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

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