India a circus without a ringmaster
Were the Keystone Kops asked to replicate the happenings around the Indian team in Australia these days, they would be left grimacing at the sheer struggle of competing with that comedy.
This last week, India have been a circus without a ringmaster. No one who bears any of the many titles going round - captain, coach, seniors, selectors - appears to have any control over the main act. Naturally, the circus is running amok: the acrobats try juggling, the trapeze artists totter on the tightrope, and when the clowns gambol in, they find themselves sharing floor space with the lions.
Let the CB Series points table then be the billboard with flashing lights that shows that the Indians are no longer the biggest show in town. Not the rock stars of cricket, just a kooky opening band.
MS Dhoni and Virender Sehwag explain tactics with measured contradiction, as if they were in different dressing rooms, leading Jharkhand and Delhi respectively in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. This after Gautam Gambhir has disapproved of the pace of his captain's innings in one of the two victories in Australia.
The board resorts to that happy failsafe, the misquote, ticking off the beastie boys of the press for inventing conspiracy theories. There is no communication gap, they huff, everything is fine. (But for the evil weevils of print and television.) Dhoni turned up the day before Sunday's killer game and responded to the accusations of "rift" and "dissent", with another masterly verbal circumnavigation of the globe.
Pity about the points table, though. Or the fact that gloomy players have been messaging their buddies back home, confused and unhappy about the general air about the squad, which reminds some of the Greg Chappell days. Others grumble about why X plays over Y and why their turn takes so long at arriving. When teams are happy, the grumbling is taken care of within, shoulders are leaned on, solace is offered. When they are not, the outside world gets to hear about it. Not-so-old India hands are looking at some of their former team-mates and sighing. "The wheels are falling off," said one.
It is all most baffling: just over a year ago, there was much love among largely the same group of men. Dhoni was the best captain Sachin Tendulkar had ever played under, VVS Laxman said the environment in the dressing room had been the best he had ever experienced. This time last year, a series had been stubbornly fought and levelled in South Africa, a World Cup had begun. How could a team that had mastered the art of hanging by the fingernails, the science of the comeback and the craft of playing percentage ODI cricket in India, turn into this? A B-grade Bollywood production that belongs to a genre that is best described as a "comi-tragedy".
What else could this be called? Far from being on the same page, it like the captain is reading James Bond while the selectors go through Archie comics. The public rebuttal of the captain's tactical assessment has come from a man whose last ten scores read: 0, 20, 10, 23, 4, 18, 62, 0, 10, 30. The 20 runs saved by Suresh Raina's younger legs, even when added to to each of his recent innings (32, 28, 8, 38, 24, 4, 14) come up with far too little. In the CB Series, world champions India have lost matches by 65, 110 and 51 runs. Dhoni and his "boys" cannot be serious.
Following the dramatics earlier in the week, the team's Friday release to journalists was Irfan Pathan and media manager GS Walia. Neither a voice of authority or a figure of great stature. Had Tendulkar - who has witnessed many dressing-room bust-ups, and could put the current disorder into its right perspective more than anyone else - turned up before the journos on Friday, all he would have needed to do was read out a statement and leave the room. Any contentions of all-round calm would have been given their most credible voice, the fencing bout between the captain and the Three Slow Fielders would have found some logical conclusion. It needed a single figure of authority in that dressing room to go beyond just being peeved by a rowdy press and to think of the big picture. No one did, and Pathan and Walia drew the short straw instead.
It is not as if fisticuffs are breaking out in the dressing room or Dhoni and Sehwag are flinging Fruit Loops at each other over breakfast. Usually, though, when the big boys speak in different tongues, the small fry look nervously over their shoulders. All they know is that the captain is frazzled, the otherwise assured are flailing with a new ball coming at them from either end, and the selectors are antsy. The dressing room is Anxiety Central.
This is when older, wiser counsel is required. If cannot come from older players who are tangled up in individual difficulties, it must come from the coach or his cadre. After all, teams can get complacent and slip-slide without warning. They can get up-ended by the opposition, their planning going pear-shaped to utter horror and confusion. "That," as New Zealand coach John Wright remarked most plainly after his team's wild December swings between Brisbane and Hobart, "is the time a coach earns his money."
Speaking of which, Duncan Fletcher is a little under a year into his term with the Indians and says little in public. With the evidence on hand, it can only be said that he is masterminding a thorough and dramatic demolition of the Old India, so that by 2015 he will have shepherded the rise of (yet another) New India, a dream squad of driven, athletic world-beaters. Either that or he is himself gridlocked in Crazy Town. Whatever it is, Fletcher's influence and authority are not showing - in the results column, to start with. Or in terms of that unquantifiable - team spirit.
Team spirit is actually far more ephemeral than we may realise while watching players leap into each other's arms in victorious slow motion. Victory is not its only trigger, but defeat always proves to be its first test. Cricketers will tell you that poor results and bad blood feed off each other. "What teams need most," says one, "is common cause." It could be a target, a trophy, a goal, or even a coach who annoys every man on the squad.
A decade ago, India's cause was to become a team of better travellers. Somewhere in 2007-08, it was to be World No.1. A year ago, it was the World Cup. After the misfortunes of England, the chance of victory in Australia should have been common cause enough. Yet when the first reverses tested that particular "spirit", it did not hold. Being in a cricket team, said a player, was like being a part of a joint-family business. "When it's going well, people will give each other credit. When the business struggles, you'll believe you are contributing much more and the others are falling short… these things do happen, you cannot stop them."
The "spirit" of a team needs sustenance, regeneration, or it can evaporate or shrivel. It is what has happened with India over the last eight months. Recovery, say some, comes from results; from individual or collective pride, say others. Or what a player calls a team's "conscience", which creates a core group with the same common cause. Then it begins all over again.
In India's case these days, hoping for a complete turnaround of fortunes is over-ambition. Arresting the current slide into idiocy would actually look like progress.
On Sunday we will get a sign whether the circus has at least found its ringmaster.
Edited by Kanishkaa Balachandran
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo