January 23, 2012

Goodbye to India's batting greats

This series was meant to be a fitting final trophy but has ended in tears. An era is over in more ways than one

It is impossible to be completely rational about sport. Romance and sentiment are part of the deal. To think about or relate to sport with detached and clinical logic is to strip it of its very soul. So after all the misery and rage, Indian cricket fans will perhaps tune in to the Adelaide Test not hoping for a turnaround - the time for that has long passed - but for a final glimpse of their batting heroes. Who knows how many of them will turn up at the next Test?

If logic had the final say, India wouldn't be going into the final Test with an unchanged batting line-up. Fourteen successive failures away from home points to something horribly, perhaps irredeemably, wrong. Lack of preparation, injury, fitness, rust, unfamiliar conditions, none of these can fully explain why a top five boasting 48745 runs at 50.93 should average 28.75 in their last seven Tests in England and Australia.

There is only one simple reason. This isn't a sudden collective slump. The truth is that two skillful, energetic and consistently disciplined bowling attacks have had the measure of these batsmen in conditions that have encouraged good bowling. From Lord's to Perth, by no means have they encountered surfaces that have yielded exaggerated movement, pace or bounce - in fact, Edgbaston, The Oval and the SCG all settled down to become lovely batting pitches - but with the exception of Rahul Dravid in England, and to a lesser degree Sachin Tendulkar in Australia, the Indian batsmen have failed to bat through a tough session.

Virender Sehwag averages 15.90 from ten innings, Gautam Gambhir 20.50 from 12, and VVS Laxman 20.28 from 14. That all three should be playing in Adelaide must seem a massive vote of no confidence against the younger batsmen who have travelled on this tour. The message to them is that they can't break into the team unless one of the incumbents is injured, or, as in MS Dhoni's case, banned.

It is not, of course, that the younger players have knocked the door down. Two openers - M Vijay and Abhinav Mukund - have been tried and found wanting. The No. 6 position, vacated by Sourav Ganguly in 2008, is yet to be nailed down. Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina have both failed to make it their own, and Virat Kohli can still only be said to have made a good case for himself after the tough test at Perth, where he was India's best batsman.

Much hope rides on Rohit Sharma, who first served notice of his talents on these shores during the one-day series four years ago, but the truth is that he has not managed to hold on to a regular place in the one-day side, committing the serial offence of abetting in his own demise through poor shot selection. Only recently has he shown the level of consistency expected of a man worthy of filling the shoes of one of India's middle-order giants.

Ajinkya Rahane's case is more curious. For over four years he has been prolific for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, averaging close to 70. However, he has found a place in the Indian Test squad after briefly sparkling in the shorter versions - he made a punchy Twenty20 debut after being drafted into the team in England by virtue of being among the six fit batsmen available for that match - but he failed in both tour games in Australia in the lead-up to the Tests.

The selectors can be held responsible in hindsight for trusting the same set of batsmen after the England debacle, but in reality it was hard to look beyond them for this tour. It represented India's best chance of claiming their first series win in Australia. Sehwag and Gambhir had played through injury in England, and Laxman, despite his failure in England, had been India's man for every crisis all through 2009-10; it would have been a brave selector who dropped him for the series against Australia.

If logic had the final say, India wouldn't be going into the final Test with an unchanged batting line-up. Fourteen successive failures away from home points to something horribly, perhaps irredeemably, wrong

While it can be argued that the changes should have been rung in after the loss in Sydney, India went to Perth with a theoretical chance of squaring the series, and with Gambhir and Laxman both having scored half-centuries in Sydney, and Sehwag always a worth a gamble for a match-turning performance, Kohli would have seemed the obvious candidate to drop. Thankfully, he wasn't.

Adelaide, though, presented an opportunity. The series is lost, and in more ways than one, an era has ended. It can now be said that it ended in England, but Australia presented a chance for redemption. The big cycle of change had begun for Indian cricket with that titanic series against these opponents in 2001, and a cycle within a cycle had begun with that ill-tempered series in Australia in 2008. For the remaining stalwarts of Indian Test cricket's golden age, this tour provided the perfect stage for closure.

That dream now lies in the dust and with no Test series in sight for the next eight months, there seems to be nothing more to achieve for a generation of players who began their journey in the '90s - the '80s in Tendullkar's case - and have formed the most luminous collection of batsmen in the last three decades. It's cruel that their journey should end on such a low, but when they are gone, they will be remembered for their peaks.

Everything points to them turning up together in Adelaide. But the result and the performances won't, and shouldn't, matter. Indian cricket has sunk to the lowest of lows: in another time these very men, as did they so single-mindedly at the beginning of the last decade, would have been relied on to forge a revival. But their time has gone now. Indian cricket has no option but to embrace the future, however uncertain it may seem.

Not all of them will go at once. In fact, there is merit in graduating the next generation under the watch of a master or two. But a line must be drawn in Adelaide. Every player who retains his place for the next Test series must have a clear role to play in creating the future.

But for the moment, push the gloom aside and keep your eyes peeled. Viru, Rahul, Sachin and VVS you might never watch together again, and not in that order. They might or might not stroke a couple of hundreds between them, or put together one of those monster partnerships, but if you care enough to watch, there will still be moments of magic: a murderous scythe through the covers, a picture-perfect drive down the ground, a cover drive that paints the most ornate arc, or a gentle swish that charms the ball to the ropes. It's the team, and the results, that ultimately count. But invariably it is individual players who leave the fondest memories.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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