January 28, 2012

A funereal end to Indian cricket's greatest era

The superstars are fading, the youngsters are a raggedy bunch. India's selectors need to take tough calls on the team's future

At the end of the Adelaide Test, the India dressing room might have resembled a funeral parlour. All that would have been heard was the snap of "coffin" lids shutting, the clatter of equipment being packed away and the low murmur of voices - the sounds of the end of the greatest era in Indian Test cricket.

An end of an era is meant to be, at the very least, monumentally resonant, or to carry a few final traces of splendour at least. Not this heavy, unremitting silence, marking what must be the lowest point in Indian cricket.

Between June 1959 and January 1968, India lost 17 consecutive away Tests. It is the worst stretch by any team in history.

Yet Adelaide 2012 marked Indian cricket's rock bottom, because a decade of progress was signed off with a staggering paucity of performance. In an age of abundance - of experience, talent and resources - Indian cricket ended up rattling empty.

Whether 0-8 was because of injuries and scrambled batting orders in England, or the meticulous evisceration by Australia, India's constant over the previous six months has been the heavy margin of every defeat.

Revitalised by an Ashes success, England were on top of their game, their batting at its peak. At the start of this series, though, Australia had an inexperienced bowling attack, an inconsistent top three, and two middle-order veterans fraying at the edges. They had just lost their first Test at home to New Zealand in 26 years. India brought what selectors, experts and players themselves called their best possible team.

Like uncertain election forecasters, even the most astute analysts believed Australia against India was "too close to call." Too close to call has ended with one team in a rubble.

Maybe we should all have listened to Oprah. A key hook in her talk shows is a simple question: "What do you know for sure?"

One of the favourite answers is about the importance of giving doubt fewer "benefits". What Oprah Winfrey knows for sure is: "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time." Apply that to cricket teams in trouble and it all makes sense.

What India knew for sure in England was that their batting was struggling. Regardless of injuries, regardless of the order in which they turned up, regardless of who they were facing, their top seven did not score enough runs together. The big men, barring Rahul Dravid in England, did not reach big scores. Something had changed because six months before that, India had a bad beginning in South Africa but had dusted themselves off, scrapped hard and actually drawn their first Test series in that country.

All through the tour of Australia, Sourav Ganguly, the former India captain, fully entitled to gripe about India's lack of fight overseas, pointed out that the batting trends seen in England had actually repeated themselves in the home series that had followed, against West Indies.

India won 2-0 but against inexperienced opposition their batsmen conceded first-innings leads twice, their highest opening partnership was 89, and in the third Test, they came close to being dismissed when chasing 243. India were showing that they couldn't be clinical with the bat. We should have believed them.

India were a team of entertaining contortionists - they could stagger and recover, wriggle and escape, escape and pounce. Though rarely big on body language, when well-lit, India were hard to put out. In both England and Australia, though, India flatlined very fast

In England, against tough opposition in unfamiliar conditions, the scorecards alone showed us that India's resistance had eroded. We should have believed them. In these eight away defeats, India's narrowest loss was in Melbourne, by 122 runs.

What has been as common, repetitive and alarming as the margins has been the speed of the team's cave-ins. It is proof that in both game and mind, the team and the men in it, have lost their moorings.

At the centre of this rapid displacement is India's core strength over the last decade - the trinity of Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman - and the partnership of the two men who precede them, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir.

The most runs scored by anyone in that top five over eight innings in Australia is 287, by Tendulkar. His average of 35.87 is sandwiched between those of Virat Kohli (300 runs at 37.50) and R Ashwin (163 runs at 32.60) at the top. This series has shown us the collective waning of the influence and impact of the Indian batting. It has shown us evidence of the fading powers of the Dravid-Tendulkar-Laxman trinity.

The decision about when to opt out of the game is theirs and must be theirs alone. The selectors, for their part, will have to find a clear-sighted way to put a logical succession plan in place. Anything but the crude attempts of unnamed "officials" to "engineer" retirements via pliable media, like was first tried out with Laxman after Perth and then Dravid during Adelaide. The selectors have been shown proof of what is to come. Merely believing it now is not enough; they must act on it rather than dodge their duties. It is what they are being paid for.

From around 2008, everyone has understood that one day, sometime soon in the near future, this outstanding middle order was going to be dismantled. The expected sequence was usually a shuffle between Laxman or Dravid first and after them, maybe following a short gap, Tendulkar. Except that after 0-8, all approximations of any kind have vanished.

The future has already arrived and kicked down the door. What it finds on the other side, representing Indian cricket, is merely uncertainty. There are several young players itching to play, led by the bristling Kohli and a clutch of quick bowlers. The uncertainty arises because the link generation between Tendulkar and Kohli has gone rusty very quickly too.

