October 22, 2011

Beware the euphoria of a whitewash

If anyone thinks India have righted the wrongs of the summer in England with the result in the home ODI series, they need to think again

All those astonished by the 3-0 scoreline in the five-match India v England ODI series, please raise your hands. To you, it can only be said: ye of little faith. Or rather, ye of short memory.

Fine, so 4-0 and 3-0 are not the kind of souvenirs anyone in Indian cricket would have wanted from an English summer, but India are among the game's more accomplished shape-shifters. And so, the course of this ODI series, while enjoyable and entertaining, has been far from surprising.

Simply put, India at home in the short game are very, very hard to beat. Despite a rapidly changing line-up and ever-growing injury lists, their players have become adept masters of their own conditions, be it the bowlers who extend their variety, or the batsmen's fearlessness in the crunch, considered by many to be one of the IPL's more valuable cricketing rewards. Over the last five years in the 50-over format, India have only gained in strength and have virtually reformatted their own record of winning at home.

In the first five years of the 2000s, India approximately had the 55-45% win-loss record that television executives believe is the minimum needed to keep the home audience riveted. It is what they have done since that offers the pure weight of proof about their home advantage.

From March 2000 to April 2005, India won 22 and lost 24 of their 47 ODIs at home. From October 2005 to date, India's record is 51 wins in 76 ODIs, and 27 in 36 over the last three years with a single defeat in 16 home ODIs in the last 12 months. In the 2000s, India have lost only six of 18 bilateral series at home (not counting a single BCCI Platinum Jubilee ODI against Pakistan as a series). There have been three humongous margins of victory at home in the last six years: 6-1 over Sri Lanka in 2005, 5-1 over England in 2005-06, and two "doughnut" results: a pre-World Cup bludgeoning of New Zealand last year, and before that a 5-0 drubbing of, erm, England again, in the interrupted seven-match series in 2008-09.

Still overwhelmed by 3-0? Just because they had a poor tour of England doesn't mean the Indian team has forgotten how to play in India.

In each of the ODIs this month, India have been impressive in their execution and methodical dismantling of England. Anything less, however, would have been disappointing. This is how world champions are meant to perform in their own backyards. In any case, amongst the frontline nations, England in India are relatively less problematic opposition than, say, Australia or South Africa.

The Australians are the only touring team to win an ODI series in India in the last four years, not once but twice, and South Africa make a respectable fist of every format they play in here. The last time England won a series of any kind in India was in 1984-85; no matter how much they plan or how early they turn up, a tour of India usually seems to end up a discombobulating ordeal.

In real terms, more than bring notions of revenge or delirium to Indian cricket, this series will sober England. In cricketing terms, India, however, are exactly where they were after the England tour, only happier, with more smiling faces. Suddenly the bench seems loaded with strength, playing off the back foot is an art well distributed along the batting order, the fielders have found their inner Jonty, and god alive, an Indian fast bowler who hits 145kph actually exists.

If anything reflects Indian cricket's inability to think ahead, it lies in how its fast bowlers are handled: the career paths of Munaf Patel and Ishant Sharma at one point started exactly where Umesh Yadav's is at the moment

India have had such eureka series over and over again in the past, only to have short-sightedness, mismanagement and poor scheduling helpfully fling one banana peel after another onto the team's path. If anything reflects Indian cricket's inability to think ahead, it lies in how its fast bowlers are handled: the career paths of Munaf Patel and Ishant Sharma at one point started exactly where Umesh Yadav's is at the moment. RP Singh was a successor to Zaheer Khan in 2007. As far as batsmen go, in 2008, Rohit Sharma was where Virat Kohli is now - and with success against Australia as his benchmark. The Indians have trundled ahead because talent is never in short supply. It comes through in a dazzling blaze; if one blaze is snuffed out, its vacant space is lit up by another.

The only way this ODI series can have a greater significance beyond mere momentary delight is if it becomes a launch pad for India's ambitions. Or at least gives us a sign that, for a change, Indian cricket is thinking ahead.

What India do in the tri-series against Australia and Sri Lanka next year is going to be noticed and remembered far longer than this result against England. Even if the temptation of producing another doughnut is what is keeping MS Dhoni in the last two ODIs. This when there's a clear choice of either taking a short ten-day break, or at least giving the gloves to Parthiv Patel. He often holds out his badly damaged and bent fingers when asked how he's doing. Until the tour of England his results have been preternatural, born out of an extremely cruel work load. But if Dhoni wants to be around when India defend their World Cup title, those fingers are not going to mend themselves out of sheer sympathy.

The Indian team sheet at the 2015 tournament is going to look very different from what it did on April 2, 2011. To begin with, it will need new opening partnerships in both batting and bowling. To be competitive in Australia requires a wider range of skills than the ones India worked with when planning their 2011 campaign. In 2015 the players with those skills will need to have been seasoned over at least 80-odd ODIs (only two men in India's World Cup winning squad had played less than 50 ODIs and neither played in the final), which means that the most promising candidates must get a move on.

India's selectors must at least work out their first steps in a general direction. These could be exhilarating times because the best selectors are both seers and clinical succession planners. The bloopers of K Srikkanth's committee though, are worrying evidence to the contrary.

The echo of a resounding series win over England may drown out all references to India's errors in a woeful, revealing summer. With Australia beckoning, what is more important though, is that they are neither forgotten nor repeated.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo