September 16, 2011

If India have intent, success will follow

Just like England did, India need to put the national team ahead of all other interests

After two months I am getting ready to say goodbye to England, a country I have started growing quite fond of. Admittedly I see it in the summer, through the eyes of a visitor. I don't have a mortgage; I have room service and housekeeping instead. But the parks have been as pristine as ever, the motorways reliable, the hotels better than before, and the good old Ploughman's sandwich is still a great snack. London has been in good form, with its old buildings standing resplendent. Why, even telephone calls back home are cheaper than a local text.

"But the cricket was terrible," everyone tells me. From visitors in the lobby of the St James' Court, to students who saved money and braved the weather to follow India, to expatriate Indians who get to support "their" side once every few years. They shake their heads, like only we can, and go on and on about the "terrible cricket". I disagree. The result, if you were an India fan, was terrible, but the cricket wasn't. England played better cricket than I have seen them play in all the years I have been following this game.

England didn't just outplay India, they out-planned them. And there is a lesson there. In our part of the world, instinct rules, whether we are driving, getting into a train, or flicking late, backward of square. It is an instinct honed by working in systems that are not perfect. Without an instinct for survival, we will be crushed under.

There is an argument that if all systems are perfect it kills initiative, that people become dependent and sluggish. But like with all arguments, the perfect place is somewhere in between. In pockets of stability, under Wright and Ganguly and under Kirsten and Dhoni, India experienced a successful system, but because whatever was right wasn't institutionalised, or because maybe it was only an accidental coming together of this group of people (blasphemy!), India were always going to be inconsistent.

Over the last 18 months England have found that spot. They took time getting there, for the seed was sown under Fletcher and Hussain, but by creating legislation to put the England cricket team first and all else second, and by having strong, successful people in charge, England have embarked on a path likely to serve them well for a while. Many challenges remain - playing on the subcontinent, for example - but the intent is there, and I have often said that when intent is genuine, everything else follows.

This is not an England who can sweep all before them with extraordinary ability. There is, in this team, no Hayden, no Ponting, no Gilchrist, no Warne and no McGrath. Yes, there is a Cook, a Pietersen and a Bell, a Swann and an Anderson, but it isn't yet the same thing. England have won on the back of strong preparation and a strong work ethic, and as India prepare to let a fine generation go, they too must learn to do that.

Indeed, India can react to this defeat in different ways. One is to assume that nothing has happened and continue, which would be a bit like the approach to food rotting in our warehouses: just let it be. It's not an unpopular approach. A second way would be to prepare turners in October and hope all is forgotten. It might win India the one-day series against England, but it will only make the players better at what they are already good at, and no better at what they aren't particularly good at. India would learn nothing from that approach.

Instead, India could start an aggressive exercise aimed at improving a very promising lot of batsmen and finding some bowlers. But who will be the teachers and who will be the scouts? Whose job will it be to revive Irfan Pathan and take RP Singh and Sreesanth to the next level? It can't be the bowling coach because he will be with the national team. Who will teach Virat Kohli how to score runs at the next level? Who will work with Ajinkya Rahane and Abhinav Mukund? I do not fear for talent in Indian cricket, I fear for the teachers who have to mould that talent. Have you seen any? Is there the intent?

But while we debate that - and we must - we must also congratulate England. True, they played at home, but they have begun to show solidity and a love for detail. At last they have begun to do with cricket what they did with roads, railways and buildings. Now, will it last as long as those have?

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