In the Test team, MS Dhoni's captaincy is now his sole crutch rather than an additional inspirational capability. The standing of Gambhir and Sehwag as impact batsmen has declined, like their partnership. After their stand of 137 in Centurion in December 2010, they have produced 19 and 27 (in South Africa), 8 and 3 (in England), 89 and 51, 66, 67 and 19 (against West Indies at home), 22 and 17, 0 and 18, 4 and 24, 26 and 14 (in Australia). Their lack of centuries over the last two years was telling us that their individual edge was fast disappearing. We should have believed it. It could come back, but they must show us before we believe it. Unlike the three older middle-order men, time is on their side, but not for long. Sehwag is 33, Gambhir 30.

Mid-way through the Australia tour, a mystified neutral asked of India, "Where is their spark? Where is their soul?" This is not hippie-speak. In 2008, a bitter defeat in Sydney sparked India in Perth. Taken apart in Centurion in 2010, they found their soul in Durban. India were a team of entertaining contortionists - they could stagger and recover, wriggle and escape, escape and pounce. Though rarely big on body language, when well-lit, India were hard to put out. In both England and Australia, though, India flatlined very fast.

When teams struggle, it is drift that precedes discord. Each man is caught in a private bubble of anxiety, trying his hardest to find his missing pieces, somewhere disconnected from the collective. This is where the man-management skills of both captain and support staff are meant to kick in.

They didn't in Australia. When 0-3 down, India went into Adelaide with an identical line-up - in selection and sequence - as they had at 0-0. It showed a lack of decisive leadership, an unwillingness to fix things even when undeniably proved broken, the reluctance of either captain or coach to be Mr Bad Guy.

India play no away Tests outside the subcontinent till the end of 2013. The worst they - team, players, selectors, officials - could do in this period is to believe the publicity around home Test victories. After Australia, Indian cricket has switched back into its bad-tourist avatar, just in 1999-2000, when they returned home beaten 0-3. By Australia. The players of that time went on to become the most important characters in the decade that followed. In 2012, the men who select India's next bunch of cricketers will have to take over.

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chinnappa on January 31, 2012, 5:30 GMT

    @TheOnlyEmperor - Dhoni is not good enough to keep wickets. He should be replaced as keeper and allowed to concentrate on batting and captaincy. But is he a test player at all? Sad thing is we dont have anyone else who could do the captaincy a little better. Not even Sehwag who himself is a street cricketer. In my opinion Tendulkar also should get retired at his age. Why target only Laxman and Dravid? Just because Tendulkar has scored so many hundreds for India doesnt mean that he has to be in the team forever. In that case Bradman, Allan Border, everyone should be still continuing. Let us not talk about Raina for Test Cricket. He is a hopeless player who has been suriving in some formats by the support of MSD. Not sure if MSD was in a + attitude this series as most of his friends (CSK) were not picked up except Ashwin. Playing 11 should be Gambhir, Rahane, Kohli, Rohit, Sehwag, Dhoni, WK (Saha/Karthik/Parthiv), Zaheer, Umesh, P.Kumar, 1 good spinner depending on the pitches

  • malkeet on January 31, 2012, 4:21 GMT

    one big question remains.......how is it possible that all of these 4 big players(SRT, RD, VVS AND SEHWAG) have lost their touch AT THE SAME TIME.......if age is issue how come ponting and hussey and kallis scoring runs....and even dravid scoring those 3 hundreds in england.......i think problem does not lie with those big players alone.....nor is problem with conditions, pitches etc, ........problem is with THE TEAM AS A WHOLE....PROBLEM IS THAT THE ATTITUDE AND FIGHTING SPIRIT HAS BEEN MISSING.......THE TENDENCY TO CAVE IN AT EVEN SLIGHT AMOUNT OF PRESSURE IS THE PROBLEM.....the third test against WI is an example.....they gave away a possible test win to a weak team because they could not handle pressure.....even in australia.....THEY WERE IN COMMAND IN MELBOURNE WHEN SACHIN and RD WERE BATTING...AND THEN ALL OF A SUDDEN THE BATTING COLLAPSED......AND THEY WENT INTO SUCH A SHELL THAT THEY SHOWED NO FIGHT IN THE WHOLE SERIES......AND THIS IS WHERE THE CAPTAINCY OF DHONI HAS BEEN POOR

  • V on January 31, 2012, 4:16 GMT

    A little knowledge is dangerous. And half baked analysis will certainly not lead India anywhere. They must learn to face facts. The problem with the Indian mindset is the fixation on superstars. When they succeed they are adored, when they fail they are blamed for all the ills, real and imaginary. The problem in the current series was the BOWLING, followed closely by the FIELDING and captaincy, and lastly by the batting. Probably out of compassion, Australia declared their innings as often they did and in both innings at Adelaide. Twice they scored over 600 and could have scored around 800 runs if they had continued. Michael Clarke alone looked set to score over 400 runs and break the world record if he wished. All this points clearly to the fundamental problem with India - their third rate bowling and fielding. Even if their star batsmen had each averaged 100 runs, the rest of the team could not have taken them to 700 plus to even force a draw. Sadly, fixation on stars blinds reality.

  • Srinivas on January 31, 2012, 1:30 GMT

    Deeply hurt. Very deeply. Can't say how deeply. Grew up watching Dravid, VVS, Sachin, Kumble and Ganguly. Though it crossed my mind that a day will come when I'll not see them again, the reality is just getting the better of me, now that the remaining three will be leaving soon. Pain beyond any reasonable explanation. Will I ever watch cricket again with no Dravid, Sachin and VVS in the batting order? I don't think so. Felt this sad only with the death of family members. How much ever I might have bashed Sachin, to counter the ridiculous Sachin fanatics' claims, I understand that he is as dear to me as Dravid and VVS are. It's nigh on impossible to bear this pain. Deep hurt beyond words. In Telugu we say, bhaashakandhani bhaavamu. Anthaa soonyamugaa vundhi. Please publish.

  • Dummy4 on January 31, 2012, 0:06 GMT

    Our soul was Harbhajan Singh and he was kicked out to make way for Ashwin who only seems to make excuses to justify his poor play . Bhajji especially in ODIS is phenomenal ,he never leaks runs and he is a pretty decent bat .one thing Ashwin has going for him is that he is from same state and zone as chief selector .Not to say that ashwin is not a decent player ,he actually is but he does not deserve a place over Bhajji and Rahul Sharma in the side just as Vinay or Mithun does not deserve a place .On the flip side surely Parthv Patel has had his chances and someone like Uthappa or Rayadu would be better served in ODIS .if only the selectors could see the Indian team like the average unbiased fan the Indian team would be a lot better . Also i do think its time for younger players like Pujara ,Rohit ,Rahane,Mukund to get places in the test team over the seniors .Even the best players do get old .

  • Dummy4 on January 30, 2012, 22:16 GMT

    The LAGAN-11 team would've played better than current Indian Team :)

  • Ashok on January 30, 2012, 19:54 GMT

    Sharda,the Selectors should focus on a balanced XI with individuals who can produce & play as a team in spirited manner. It does not matter whether they are "superstars or younger raggedy bunch". The problem with Indian team was mainly cultural. They had a bunch of guys who were superstars once but no more. No one was willing to admit these guys are past their best.Answer was to mix the guys who are perceived as superstars with young guys to balance the side. They failed to provide balance by not including both Rohit & Kohli as a minimum. The ODI squad is a much improved attempt. They retained Viru,Sachin,ZAK & Gauti but mixed them up with Virat, Rohit, Tiwary& Raina + added 2 all rounders + a wrist spinner Rahul Sharma + a seamer P.Kumar.However the crucial Captaincy role is still left with Dhoni,who was poor at best in his choice of XI + leadership.If he selects the right combo of 5 Batsmen +WK +All rounder + 4 bowlers incl. Rahul Sharma, then India has a chance of Winning ODI's.

  • Suresh on January 30, 2012, 19:46 GMT

    Not even a single word was abusive/inappropriate in my comments I wrote 10 hours ago, which hasn't been published. Why? Is the author afraid of criticism? Then there is no much difference between Sehwag & Sharda is there?

  • Dummy4 on January 30, 2012, 18:46 GMT

    Hey all.....why we are thinking so negative by just losing some matches in overseas..this just not done...this is all bcos of creepy media.. how can we all forget the credit of these great players in the cricket world..these players are those who lifted the cricket in their own solders...today, the craze, money, fame all belongs to these cricketers........we have no right to comment on the ability of these great players. We all know sachin, Dravid and Laxman serving for the Indian cricket from last 15 to 20 yrs. And if we talk for the performance, whose performance is better in the Australia tour..all are equally responsible whatever going on. In fact, except of this tour, Dravid being the top scorer since last some series from the Indian side in Test cricket. Also, Sachin is the second best scorer in this tour after Kohli from Indian side...... So, why , I don't understand u people creating such types of unnecessary topics. Completely out of my mind, If u r Indian, be with them..bye

  • ravi on January 30, 2012, 18:43 GMT

    As an ardent INDIAN fan, I agree with Sharda fully. In sports we won some and we loose some, that's not the matter, the worrying part is they way they lost it and the lack of fight/hunger/responsibility and the reluctance to accept the fact that they played badly. Very sad times for INDIAN test cricket.

  • No featured comments at the moment.