjoying the good life.

It is one thing for a team to believe it can fight its way out of the worst adversity, another to repeatedly put itself in adversity. India ticked every box for how not to prepare for a big series.

Administrators and players must be honest about where they stand vis a vis Test cricket. The No. 1 spot in the format was attained not by design but through the burning ambition of a small group of Indian cricketers, for whom the Test version remained the pinnacle. The awakening among the administrators came only after the team became No. 1. Hastily a one-day series against Australia was rearranged to accommodate two Tests. Much in the same manner, an additional tour game is now being sought before the Test series in Australia.

Administrators bristle and players shy away when it is suggested that not everything about the IPL is good for Indian cricket. Of course, there is no denying it its place. Crowds love the entertainment, players love the financial security it provides, and administrators love the might the money brings. But the real challenge for India is to keep Test cricket attractive to players, and it won't be achieved by mere sloganeering.

The biggest problem with Twenty20, and particularly with the IPL, is that it provides disproportionate rewards for too little work and limited skills. Who would pass up the chance of earning in six weeks what might otherwise take a couple of years? There is no other reason why even those Indian players who had withdrawn from playing international Twenty20 even before the IPL began, would never consider missing an IPL season.

 
 
Since they dictate terms in most matters, how difficult can it be for the Indian cricket board to draw up a schedule that gives their cricketers the best chance of success in all three forms of the game?
 

It is up to the Indian board, if it wishes to back its words up with deeds, to provide enough incentives to keep the players interested in Test cricket, which requires far greater toil, not merely on the field but also in preparation. To turn up and deliver four overs of change of pace might not be as simple as it sounds, but weigh that up against maintaining the intensity over 60 overs against international batsmen. Since they drew up the rules of the IPL and possess the cash to call the shots in world cricket, it is not beyond the means of Indian cricket's overlords to make the Test game the most remunerative form.

And since they dictate terms in most matters, how difficult can it be for the Indian cricket board to draw up a schedule that gives their cricketers the best chance of success in all three forms of the game?

If Indian players have looked utterly spent during the English summer, consider this: half the team will drag themselves to the Champions League three days after they complete their one-day assignment in England, then take on England in a five-match one-day series, and cram in a full home series against West Indies before flying out to Australia for four Tests and a one-day triangular.

India's future without their batting greats is too gruesome to contemplate, but the bowling is already in crisis. Zaheer faces an uncertain future, Sreesanth has been a huge disappointment, and that Praveen Kumar, resourceful and skillful as he is, was India's spearhead in England, must say something. The spin front is even more depressing: Harbhajan Singh has continued to slide and not one credible contender is in sight.

One way of looking at the ruins of this tour would be that it cannot get worse, but Indian cricket must brace itself that it's unlikely to get much better in the immediate future. As a Test team India have peaked and descent is inevitable. How well this is managed is to down to the leaders.

The role of the captain and the coach will be vital. It is a test of character for MS Dhoni, who took over an upwardly mobile team and led them to heights never achieved before. But he will be required now to extend himself beyond the field - for players will need to be nurtured and managed. Duncan Fletcher is no stranger to building a team, but he must now demand and be given the powers he needs, and the space to help shape a team not merely capable of winning back the top spot but of holding on to it.

The most important cog in this wheel will be N Srinivasan, the BCCI's president incumbent and widely acknowledged as the most powerful man in Indian cricket. More than anything else Indian cricket needs its priorities sorted and a roadmap set. It is inconceivable that a country so passionate about the game, with so much wealth and so many people, can't produce, by will and planning, another set of winners.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by Scube on (August 26, 2011, 18:01 GMT)

3. Rohit looked a very promising player when he first came on the scene! Now, after four sparkling IPL years, he doesn't even look good enough to play ODIs against the top teams! Sadly, he is one of our best bets for tests in the future! 4. In a year or two, we'll move from having been the best test middle order to a middle order full of late twenties and early thirties! Don't think that I'm talking abt age here but actually averages! 5. We'll then be in a fierce competition for the basement honours with WI, BD & Zim for the next decade. Then, narrow-minded fans like me will stop following cricket for good while visionaries like you can provide consultancy to BCCI to expand IPL from 10 city teams to 200 city teams so that it can be played year around! Why would a tournament serving such a holy purpose of providing livelihood to the poor Indian citizens be restricted only to 6 weeks & 10 cities a year afterall!?!

Posted by Scube on (August 26, 2011, 17:58 GMT)

@ Dravid_Gravitas, Looks like I'm utterly wasting my time, but will still give another try for the love of cricket! 1. As some other like minded souls pointed out here, the solution to addressing a problem starts with first defining the problem correctly. If the people that matter conclude that the reason for the disastrous series is due to the ageing players and everything will be fine by including younger players in future tours, that's a bigger disaster than the actual disaster! 2. After the last home series against Australia, there was an article about Pujara after his match-winning performance that while he had nothing to do with India reaching the # 1 status, he'll play a key role in deciding how long India stay there! Now, he is busy recuperating from the injury he sustained training for the holy IPL! I'm not even sure if he is still in the radar as a test prospect! TBC

Posted by 5wombats on (August 26, 2011, 17:32 GMT)

@Dravid_Gravitas; This is the Brotherhood of Cricket - because of it we all speak the same language here. Cricket is a game that people pay to watch. What happens after that is not something we can control. If it can improve peoples lives - then so be it.

Posted by 5wombats on (August 26, 2011, 14:51 GMT)

@RandyOZ - Bell is a fantastic batsman at the moment. Watching Aus batting recently has obviously dulled your senses.

Posted by Juiceoftheapple on (August 26, 2011, 13:15 GMT)

By far and away the best article I've seen written about India this summer.

Posted by Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas_Atheist on (August 26, 2011, 13:11 GMT)

@5wombats, much respects to you bro. I read your post about IPL and the conditions in India for the commoner (I couldn't respond there because the comments are now closed). I bow my head in appreciation for what you've said. Yes, instead of asking for a multi-million dollar business to die, let's see how we can preserve that form of the game that is part and parcel of our souls; better still see how it can help the cause of the society. BTW, The Champion Kallis plays IPL and he is still probably the best batsman in the world as we speak. If the younger players have it in them, they'll make it. Religion is very personal. But aren't we using it to help mankind? Choice of Cricket Formats is also very personal but we can strive to use it in helping mankind, if possible. If it can't help mankind, let's follow it religioously and give it our support so that it doesn't die. Let's not ask for IPL, Big Bash, T20 World Cup, ODIs, World Cup ODIs.....to die.

Posted by Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas_Atheist on (August 26, 2011, 12:03 GMT)

@Randy bro, I can't believe you said that about Bell. Bell is an exemplary batsman. If you aren't convinced as yet, wait. See him when he will be 35 years old. I would wake up the whole night to see him along with the others I mentioned.

Posted by Kula_Bowls_Inswing on (August 26, 2011, 10:25 GMT)

I think Tendulkar should retire from ODIs. It is likely that he will not be around in four years for the next world cup, so retiring from that format now and going out on top, on the back of India's world cup win, would present the perfect opportunity for India to blood a new batsman. This would hopefully extend Tendulkar's test career and would leave India's ODI side without any of the big three (Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman), meaning that the young batsmen would have to take responsibility and grow up quickly.

Posted by RandyOZ on (August 26, 2011, 4:33 GMT)

@Dravid_Gravitas, how can you put Bell in the same list as those players, disgrace!

Posted by ImKelvin on (August 26, 2011, 1:29 GMT)

I felt so sick, I couldn't eat anything whole the day in sadness. They destroyed our hopes, emotions by this super flop. Whats wrong in expecting thing? They blame Sachin, Laxman, zaheer for this! Damn these selectors..why cant they see the evident failures of the series.They talk about Talent, swing, quality performances, just see what they have done here with their epic selections.

Raina : At his age Sachin , Dravid had become consistent performers. Today Selectors calls him a talent who doesn't even know how to hold the bat. In thie series whenever it needed a Performances raina ended with series of Zero.

Ishant, Sreesanth , R.P Singh : The wickets picked by them aren't even close to that of taken by Broad, single handedly. Ishant, Sreesanth tagged with the fast bowlers kept on struggling for 1-1 wicket...and the economy of ODI matches. Does a Bowling become blunt just for a loss of Zaheer's Injury!

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

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