November 11, 2011

West Indies have flubbed their best chance

They seem to be trapped in a mindset that dooms them to failure. As for India, they managed to get out of jail

West Indies played the role of the challenger really well but you always knew it was a question of when, rather than if, they would fall away. It is thus ordained in the book of life for people who are incapable of, or are prevented from, growing beyond their role. West Indies need someone on the field to show them how to win, for at the moment they give the impression it is out of bounds. Sometimes when you fear the inevitable, you invite it.

There is much promise in this side but it is on a long downward spiral, and the new talent coming in will take the shape of the mould it is cast into. It is the mould, the air they breathe, the acceptance of defeat, that needs to be demolished. It can start with the administration picking the best possible team, and a captain who can inject belief. There is something about Darren Sammy. He is better as a leader than most thought he would be, but he is a cricketer who makes up the numbers. You need that kind too, those who play solid supporting roles, but West Indies need a leader - someone who says, in words and in behaviour, "Come follow me."

And so India got away in the third innings of the match, after having played a poor second. A team that knew how to win would have sealed it in the third. Two hundred and seventy-five was not enough, especially on Indian pitches that are showing a peculiar tendency to ease up as the game goes along. As India's impressive debutant Ravichandran Ashwin suggested, it was not a pitch on which you could run through a side. Ashwin himself passed his first test with flying colours. There will be many more, tougher and heartbreaking, but that thought is for another day. To celebrate the present is as much a part of the game as is worrying about what the future holds.

Ashwin has come up bowling on pitches in India that are, most times, designed exclusively for batsmen. They help no one, certainly not the batsmen. But they test a bowler's heart and allow him to hone his craft. That is what the great spinners of the past did, and that is what Harbhajan Singh will have to do: go back and have the patience to become the classical spinner he was. At some point in life, all successful people go back to school, and maybe this is Harbhajan's opportunity.

It was good to see Pragyan Ojha come good too, for the throwers of the dice in Indian cricket have been a touch unkind to him. At the IPL he seemed disturbed when I met him, but the calmness seems to have returned. On Indian pitches he will always be a handful, and a bowler who turns the ball away from the right-hander is an asset most good teams seek to have.

India benefited, too, from good starts. It is always nice to have two pedigreed openers walk out, both of whom are excellent players of spin; maybe a touch arrogant but who, on their day, can demolish opposition tweakers. The new ball is not always the most crucial period of play on the subcontinent (as it is in England, where India lost the series in those passages) but a 70- or 80-run start just gets the innings going and allows the masters of these conditions to plunder runs down the order.

India's batting looked a little less than ready in the first innings, and that is why VVS Laxman's second-innings effort was just the right performance. So too with Sachin Tendulkar, whose 76 was a fine exercise in rediscovering rhythm. Currently his biggest problem is not the opposition bowling but his supporters who strangle him with their love and virtually coerce him into delivering that century.

I fear this was the best opportunity West Indies could have had, and they didn't have the mindset to take it. The players they need are either unavailable or persona non grata. They seem to have too much stacked against them, on the field and in the committees. I hope they can prove people wrong, for they are popular tourists, as the engaging players from Trinidad and Tobago found out in the Champions League.

But it will require a brave man to bet against India after the first Test.

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